I find that our citizenry’s ignorance about what federalism is disturbing. I recently saw that in my review of Iowa’s new social studies standards where federalism was mentioned in one benchmark while at the same time repeatedly ignored.
So what is federalism? In the government class I teach, at a local homeschool educational coop, I define it this way.
“A form of government that has divided sovereignty, but is united in purpose.”
The federal government is sovereign, but so are the states, but “we the people” are the ultimate sovereign in American federalism as we delegate power to the federal government and the states. (From a Christian perspective, we understand God is sovereign over “we the people” however and He instituted government.) America under the Articles of Confederation was dysfunctional, but there was concern over centralizing power in a national government. This centralized power is what the American colonies rebelled against the British Empire over.
So the Constitution was ingenious that it gave us a central government, but it limited it. Unfortunately, that has largely been ignored by the courts and Congress expanding federal power over “we the people” and the states through an increasingly broad view, mainly, of the general welfare and commerce clauses.
“We the people” unfortunately let this happen because of the growing ignorance of American civics in general and federalism in particular.
I’m excited by a project recently released in Utah. The Utah Legislature’s Commission on Federalism in connection with Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies recently created a course entitled “Principles of Federalism” to help provide citizens and state and local government officials with a better understanding of America’s unique constitutional system.
Utah State Representative Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan) is the House Chair of the Commission introducing the curriculum wrote this:
To the Framers of the Constitution, the structure of our governing system was a matter of life or death, liberty or constraint, property or subjugation.
They knew that “as government expands, liberty contracts;” that government expands to the limit that it is checked; and, that left unchecked, government expands limitlessly.
To counteract this natural tendency, they grounded the Constitution on an indispensable structure of limits, divisions, and independent checks on governing power.
State legislators – as our first official act of office – swear an oath to defend the structural protections of liberty embodied in the U.S. Constitution.
U.S. Supreme Court Justices Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas and Alito recently warned (NFIB v. Sebelius, 2012, dissenting opinion) that preserving the structure of our governing system is still a matter of life, liberty and property:
“Structural protections–notably, the restraints imposed by federalism and separation of power … tend to be undervalued or even forgotten by our citizens. It should be the responsibility of the Court to teach otherwise, to remind our people that the Framers considered structural protections of freedom the most important ones, for which reason they alone were embodied in the original Constitution and not left to later amendment. The fragmentation of power produced by the structure of our Government is central to liberty, and when we destroy it, we place liberty at peril.”
Rather than rely only on “the Court to … remind our people that the … structural protections of freedom [are] the most important ones,” the Utah Legislature’s Commission on Federalism, in cooperation with Utah Valley University (UVU), assembled the nation’s leading scholars to teach the principles of federalism in the schools, to the people, and to local, state and national leaders.
The one hour course they developed includes six videos which you can watch below (and read the transcripts here). I’m impressed by the quality of this curriculum and encourage our readers to take the course and share it with friends.