Federalism exists specifically because of the history of enslavement and colonization that this nation is founded upon.

-Aaron Jamal

by Aaron Jamal 

E pluribus unum — Latin for “Out of many, one.” Included in the Great Seal of the United States in 1776.

The United States seal

The political system of the United States is in a state of perpetual crisis. The state of Tennessee has proposed a new bill that will drastically limit the voting power of Black people across the state. North Carolina is aiming to force newly elected sheriffs to collaborate with ICE. Missouri, Alabama & Georgia have rushed to enact anti-abortion bills that can only be described as imperial misogyny. Most recently, the US Supreme Court decided that states have the power to determine the legitimacy of gerrymandering – the process of politicians choosing their voters as opposed to voters choosing their politicians.

The federal government, with its seemingly wide reach and great power, has been unable to intervene in state affairs and is unlikely to do so given the people who occupy it at all levels. A clear analysis of what can be done to combat this protracted crisis must start with recognizing how the U.S. government is structured. It’s important to know what federalism is, how federalism serves the interests of the racist and patriarchal elite, and what social movements have done and must do to move towards change in our political structure.

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The 2018 midterm elections helped to set the stage upon which leftist, popular, and democratic mass movements in the U.S. will continue to struggle with through the battle in 2020. At the federal level, the right-wing federal trifecta was broken. Democrats took 7 governorships, the Republicans took none. The Democrats now have 23 to the Republicans’ 27 governorships. Democrats also made some gains in state legislatures; they won 6 houses in 4 states across the country and gained seats in many others. But the change of power from one bourgeois party to another at the state level is important not just for political reasons, but because the structure of the U.S. government itself dictates the arena in which our political forces struggle.

A state (in a constitutional sense) is the most fundamental political unit of the U.S. government. A U.S. state is an entity that has jurisdiction over a specific geography and shares power with the national (or federal) government. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and grants some powers to the national government. A wide range of powers are granted to the states via the 10th amendment. These powers include the ability to make laws on voting rights, schools, anti-discrimination law, criminal law, property, environmental issues, medicaid expansion, expanding or restricting labor rights, and taxation, to name a few. In addition, states draw political districts for themselves and congressional representatives while also controlling local (county, municipal, etc) law.

Anthony Garand | Unsplash

This leads us to federalism, the political structure of the U.S. government. In brief, federalism is a system of government in which political entities (such as states or provinces) share power with a national government. So, for example, while the ability to declare war, print money, and admit new states resides with the national government, and the power to issue driver’s licenses, establish local governments, ratify amendments to the constitution reside with state government, the power to build highways, borrow money, and maintain law and order are shared by both the federal and state governments. 

But the framework of “shared powers” is not quite that accurate. In fact, we can think of federalism not so much as shared government, but as a form of government which sees different political entities battle against each other for political supremacy. This sets up unclear boundaries of demarcation that has led to landmark court battles, nullification crises, and open civil war

The point must be made here, however, that federalism is not the reason for these battles, it is the container within which these battles are waged. Put another way, the reason states and the national government vie against each other for political supremacy isn’t because of the “greater good” that a federalist structure of government provides the people over which it is sovereign. In fact, federalism as a structure of government is a reactionary class structure of racial and gendered political domination.

In the United States, federalism began as the solution put forth by the founding colonists because of the inability of the Articles of Confederation to enforce property rights. The federalist movement gained momentum after a yeoman farmer uprising in western Massachusetts from 1786-1787, which threatened the dominion of the white settler elite. This was named Shays’ Rebellion and it put the aristocratic elite on notice. On the other side of the war for independence, wealthy elites were concerned about how democracy and popular movements would impact their property and control over enslaved Black people. In this light, we can see the U.S. Constitution for what it really was; a negotiated agreement between federalists (white propertied men) and anti-federalists (more white propertied men) designed to protect the property and power of creditors who wanted to collect debts and slave owners who wanted to preserve slavery. 

Federalism is a reactionary class structure. It exists specifically because of the history of enslavement and colonization that this nation is founded upon. Its creation was based on a reaction against popular, organized forces. Its purpose is for the ruling class to control and maintain the boundaries of political struggle. This control takes many forms, including the fact the President is appointed by an electoral college and not by popular vote, the use of bi-cameral legislatures that have long senate terms and high property qualifications so as to control popular majorities, and how those property qualifications are used to exclude poor and working class people from serving in office. 

The structure of federalism has been incredibly effective at preventing the transformation of our society over the preceding centuries, and we must always remember that it has been our social movements, the organized majorities of ordinary people, that have challenged the structure of federalism and moved structural democratic reform.

Social movements have forced the structure of the U.S. government to become increasingly more democratic over time. The Bill of Rights were added as amendments just two years after the Constitution went into effect. These amendments guarantee specific rights and personal freedoms as well as restrictions to the power of some portions of the bourgeois state in judicial proceedings. 

The abolition* of slavery in the U.S., after centuries of fierce resistance, represented the only true hope for a real multi-racial democracy. The Reconstruction amendments were added to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude (except for those duly convicted of a crime), establish citizenship and equal protection under the law, and to prohibit voting rights discrimination based on race, color or prior servitude. The victory of the right for some women to vote, the direct election of senators, citizens of DC gaining the right to vote for President, the prohibition of poll taxes and the lowering of the right to vote from 21 to 18 were all victories won by organized majorities and social movements. In each of these cases, the ruling elite have fought back, attempting to restrict the victories won over time. 

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The whole history of federalism is woven deeply into the racialized colonial project of the U.S. What is at stake for Black people is not just a mechanism of government, but the very possibility of actualizing our dreams of liberation. Federalism acts as a preventative mode of government that inhibits deep structural transformation of our political, economic, and social lives as Black people. There is no road to Black liberation, past or present, assumed or perceived, that does not run through the abolition of federalism.

The task of political organizations and social movements today is to recognize that the political structure of federalism that we organize under is inherently racist and patriarchal, and puts our movements and majorities at a severe disadvantage. Constitutional amendments to abolish the electoral college and proposed federal legislation to study and enforce reparations for the survivors of intergenerational enslavement are possibilities for our movements, but we must dream bigger. 

“E pluribus unum” is indeed correct; out of many disparate bourgeois strategies to enforce anti-democracy, one strategy prevailed – federalism. Our movements have made structural shifts in history by going for the sweeping, transformative changes necessary to build our power, hasten our momentum and win. We can and must do so again.

Aaron Jamal is a southern organizer committed to the mastery of his own found voice, a practitioner of the unbound praise of Black people, and he is the 21st century disciple of David Walker. He has a passion for writing eclectic essays, making melodies and studying Black socialist construction. Follow the Black-Jedi-In-Residence on Twitter @ayoajb