Conversely, both parties have used state-level litigation to intervene in federal policymaking when they’ve been out of power. Take Massachusetts vs. Environmental Protection Agency, the Bush-era Supreme Court case in which 12 states, several cities, and advocacy groups sued to force the EPA to begin regulating greenhouse gases. During the Obama years, other states pulled a similar move—Texas sued the administration over deferred immigration enforcement for people in the country illegally, for example.
“Broadly, I think federalism is not a conservative or liberal thing, or a Republican or Democrat thing,” Young said. “It offers a way of not having all your eggs in one basket when changes in who controls various institutions occur.” It’s also a way of making sure one party doesn’t force the other permanently out of power at the national level: As Democrats are now discovering, it’s hard to get elected in districts that Republican-heavy state legislatures have gerrymandered to favor their own party.
But there’s a reason why the United States is not a constellation of self-determining city-states. Federalism is a political orientation, not a body of clear-cut policy prescriptions. The negotiation of power between national and state governments—and, relatedly, between state and local governments—is complicated and partisan. Larger bodies of government, led by Democrats and Republicans alike, often threaten smaller bodies with litigation or funding cuts if they don’t follow certain policies. During the Reagan years, the federal government famously used this method to get states to comply with its policy on the legal drinking age. And in 2016, the Obama administration used a similar method when it sent a letter to school districts instructing them to comply with federal guidance on accommodations for transgender students.
States often write laws limiting cities from legislating certain issues as well. North Carolina’s H.B. 2 may have been the most notorious of these kinds of prohibitions in 2016: Among other things, the statute prohibited cities from passing non-discrimination ordinances to protect LGBT residents. Preemption on LGBT issues is fairly new, according to the Partnership for Working Families. States preempt cities and municipalities most frequently on issues like transportation regulations, minimum-wage standards, labor agreements, and policies on earned sick days, the organization reports.
If national Democrats are truly interested in revitalizing state and local governance, perhaps they’ll push to repeal these kinds of preemption laws, which force policy decisions into the realm of larger and larger legislative bodies. Or maybe they’ll swear off executive orders, on which the Obama administration heavily relied, whenever they eventually regain federal power. It’s not like voters are big fans of the federal government, anyways: According to Pew Research Center, Americans’ trust in bodies like Congress has been declining for at least the last decade, while their belief in state and local bodies is much higher and has remained relatively constant over the years.
This might be the most compelling of all arguments for a new era of federalism: Voters simply don’t like or trust the federal government. As a new administration prepares to take office, “The one thing I really hope states and locals can do is model a different kind of political behavior,” Bradley said. “What I would hope is that the actions of state and local lawmakers can restore people’s faith and trust, honestly, in democracy.”