Monday, August 04, 2008

Onto the reading list

Malcolm M. Feeley and Edward Rubin, Federalism: Political Identity and Tragic Compromise

Federalism refers to a system in which a centralized national government shares power with member states. Beyond this most basic definition, however, scholars debate the applications and implications of the term. Joining the concept of identity from political science with legal principle, Malcolm M. Feeley and Edward Rubin propose a theory of federalism and test the relevance of federalism for the United States today.

Essentially, federalism represents a compromise among groups who refuse to yield autonomy yet acknowledge the benefits of forming a nation. As in the African and Asian nations forged from former colonies, federalism allows the member states---often dominated by ethnic minorities---to remain largely self-governing. In this way, a young nation can avoid secession and civil war while the people within its borders gradually abandon their local identities and come to view themselves as citizens of the nation.

The United States, Feeley and Rubin remind us, faced a similar situation in the eighteenth century as thirteen regionally distinct, ethnically diverse, and highly independent British colonies came together to found a nation. Despite the Civil War and the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement, the federalist strategy ultimately succeeded. For the United States in the early twenty-first century, thanks to the rise of a strong national identity and a ubiquitous bureaucracy, federalism has become obsolete. This bold argument is certain to provoke controversy.

I'm worried by the apparent nationalist teleology. A multiethnic state may not be a nation in potentia that just happens not to have yet been realized, and it's dangerous to view it that way. There is no law of nature or moral demand that "the people within its borders gradually abandon their local identities and come to view themselves as citizens of the nation." But still, I think Feeley and Rubin are approaching federalism with the right questions in mind, and I've expressed my own related worries about federalism's obsolescence in the U.S. for related reasons.

I read 40 pages or so of this book in proofs form standing in the book room at Law and Society, and recommend it very highly. It's a major and important work.