COMMENTARY: In Latest Cycle, Liberals Leaning Toward States’ Rights

By: - August 12, 2006 12:00 am

The conventional view that conservatives should favor the federal form and liberals should favor national action is wrong. This is not to deny that when expansionist views prevail in the society, liberals can feast at the federal table or dig in their heels to preempt recalcitrant state actions and activities. But on the whole and over time, it is reasonable for liberals to champion federalism and conservatives to regard it as a Leviathan force (as some now do) that advances governmental growth.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was recently compared to states’ righter and former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) when Frank argued that the states (with Massachusetts out front) should be the arbiters of gay marriage. Barney Frank is not alone. Other liberals see the states, particularly states with liberal leaders, as the appropriate governments to deal with many program issues. Paul Glastris in the Washington Monthly asks, “Why shouldn’t the Democrats become the party of federalism?” In a similar vein, Eliot Spitzer, New York state attorney general and gubernatorial candidate, remarked in 2003:

“Well, let me make a confession that will not surprise you. On January 1, 1999, when I got this office, I suddenly became an enormous fan of the new federalism. I suddenly said, ‘States’ rights are a beautiful thing.'”

The American brand of pluralism with multiple points of access and maneuver, both horizontally and vertically, has produced cycles of activism alternating between the national government and the states, depending on conditions and values in the society. Over time, the overall effect of these oscillations has been to enhance the roles and responsibilities of government in the society and the economy as a whole.

What is distinctive in this analysis of American federalism is the emphasis on the upward momentum of policy cycles. In the 20th century, the federalism dynamic has exercised a steady and inexorable expansionist/liberal influence. In periods when such influences were on the wane in Washington, the existence of state-level counterforces kept the pressure on. Innovations in progressive states were tested and refined and eventually diffused in the country. The picture is one of federalism impelling the growth of governmental power in domestic public affairs, which otherwise would not have occurred in the individualistic political culture of America.

The observations here about cycles in American federalism are strengthened by tying them to recent writings from both the political left and right that are consistent with this pro-growth theory about the ratcheting-up effect of federalism. This is not to argue about whether this is good or bad, simply to suggest that this interpretation reflects the point that over time the balancing function of American federalism has become more powerful than its checking function. Textbooks that continue to emphasize the latter interpretation may be misleading. In the current federalism cycle, it is liberals who are on the march at the state level.

Data on state and local revenue in relation to gross domestic product, for example, shows that the proportion of state and local revenue in the national income and product accounts rose in the Reagan-Bush period (1980-1992) at the same time that national domestic policy and spending became restrictive. State receipts as a share of gross domestic product increased from 12.6 percent in 1985 to level out at 13.7 percent in the aftermath of the Reagan-Bush years. There have been laggard states and anti-tax and state anti-spending campaigns in the post-Reagan years. Still, the inexorable interest-powered rise in domestic program activity since the mid-twentieth century buttresses the theory that American federalism is a growth machine for government. The chart above shows how, in recent years, state-local spending has grown steadily relative to federal domestic spending.

The constant focus on what is going on in Washington in regard to the pulling and hauling of interest actors in the national political process fails to appreciate the growing size and scope of state, local, nonprofit, and private institutional structures. When these structures are viewed in aggregate, it is clear that the country as a whole possesses manifold tools and techniques for meeting a variety of social and domestic needs.

Richard P. Nathan is the co-director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, located in Albany. See also: “There Will Always Be a New Federalism,” available on the Institute’s Web site,

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