Federalism: A Frontier for Liberals

October is proving to be an exciting month for congressional spectators. In several weeks Congress will vote on raising the debt ceiling, in the process Republicans will try to finagle spending concessions out of federal programs dear to Democrats. But before all this takes place the nation will see how the government shutdown showdown concludes as a handful of Republicans make a stand against Democrats’ most recent expansion of federal reach, the Affordable Care Act.

Watching this transpire paints Democrats as defenders of big government and big spending, which indeed has been the case in the past decades. The Democratic Party has relied on the federal government to secure a multitude of major liberal measures it has pushed for in recent memory. This legacy began with the New Deal; under FDR the United States became one of the first liberal regimes to provide welfare to its people. Thirty years later Great Society legislation transformed Civil Rights from a states’ issue to a national concern. LBJ’s legislation established a groundbreaking achievement that extended federal protection of the rights of racial minorities.

Turning to the federal government for reform has proven successful for Democrats: in the past century the federal government has virtually transformed itself, running programs to combat poverty and provide an economic safety net to citizens, and taking on the responsibility of dismantling segregation and other forms of institutional racial discrimination. We have yet to see if health care reform will follow in the footsteps of the New Deal and the Great Society by transforming the federal government’s relationship with American citizens, but the future of liberal legislation may follow a path less traveled by the Democratic Party.

Last week I wrote about the progress gun control advocates have achieved in states like California, Colorado, New York and Connecticut. The fights for marijuana legalization, gay marriage legalization, and gun control have in the past decade made significant progress at the state level revealing the promising frontier state legislation presents liberal causes. Though this strategy deviates from Democrats’ historic reliance on federal action, recent events point to an era of Democrat backed federalism.

August marked a major victory for those in favor of marijuana legalization: the Department of Justice, citing limited resources, announced it would not block state laws legalizing marijuana. This applies to the 18 states (and the District of Columbia) where the medicinal use of marijuana is legal, as well as Washington and Colorado where marijuana has been decriminalized. The policy is contingent on the industry being regulated to prevent drug use by minors and cartel or gang activity. Nonetheless, the Marijuana Policy Project called the announcement “historic.” The door has swung wide open to Colorado and Washington to license and tax the sale of marijuana, and similar voter initiatives on other states on hot on their heels. The MPP declared support for voter initiatives in Alaska, Arizona, California, Maine and Nevada in 2014 and 2016; the not for profit policy group hopes to legalize marijuana in 10 more states by 2017.

Same-sex marriage proponents also celebrated a major win this summer: in June the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, permitting legally married same-sex couples the same federal benefits of married heterosexual couples, and invalidated a California law banning same-sex marriage in the state. Despite the Supreme Court victory, more progressive federal measures on the issue – such as Congressional legislation defending marriage equality – are unlikely. However legalization of same-sex marriage in individual states has recently gained momentum. Currently the District of Columbia and 12 states permit same-sex marriage, Washington, Maine, Maryland, Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island joined the ranks only in the past 11 months.

The challenges federalism presents as a political strategy for marriage equality and marijuana legalization have become evident following the progress both causes have achieved in states. The Department of Justice’s new policy, though it permits the development of the marijuana industry in states where the drug is legal, leaves the trade on unsteady ground. The executive branch is simply ignoring a conflict of state and federal law: Seattle Marijuana Defense Attorney Douglas Hiatt voiced concerns about the future, “Is a new administration just going to come in and shut it down?” For proponents of marriage equality, federalism condones state-led discrimination against homosexuals and conflicts with the historical context of civil rights being addressed by the federal government.

Nonetheless, the immediate future of both left-wing causes seems to lie in the states. The United States has a long-standing history of individual states acting as laboratory grounds for innovative policy. Colorado and Washington’s decriminalization laws seem quintessential examples of the concept. The two progressive states will inevitably be looked to as models in the future for marijuana legalization and regulation. In contrast it’s unlikely that supporters of same-sex marriage will be satisfied with the state-by-state expansion of legal same-sex marriage in the U.S., however. As long as they argue that marriage is not a social experiment but rather a right that is currently withheld from a minority of American citizens, nothing short of federal protection will be adequate.

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