Federalism and Citizenship

WHEN THE IDEA WAS BORN in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, federalism was seen not only as a way to check national power with state sovereignty, but also as a way to keep government at every level in check. Citizens, active in state and local affairs, would keep state and local governments in their place, and states would do the same thing with the new national government. As a system, federalism would have a salutary effect upon citizenship, nurturing it and encouraging self-government as it simultaneously kept the power of government in its place. Perhaps because the Framers of the Constitution knew that the nature of federalism would change over time, they understood that, in the end, good government required not only a limited government of competent powers but also active, informed, and engaged citizens. Federalism, it was thought, would encourage the formation of such citizens.

Indeed, it may be that federalism’s most important contribution to constitutional government in this country is its role in nurturing and sustaining self-government and good citizenship, essential but difficult tasks in any republic. In a liberal democratic society such as the United States, individuals are free, by and large, to fashion their own brand of participatory citizenship. Because all individuals possess natural rights, no special obligations are placed upon them and relatively few special rights or privileges are awarded to them. Citizenship in the United States, in other words, may mean a great deal or very little indeed; it is pretty much up to the individual. The paradox of this, however, is that a healthy republic relies upon citizens for both direction and support.

The advent of the modern administrative state, accompanied by the transformation of federalism, the growth in government at every level, and the increased expectations of the American people, have combined to contribute to a transformation in the character of citizenship in America. A nation of citizens who make responsible choices and elect individuals to make responsible choices has been transformed into a nation of consumers of government who pay tax dollars to purchase more and more government-delivered goods and services. Individual citizens who once were agents for change in society and in government have become passive subjects of an immense nation-state. Today, it is commonplace for people to look to the government for relief from the most ordinary of concerns, support for the most basic kinds of endeavors, and vindication for the most elementary of damages. People have become clients of the state as opposed to the masters of it. They have become dependent upon government rather than government being dependent upon them.

The education reforms introduced by President George W. Bush and embraced with strong bipartisan support in Congress provide a nice illustration of what is happening to the American character. Education has always been a state and local issue. Even as Washington allocates more money than ever in support of elementary and secondary education, about 90 percent of what is spent on public education in a state is revenue generated at the state and local level. The rules governing public education are, by and large, state and local rules. The decisions on the day-to-day operations of America’s public schools are driven at the local level. The problem is that America’s schools are not doing a very good job. Indicators such as test scores tell us our students and schools are just not performing well and that there are real “achievement gaps” among student groups, with minority and low-income students trailing their white counterparts. American public education is not working as well as it should—as it must.

President Bush asked Congress to enact new national legislation that requires each state to enact higher academic standards for students, regulations ensuring teachers are “highly qualified,” and policies to test every student in grades 3 through 8 annually, and to hold schools accountable for the performance of their students. He also asked Congress to increase federal spending for America’s schools, and Congress went along. Today, the national government plays a much larger role in the administration, oversight, and governance of America’s public schools. It is a bit early to know whether the schools, the students, and the nation will be better off.

But we do know some things. As the 21st century dawns in America, its citizens have turned to government to do something they once did for themselves. Recognizing that their schools are not getting the job done, they looked to Washington to do something about it. They wanted more from their schools and their students and their teachers, and so they looked to Washington to pass a law to require more from their schools and their students and their teachers. None of this is necessary, of course. It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to set high standards for schools. It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to hold a public school accountable to the public. But in 21st century America, public education has become something government provides rather than something the “public” or the “people” provide; public education has been transformed into government schooling. It is something people expect from their government and purchase from it with their tax dollars. It is as though the public is no longer really a part of public education.

This transformation in the character of America and in American citizenship, illustrated by the education reforms noted above, is the result of many things. And it has transpired over time, surely. But interestingly, it is a transformation that those who created the American Republic anticipated and sought to avoid, in part through federalism. They recognized that good government would depend on both the structure of the government and the civic virtue of the people. Federalism, as we have seen, was considered one way to achieve both.

Federalism’s contribution to the structure of government served two purposes initially. It provided another check on the consolidation of power in the national government while ensuring the vitality of state and local government. The vitality of state and local government was considered important, as well, to nurturing the sort of civic virtue so necessary to the creation of good citizens and the maintenance of good government.

Citizenship is all about self-government: people actively participating in the public affairs of their communities and states. As this happens, the tendency all people have to pursue their own individual self-interests is blunted by a concern for a wider general civic responsibility. Managing the tension that can exist between individual self-interest and the community or public interest is particularly important in America, where the emphasis is on rights rather than individual responsibilities. Here, in order for popular government to succeed, there would be a need to ensure that there were public-spirited citizens, thus making the cultivation and nurturing of civic virtue all the more important. There would be citizens interacting with one another in the discussion and pursuit of public issues within a community in which every citizen recognizes his well-being is related to the well-being of his fellow citizens. If civic virtue is the foundation on which citizenship is built, then federalism is the crucial structure for nurturing good citizenship.


Dr. Hickok is as an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Richmond, and is a Bradley Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. This article is an excerpt from his book Why States? The Challenge of Federalism, forthcoming from The Heritage Foundation.