Editor's Note | Spring 2018 Issue

Federalism: New Tests of an Old Idea

Welcome to Blueprint's look at federalism in the Age of Trump.

By Jim Newton

AS A MEMBER OF THE UNITED STATES SENATE, Alabama’s Jefferson Beauregard Sessions was a stern defender of his state’s rights and prerogatives. He cheered when the United States Supreme Court overturned a section of the Voting Rights Act that gave the federal government authority to oversee elections, and he questioned federal authority to protect civil rights. No more. Sessions now chastises states, including California, for legalizing marijuana and protecting immigrants, among other things. Earlier this year, Sessions infuriated California leaders by filing a lawsuit to challenge the state’s sanctuary policies toward illegal immigrants. It’s hard to imagine the Alabama senator cottoning to such an intrusion on his state.

In fairness, consistency is not the hallmark of American federalism. Liberals who demanded that states yield to federal authority on voting and school integration now find themselves more accommodating of states that dare to challenge the Trump administration.

But if consistency is not the centerpiece of federalism, experimentation is. In theory, and within limits, states act as testing grounds for policy — laboratories of democracy, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. States have experimented with work rules, wages, taxes, policing, environmental regulations and, most notably in recent years, health care, with Massachusetts providing the model for what became known as Obamacare. Innovations that began in the states were emulated and sometimes federalized.

What naturally arises from such experimentation is the question of limits. How far may a state go in pursuit of a policy that might diverge from the direction of the federal government?

California is at the forefront of testing that question. Long a leader in emissions control, Sacramento now confronts a president who mocks climate change. Settled and populated by immigrants, some who arrived illegally, California has acted to protect them from harassment by Washington. Historically loose in its regulation of private behavior, California recently legalized recreational marijuana use, sales and possession.

None of which is making the president happy. Donald Trump has made fun of California, derided Gov. Jerry Brown and even threatened to withdraw immigration enforcement agents in the hope that it would spur a wave of crime — to teach California and its leaders a lesson.

Trump rarely does what he says, and few take seriously the notion that he could or would deliberately inflict harm on California to punish those who live here. Nevertheless, tension between Sacramento and Washington has escalated since Trump’s election. The Resistance includes the entire western United States, but it is centered here.

This issue of Blueprint breaks that tension down, examining research in four areas that are fiercely contested: health care, climate change, marijuana and immigration. In all four, California is experimenting with policy that either challenges or diverges from that of the federal government.

This issue attempts to examine the best research in these areas and to assess the coming clash: Will California’s more egalitarian, humanistic approach to these questions prevail, or will Washington’s more traditional, law-and-order views carry the day?

We’ll see. Soon.

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Jim Newton is a veteran author and journalist who spent 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, editorial page editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of three critically acclaimed books of biography and history, and he teaches at UCLA.

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