Federalism is having a moment. It’s a prominent feature in the uneven coordination between the state and federal governments in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. And in this case, federalism is both the problem and the solution. The problem: federalism creates the space for such governmental discord, because in domestic crises like this each government occupies its own limited sphere of authority with only minimal overlap. The federalist solution is not forced collaboration. Instead, where the federal government falters, your state can save you.

Federalism describes the division of power between states and the federal government, and it is a politically agnostic check on those powers. The U.S. Constitution’s framers expected the state and federal governments to be in conflict. In fact, they viewed federalism as an important counter-majoritarian feature in the administration of this vast and diverse republic. The Tenth Amendment pits state and federal ambitions against each other by reserving to states “all powers not delegated” to the federal government. This dynamic ensures that neither government can become too powerful, because citizens who feel oppressed by one sovereign can expect protection from the other.

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