What Does "Federalism" Mean?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 30 2000 5:42 PM

What Does "Federalism" Mean?

Everyone is throwing around the word "federalism" in the legal fight between Al Gore and George Bush about whether the state courts or the U.S. Supreme Court should decide the issue over counting the Florida ballots. What do people mean when they say "federalism"?

Advertisement

As Humpty Dumpty, Al Gore, and George Bush said, "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean." The Federalist, essays first published in 1787 written primarily by Alexander Hamilton, advocated a strong central government as did the short-lived political party of the same name. But the word "federalism," which first appeared in 1789, according to Merriam-Webster has a more neutral meaning. It is a blanket term describing the division of power and responsibility between states and the federal government. But what has happened to the word is that people with righteous causes not only stand and give speeches in front of a whole lot of flags, they wrap themselves in the protective mantle of federalism. That's why Al Gore's legal brief on why the U.S. Supreme Court should stay out of Florida's business says "principles of federalism counsel strongly against interference by this court. ..." And that's why the Bush side sees the appropriate interpretation here of federalism to mean that the federal court has to straighten out the erring state court. What's so wonderful about this is that the positions of the two parties are generally reversed on the question of whether the states or the federal government should exercise the most power.

Explainer thanks Frederick Shauer of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Akhil Reed Amar of Yale Law School, Donald Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office, and Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas School of Law.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 8:51 AM The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 9:00 AM Exclusive Premiere: Key & Peele Imagines the Dark Side of the Make-A-Wish Program
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.