The Changing Role of State Government
The American Political System
The role of state government in the United States political system has been dynamic, complex, and hotly debated since the former British colony declared independence in 1776. Founded and developed as individual colonies, the states entered a loose union under the Articles of Confederation during the War of Independence and remained nearly autonomous until the United States Constitution was ratified in 1789. The Constitution sought to form a “more perfect union” by establishing a federal government which could “provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare” of its citizens much better than each state could on its own (“Preamble”). In addition to its specified duties, the federal government could do all things “necessary and proper” to carry them out ("Article I - Legislative Branch"). With this language, the Constitution gave the federal government many powers and responsibilities previously held by the states with the help of flexible interpretations of terminology, thus setting the stage for increased government involvement continuing to modern day.
Central to the ideological basis of the United States Constitution is the separation of powers, a principle manifested in several aspects of the federal government's design. While the three branches of government (Legislative, Judicial, and Executive) provide a system of checks and balances internally, one cannot forget the power invested in state government which further decentralizes authority in the large and diverse nation (Gerston, 28).
The benefits and drawbacks of this system come fundamentally linked: while the separation of power precludes a tyrannical government, it can also lead to inefficiency and inadequacy; further, while states have the freedom to enact policies according to their regional needs and values, the same policies may clash with the values of other regions. The paradoxical nature of balancing federal and state authority has been exposed repeatedly—more recently with the issue of same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana (“Issues in Federalism”). As such, the debate over how to balance these merits and pitfalls has raged throughout the nation's history.
In its early stages under the Constitution, the United States federal and state governments acted nearly irrespective of each other in a arrangement known as dual federalism (Elgie, 2014). However, in the last two centuries, political influence has largely shifted toward the federal government as a result of war and economic crisis. Despite the benefits, expanded federal involvement in traditionally state-regulated affairs has also lead to several instances of overlap in authority and interference in the personal lives of the American people. Yet even with a lesser degree of sovereignty, states have continued to provide for their diverse localities with recent innovative policies far ahead of their federal counterpart.
Constitutional Basis of State and Federal Authority
In understanding the role of state government, it is important to appreciate the historical context and constitutional basis of state and federal authority. The United States under the Articles of Confederation demonstrated that a weak central government was hardly more than a scarce application of glue. Though the Articles of Confederation wasn't fully ratified until 1781, it provided a political framework to coordinate foreign and domestic support during the Revolutionary War. However, in the aftermath, the Articles of Confederation proved insufficient. Unable to levy taxes or make decisions without agreement among the 13 states, the Congress of the Confederation was virtually helpless in enforcing domestic policy or defending the new country's borders and economic interests. As the economic, social, and homeland security issues mounted, it became clear that the Articles had to be...
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