A federal system is not always insurance of more freedom

This week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguements on the renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a federal law that ensures that states who have had a history of discrimination against minority voters must submit to federal scrutiny any changes that they make to their electoral laws and processes. Among the critiques of the Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965, is that the law is heavy handed meddling of the national government in states' rights.  What is at the root of this charge?

The United States has a federal system of government in which the constitution designates that the federal and state/local governments either divide authority over policy areas or come up with a power sharing agreement. In a unitary system, which is the most common system of government in the world, the national government's will always trumps the local units and local units have any power to the extent that they are provided by the national government.  In world history, sometimes a federal system of government is adopted to accommodate regional racial or religious variations in a nation, basically to allow some autonomy to racially, religiously, or ethnically distinctive groups in a nation to mitigate political conflict.  Canada comes to mind as a federal system that provided flexibility and successfully accommodating the distinctive cultural and linguistic Quebecois. 

But accommodation cuts both ways.  In the U.S., federalism, with its toleration of a variation of policies across 50 different states, also meant the system of government accommodated regional preferences for slavery and then later, the Jim Crow system of racial segregation.  As political scientist William Riker and others have pointed out, it is a fallacy that federal systems always lead to more individual liberty for their citizens.  As Riker noted in his classic book, in the U.S. case, federalism allowed the perpetuation of discrimination against minorities in the southern states as those states vociferously defended their right to their way of life, which to be plain, meant racial segregation.  It is ironic today, that conservatives now return to the state's rights argument to complain about the extension of the Voting Rights Act. 

More about racial entitlement in the next post.