Federalism for Democracy
A vast territory of the United States was never evenly and equally populated. Social and cultural differences, as well as historically formed conditions could not allow for the universal governing model that would satisfy all participating states. Both before the Civil War and for decades afterwards, many people felt it proper to associate themselves with a particular state rather than with the national superstructure. The U.S. federalism has appeared as a compromise between the unified model with a single central power and a model with virtually independent states. It was not a conscious decision among a set of choices, as deliberate as main principles of the American society. The compromise was influenced by the number of specific conditions and has evolved much from the original form.
Essentially, federalism is a kind of political separation that divides areas of decision-making between the state and national powers. During the federalism adoption process in the U.S., definition of those areas became the subject of political bargaining. The states were sufficiently independent to resist the centralized model but they felt a need for some form of political unity that would preserve civil rights and provide the safety. There were three ultimate options for the decision, representing different forms of states’ governance. These options are still viable, and many countries around the world employ different models of the state’s construction.
The first model is unitary government, the most traditional form of running the country. Regardless of the nationalities’ diversity, administrative division and trends for the self-administration, the unitary structure rules out any types of power other than the central government. This model works well for the small and mid-sized countries, usually containing a single major nationality. The larger and more heterogeneous country is, the more obtrusive such a model becomes. A good example of the artificially enforced unitary structure was the former Soviet Union, where centralized government had supported the whole totalitarian machine.
Another model is a confederation structure, which is relatively rare and essentially unstable. This model envisages some form of union between fully sovereign states, when certain authority is delegated to the central government. Such authority delegations are usually necessary in order to coordinate some activities dictated by the political or military reasons. The current European Union structure is close to the confederation and even bears some marks of the federalism in a form of common currency and customs policy.
The Framers’ choice became federalism. There was a need for the strong central government, as Americans had learned during the Confederation times. They acknowledged the necessity to protect their liberty, and it was possible only by creating a strong national government. However, the states already existed and were rather reluctant to lose their sovereignty. Therefore, the Framers decided on a very pragmatic option. The states’ sovereignty was preserved to the large extent, whereas the national government posed a power balance, guaranteeing the civil rights and personal liberty. It was a necessary precaution, as any form of misbalance could have been followed by the tyranny.
The federalism is important part of the American political structure. It provides the possibility for timely reaction to any kind of threats and the flexibility in decision making. According to Patterson, “Federalism is not a fixed principle for allocating power between the national and state governments, but a principle that has changed over time in response to new political needs” (73). The federal structure has evolved to address issues of civil rights, civil liberties, taxation, grants’ spending, commerce and many others. Through all changes, the core principle remained intact: the scope of power, given to the authority, should match the authority’s real responsibilities. There is no question in granting the particular state with an extra power as long as the state is willing and able to exercise this power for the community needs. However, there is a continuing trend toward the strengthening of national government, which reflects the public confidence in the U.S. main principles and concepts.
There are both advantages and disadvantages of federalism as a governance model. The relationships between states’ authorities and the national government are sometimes so complicated that it is hard to define the line where responsibilities split. The sad example is the Katrina hurricane, which hit the Louisiana state in 2005. Both local authorities and national government were utterly indecisive as for whose responsibility it was to react to a catastrophe, on top of the poor readiness. Both had means to prepare for the disaster, to ease the community’s sufferings and minimize the damage. However, it is mainly inapt governors who can be blamed for the miscarriage of duties rather than the federalism model.
On the bright side, federalism facilitates the financial distribution by means of grants’ system. There are block and categorical grants that Congress chose to award the states as a form of aid or infrastructure investment. Categorical grants have firm restrictions that limit recipient states with a choice of spending purposes. Block grants are more flexible and generally used in accordance with the state’s or local authorities’ decisions. In a light of the current financial crisis, the federalism again is put to the test. The individual state’s power is insufficient to attract large investments or to restructure the debt; therefore states rely on the national government for help. Contrastingly, the central power is heavily dependent on local situations with production cuts and unemployment, which are more easily influenced from within the state. However, the flexibility and reliability of the federalism makes it far more suitable for the crisis times compared to other countries’ models.
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