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If you ever want to lose an audience, start talking federalism. Sure, a few of us policy geeks love this foundational principle of American polity but the other 97.4 percent closes the browser window faster than you can say “Alexis de Tocqueville.”
Simply put, federalism divides political power between the Beltway and each of the 50 states. Washington, D.C. handles the big issues (international treaties, national defense, printing money, etc.) and the states handle the rest. This arrangement allows each state to tailor laws to their wants and needs while ensuring basic civil rights are protected.
With federalism, California can follow the economic wisdom of Greece, while Texas dumps red tape into the wood chipper. Utah can limit easy access to booze and pot while Colorado hands out shot glasses and rolling papers. Best of all, it’s easier for American citizens to register their wishes with local leaders and vote with their feet if they strongly disagree.
But as appealing as the concept is, federalism just isn’t sexy. I’ve tried channeling Frank Luntz to create a slick, dial-moving term. “States’ Rights” is accurate, but some ugly segregationists linked it with unequal treatment. “Local control” works, but it evokes neighborhoods more than entire states. And although I didn’t think it was possible, “subsidiarity” sounds even dorkier than “federalism.”
A Tenth Amendment-loving co-blogger and I were discussing this problem when a new phrase hit me: Fifty Shades of Freedom. I know, right?
I’ve heard the book is awful (I haven’t read it – promise!), but let’s jujitsu the title from pop culture. And while that bestseller deals in bondage, our title will help break the chains and set Americans free.
Not only did Alexis de Tocqueville have a sexy French name, he was one of the first to praise America’s decentralized system. It allowed the national government to focus on "a small number of objects… sufficiently prominent to attract its attention," and left "secondary affairs" to local leaders. However these days, Washington, D.C. focuses much of its attention “prominent objects” like cowboy poetry, pickle circumference and robot squirrels.
It doesn’t have to be this way, especially since federalism can be a bipartisan issue. National Review says that “conservatives should recommit themselves to federalism” while Slate makes “the case for liberal federalism.” If Portlandia wants different rules than Paducah, may God (or Gaia) bless them both.
Besides, what could be less sexy than a dreary, conformist, one-size-fits-all nanny state that not only intrudes into your bedroom, but into every room of your house, workplace and favorite nightclub? Let’s face it, D.C. bureaucrats are the ultimate buzzkill.
Maybe federalism isn’t the sexiest topic around, but it could be the best way to keep government out of our lives and our wallets.
Follow me on Twitter at @ExJon.