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Decoding Divided America

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Is it better to let individual states decide divisive issues?

“America is divided.” These words currently adorn countless headlines—it seems that the only thing Americans can agree on is that we cannot agree about anything else. Yet, if our history serves us correctly, division is not a cornerstone of the United States. A 2015 study by the Public Library of Science indicated a remarkable spike in partisanship amongst Congress; a fact we all are unfortunately familiar with. Given all these debates, everyone wants to answer the million-dollar question: Why? Some intellectuals and pundits point to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while others postulate that the end of the Cold War caused America to lose its common enemy: the communists. There are many such theories that try to explain this phenomenon, but political scientists have left one stone unturned: the decline of federalism.

When the United States of America was established in the late 18th century, it was a diverse nation unlike any other. Across the eastern seaboard, Christians of denominations ranging from the centuries-old Catholicism to the relatively new Quakerism marked the landscape of the new nation. Economically, the Northern colonies were more urbanized and industrial, while the South was far more rural and agrarian. Yet, most of the people believed in the rights of the individual and a government that served its people. When it was time to ratify the Constitution of 1787, many Americans were wary of losing power in favor of a larger, national governing body. In the Anti-Federalists papers, George Clinton, Robert Yates and Samuel Bryan wrote this about the proposed Constitution:

“Compulsive or treacherous measures to establish any government whatever, will always excite jealousy among a free people: better remain single and alone, than blindly adopt whatever a few individuals shall demand, be they ever so wise. I had rather be a free citizen of the small republic of Massachusetts, than an oppressed subject of the great American empire.”

The fear of American states losing power was so strong that Virginia’s Edmund Randolph proposed a three-person executive committee with officers drawn from different sections of the nation. Its purpose was to prevent different cultural sections of the U.S. from dominating the affairs of the other sections. Though the plan was rejected, Randolph’s proposal shows a clear effort made by some Founding Fathers to prevent one geographical and cultural region from governing the activities of others.

At the end of all this constitutional bickering, the Founding Fathers eventually settled on a system that we all know today: federalism. Federalism is the idea that powers are equally shared between the state and federal governments. It was quite the novel concept and allowed foreign and inter-state issues to be resolved by a higher power, while the individual states could govern how they saw fit, and in a much more powerful way than modern Americans imagine. Before the 1860s, many of the rights and privileges granted by the U.S. Constitution only applied to dealings with the federal government. In 1833, as the city of Baltimore, Maryland developed and expanded, more and more sand accumulated in its harbor, depriving the wealthy John Barron of his deep-water harbor. Barron sued the city of Baltimore, citing the eminent domain clause of the fifth amendment, which would entitle him to the financial damages for the municipality’s expansion. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court decided that the limitations on the government, as stated in the fifth amendment, only applied to the national government. Barron v. Baltimore was a landmark case that highlighted the federalism of early America—a form of federalism where the spheres of power that both federal and state governments held were to seldom overlap.

Yet this model of American federalism was not to last. When the bloody American Civil War finally ended in 1865, the national government passed three amendments. Two of these amendments, the 13th and 15th, gave newfound rights to African-Americans: the right to vote, and more importantly, to walk as free people of this earth. To secure these rights, the 14th Amendment made every amendment applicable to any dealings at the state level under the Equal Protection clause. Now, the state governments had to make sure that every right and privilege granted at the federal level must also be granted by the state governments themselves. Yet while the 14th solved the onerous problem of slavery, and to a lesser extent the right to vote for African-Americans, it shifted the balance of power toward the federal government. American federalism would no longer be the same.

Since the passage of the 14th amendment, the power of individual states has been reduced drastically. In 1913, two important amendments in the history of federalism were passed. The 16th Amendment gave Congress the right to levy an income tax, effectively taking a large share of the total taxes to establish agencies and to deal with issues on a federal level rather than a state level. In addition, the 17th Amendment made senators elected by popular vote, rather than by the legislatures of the states they represented. The 17th Amendment made citizen participation in state-level politics much less appealing, as it seemed that more and more issues were being dealt with in the national sphere. American public debated shifted from a state-based debate to a national one. People from Montgomery to New York began to debate the same issues, and they started to disagree, especially with major social issues like gun control or abortion. The culture wars began, and they have not let up since.

Issues like gun control, marijuana legalization, gay marriage, welfare, abortion, education, health care and more are all concerns that have and could be decided on a state-by-state basis, yet they remain within the national sphere of debate. Still, very few of these issues are solved; the debates continue. The issue of gay marriage may appear to be over, but there are those who would still fight tooth and nail to see it thrown into the dustbin of history, as evidenced by the Kentucky clerk who refused to sign a gay marriage certificate. Even though we debate these important issues, nothing ever gets done.

Congressional productivity is the lowest it has been in decades. We curse our opponents and damn our allies and still, nothing changes. Perhaps there is a better solution. If we let the individual states deal with these issues, the debate, and thus, the frustration, would all but disappear within the chambers of Congress, along with the hate between our fellow Americans. Then the issues that need to be solved at the federal level, like foreign policy, interstate commerce, or even the American economy could finally be given the time they deserve.

Naylor Underwood is a student at the University of Georgia. 

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