Competing Values of Federalism: Equality vs. Participation

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  • 0:01 Federalism
  • 2:16 Equality
  • 4:07 Uneven Results
  • 5:25 Participation
  • 6:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Federalism is designed to leave governmental power to the people, but there are two competing values of federalism: equality and participation. This lesson takes a closer look at federalism and at how these two ideals often conflict.

Federalism

Though the Framers of the U.S. Constitution carefully designed our system of government, it's not perfect. Think of it like an ice cream float. The more ice cream you put in, the more soda flows out. The more soda you put in, the less room you have for ice cream. How does this relate to our government? Let's start at the beginning.

The United States government is based on federalism. Federalism is a division of power between the federal government and the individual state governments. That means that each person in the United States is simultaneously subject to the laws of the federal government and of the particular state they are in.

The Articles of Confederation originally established the United States as a confederation, where each of the states operated separately and independently from one another. However, the United States Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution recognizes the federal government as the highest governmental power. However, it also acknowledges that the American people are subject to several different powers.

The Framers purposely designed the Constitution this way. Through the Constitution's Supremacy Clause, we know that the federal laws are the highest in the land. However, through the Constitution's Tenth Amendment, we know that most governmental powers are left to the states. This is because the Framers wanted the people of the U.S., rather than the government, to hold the power. Note that the citizens elect our representatives at each level of government, so all governmental power derives from the people.

Though it might seem like the Constitution establishes a clear division of powers, there are sometimes disputes as to who has the right to govern a particular matter. The U.S. Supreme Court decides all issues regarding the division of powers.

Equality

The division of powers in the U.S. sometimes causes a conflict between the federal government and the state governments, but this isn't the only conflict caused by our system of federalism. There are two competing values of federalism. Federalism is meant to promote both equality and participation.

Many legal scholars believe that the more equality we have, the less participation we have and vice versa. Let's take a closer look at these principles of federalism.

Equality is central to federalism. Equality is simply the state of being equivalent. In terms of federalism, equality isn't about treating everyone the same. Instead, equality is about treating people in such a way that the outcome for each person can be the same.

Most of our laws, since made by the people and for the people, are designed to offer equality. Think about federal laws ordering desegregation or prohibiting employment discrimination. These are based on equality. Equality became an important concept after the Civil War. Three Reconstruction-era amendments focused on equality:

  • The 13th Amendment bans slavery.
  • The 14th Amendment guarantees equal rights of citizenship to all Americans and was geared toward protecting the rights of former slaves.
  • The 15th Amendment protects citizens' voting rights and specifically protects the voting rights of former slaves and other minorities.

Uneven Results

However, most powers are left to the states. This means state law, rather than federal law, controls most issues. Outcomes can vary widely because the states have different laws and different government programs.

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