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What is Federalism?


When asked what kind of government the US have, some will say “Democratic.”  That’s not entirely accurate – Constitutional Republic or even Democratic Republic is better. We have a specific form called Federalism.  What is Federalism?  It is a term we may hear thrown around from time to time, but do you really know what it means?  Some people will say that the Federal Government is in charge, but what does the Constitution’s Bill of Rights say?  


The 9th and 10th Amendments state that whatever authority is not granted to the federal government, is reserved to the people or to the states. This was to ensure that the Constitution could not be interpreted so broadly as to give the Federal government absolute power.  So, just as the Federal Government has three branches that check each other, the states are a check against the Federal government.   The states are not merely political subdivisions of the Federal government.  The Federal government was formed by the states and not the other way around.  States were meant to have a certain level of autonomy from the Federal government, specific jurisdictions if you will. 


Originally, the states had almost complete autonomy under the Articles of Confederacy, but when it came time to write the Constitution we have now, it was decided that the Federal Government had to have some specific powers.   When the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, they put in the 10th Amendment to ensure that the powers of the states were recognized. When the Federal government has overstepped its bounds, the states have fought back.  This idea is called nullification.  We have seen this power exercised in recent years, one major example being the legalization of marijuana in many states.   Different states also have different laws regarding things such as unions. 


A former Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis, described the states as “laboratories of democracy”.  Suggesting that states could experiment with different ideas that not everyone might agree on but see how they work without implementing them on a national level. 


One other major power states have against the Federal government is in the 5th Article of the Constitution, where the states can call a convention to propose Amendments.  This method has not been tried yet, but is an option. However, it would require 75% of the states’ approval to pass.   So, while we tend to speak of THE Constitution, in actuality, there are 51 that operate in the United States, the Federal one, and one for each individual state.  The 9th Amendment is companion to the 10th but is so often overlooked.  It focuses on the rights of the individuals that are not granted to the Federal government.  


With that in mind, it is important to look to state and local government as they are the ones with the most immediate influence.  Speaking of the importance of state elections, elections in Arizona are coming up.  Less people tend to vote in local and state elections even though they generally have a bigger impact on your daily life.  Research the proposals and candidates that you see locally, as the most important change happens locally.