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The beauty of our federalist system

Jonathan Klingler | Tuesday, February 27, 2007

As a columnist for The Observer, I have to try and come up with something interesting to write about every two weeks, and I’ve had many conversations with other columnists about the difficulty of finding topics which you, the reader, would be interested in. This is a tough problem, and my approach is to read the letters you send to the editor, take the issue and put forth my view on the matter in a reasoned and respectful way. This approach, however, requires me to read Viewpoint almost every day, and in the course of doing so I see that very few of the debates in this section end with compromise. Most of the time, the rhetoric only gets worse and both sides end as sharply divided as they were when the discussion began.

American society in this respect is not far removed from the Notre Dame community. In our society there are many issues on which both sides hold nearly irreconcilable differences. I highly doubt that we will ever reach a societal consensus on drug policy, the role of religion in public life or abortion. Positions on these issues depend on foundational principles, and as such, are not easily changed.

Different areas of the country hold varying predominant foundational principles, and debates on controversial issues often begin when communities enact laws based on these principles. Soon afterwards, the actors involved in the debate turn to the national stage where they seek to see their policy enacted at the federal level. In 1973, abortion supporters were able to force the legalization of abortion on the entire country, including communities which were fiercely against the practice. Though abortion was a state issue before Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement focused on winning national victories to limit or eliminate the practice. Because of the initial nationalization of the issue in 1973, members of both sides of the debate not only seek to advance their cause in states that support their stance, but seek to enact their policy in states that do not.

The drive to resolve most, if not all, issues at the federal level threatens to standardize American politics and culture in the same way that McDonald’s has standardized food and Wal-Mart has standardized retail shopping. Though I strongly believe that my classical liberal and Christian principles are true, I would rather win or lose debates in the several states than in one centralized federal legislature. People believe different things in different areas, and the current trend towards nationalization unnecessarily raises the stakes and thus adds to the growing sense of polarization in our nation.

Our economy is increasingly nationalized and globalized, and for the most part, increased trade has provided Americans and people around the world with higher wages, greater access to goods and a lower cost of living. Unfortunately, the widening scope of our economy has allowed a “winner-takes-all” homogenizing consumer culture to emerge in the U.S. Our greater mobility and access to goods has benefited us economically, but it also threatens to destroy the values, local sentiments and cultures that help us to define our lives.

If we are to enjoy the fruits of globalization and a greatly expanded economy, we also need to take deliberate efforts to preserve local culture and our sense of identity. According to Tom Friedman, the author of “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” “Even if we can get the right politics … for sustainable globalization, there is another, less tangible set of policies that needs to be kept in mind – the need for community, for spiritual meaning and for values which with to raise our children.” Even if people in California drive Volvos, play Japanese computer games and wear clothes produced in China, they need to know what they believe and what makes them different from Chinese, Hoosiers and Texans.

The beauty of our federalist system is that it allows for the preservation of local culture while providing the economic and security benefits of a larger government. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “No one can be more inclined than I am to appreciate the advantages of the federal system, which I hold to be one of the combinations most favorable to the prosperity and freedom of man.” Our federal system is one of our greatest assets, and it is well-suited to take on our age’s great challenge of protecting local identity and culture.

I don’t think it would be a surprise to anyone if I said that the people of California and Indiana had divergent views on marijuana, the role of religion in public life and abortion. Instead of trying to make the whole country like Indiana or California (depending on your foundational beliefs) citizens of each state should be able to legislate on these controversial issues as they see fit. We need to work to preserve both the values and cultural practices that give our lives meaning. By unleashing the power of federalism, we can do that in a way that reduces controversy and increases community autonomy. Let California be California, and let Indiana be Indiana.

Jonathan Klingler is a senior management consulting major and president emeritus of the Notre Dame College Republicans. He currently resides in Keenan Hall and enjoys Tolstoy and Matlock. He can be contacted via e-mail at jklingle@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.