(HOST) With the Iraqi people in the process of approving a National Constitution, commentator Cheryl Hanna explores some of the tensions that still plague our own Constitution after more than 200 years.
(HANNA) Just like us Americans, the Iraqis are struggling with Federalism. Both the Kurds in the North and the Shiites in the South want a strong system of federalism, which, among other things, will ensure that each region maintains control over their rich oil reserves.
In contrast, the Sunni minority live in the center of Iraq, which has no oil. They fear Federalism will sever them from the oil economy and will eventually lead to the break-up of Iraq. So far, Federalism is winning out, which is why the Constitution may not be approved.
The framers of our Constitution were also deeply divided over Federalism. Thomas Jefferson, like the Kurds and Shiites, preferred a decentralized society where decisions were made at the local level. But in the end, those like James Madison, who favored a strong national government, gained the upper hand, although our Constitution ensures the states do maintain some local control of both their economies and their social policies.
Yet, our system of Federalism is far from perfect. Indeed, the Civil War was as much about Federalism as it was about slavery, and it almost broke up the Union.
Despite some ebbs and flows in trying to achieve that delicate balance, nationalism has, for the most part, continued to dominate American democracy. It’s credited for keeping a nation as diverse as ours united and is blamed for trampling on individual rights.
In the last ten years, however, Federalism has made a comeback. Beginning in the mid-1990’s, a closely divided United States Supreme Court began striking down laws passed by Congress, something it hadn’t done for more than fifty years.
Indeed, retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the court’s strongest advocate for states’ rights. For example, she recently voted,unsuccessfully, to forbid the federal government to prose- cute those who use medical marijuana if their states allow for it.
So Federalism isn’t always about social conservatism. Fundamentally, it’s about who decides.
Federalism remains a contentious issue. Congress doesn’t like being overruled, and many fear that without a strong national government the rights of minorities won’t be respected. We can expect the Senate to question John Roberts on his views on Federalism, even though it’s assumed he’ll vote like Sandra Day O’Connor on this issue.
For Vermont, modern Federalism may not be such a bad thing, as issues like reproductive rights and environmental regulation are increasingly likely to be decided at the state level. Vermonters have, without a doubt, the best system of state democracy in the Nation.
If you live in Alabama, however, you may not be so optimistic.
I have deep sympathy for the Iraqi people as they try to figure out what will ensure national unity and individual rights. Then again, it’s important to remember that Democracy is an experiment – even after more than 200 years, we still can’t claim to have it completely right.
This is Cheryl Hanna.
Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.