This comment states that the modern left is often promoting federal powers over state powers.

I assume that the comment relates to the United States. It surprises me, because in (northern) Europe, some left-wing and most hard-left parties are quite critical of the European Union, arguing that democracy works better on a smaller scale level, that a strong concentration of power is bad (e.g. increases susceptibility to corporate corruption), that the European Union is mostly a neoliberal project, among other arguments. Examples include Socialistische Partij in The Netherlands, Vänsterpartiet in Sweden, Die Linke in Germany, PCF in France, etc. Danish People's Movement against the EU sits with the European United Left group. Jeremy Corbyn in the UK has also historically been quite lukewarm about the EU. This is unlike centrist parties, such as the ones by Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, which often strongly endorse any (federalist) plans from the EU.

Do left-wing parties in the USA promote federal powers over state powers? If so, what is the reasoning behind this? Is this just a remnant of state powers being a substitute for southern states wanting to maintain first slavery, then segregation, or is there some more fundamental reason behind this?

  • 3
    You realize that the right-wing does this too I hope? Dec 10, 2012 at 15:37
  • 1
    @Chad - the question wasn't whether right-wing do so (which of course they do, on certain issues). The question is, whether Left's support for Federal power is quantitatively and qualitatively different from either Right's support of such, OR Left's support of State power.
    – user4012
    Dec 10, 2012 at 15:54
  • 2
    Funny also that while "liberal" in Europe means "right", in the US it would mean "left".
    – Anixx
    Jan 5, 2014 at 5:49
  • 1
    "most left-wing parties are quite critical of the European Union" that's false. Maybe far left parties are critical of EU, left winged parties promote euro federalism.
    – user14816
    Oct 11, 2017 at 7:10
  • 1
    @Tlen I think our little discussion here illustrates the problem with the phrases far-left/left/right etc. Those phrases are imprecise. I do think that those parties appear reasonable, and their programme is not too far from Corbyn in the UK and Sanders in the USA, which both succeed to attract a substantial following, unlike revolutionary parties. I'd say that the traditional social-democratic elite is centrist in the way that they have accepted or even embraced the neoliberal Washington Consensus and are from an economic point of view little different from their centre-right siblings.
    – gerrit
    Oct 11, 2017 at 11:19

2 Answers 2


This is largely (but not 100%) correct.

There are at least 5 reasons why the Left by and large promotes Federal power over state power:

  1. The goals and projects they desire are significantly diminished if they ONLY apply to parts of the country, due to inter-state mobility.

    If you raise taxes in New York State, tons of high-income people from NY will move to CT, or Delaware, or whatnot. If you enact onerous regulations on hedge funds in NY, the hedge funds will move to Connecticut. (both of those examples reflect what actually happened in recent history).

    However, if you apply the same laws, rules and taxes federally, there will be a LOT less people/corporations either willing or able to move outside USA to escape them.

  2. Many of the issues near and dear to the Left are regional ones (for example, energy production), with the states where they want to cause impact NOT being Left wing stronghold. They can't force coal producers in Appalachia to change their ways by working on a state level, but they can by increasing the power that the Federal government has.

    Another good example of this is illegal immigrants. People voting in border states who don't particularly wish to feel the negatives of a bunch of criminals come through where they live can not be convinced that illegal immigration is somehow a Good Thing. So it's easier to enforce pro-illegal policies on Federal level, backed up by the votes from people whose only negative exposure to illegals is deciding on whether to pay taxes on their illegal nanny/gardener.

  3. A large part of the Left's political strategy in USA has - in 20th century - been to influence "the elites". It is a lot easier to influence an insulated circle of power brokers in Washington DC than a more diffuse set of state level power brokers. A guy in State Senate from BumpkinCity, Wherever is a lot less susceptible to "If you oppose this 'cool' issue, you will be ostracized and not invited to any of our parties, and panned negatively in New York Times and Washington Post"

  4. More generically, the Left ideas and worldview are super-concentrated in very few localities (this is fractal in nature - even down to individual states. You have a left-leaning large city, surrounded by right-leaning farmland or suburbs or sparsely populated area). Therefore, the more you disperse the power, the less territory will be "left" on aggregate. This is especially potent in light of #1 and #2.

  5. The Left - ever since the time of French Revolution - strongly believe in Enlightened Rulers driving forward the country of No-So-Enlightened-or-Bright populace. (the quintessential example of that view was of course the 2008 brouhaha over Obama's "clinging to their guns" comments when speaking to his supporters, but you get the same thing if you hang out on any random politics forum). With such worldview, giving more power to said enlightened elite is a Good Thing in general.

Please note that I said "by and large". When the left - on the practical level - sees the same downsides to Federal control of their pet issues as described above - they instantly want LESS Federal power on that issue and to make it a State one. A stereotypical example of such would be drug/pot legalization.

  • 3
    @gerrit - Correct. # of people would not be DIRECTLY affected. But OTOH, this plays to #1. Anyone disaffecte by policies of Portland would merely need to move to suburbs. That'd be a LOT of people (see my hedge fund example in NYC). The less the distance that people/companies need to move, the more likelyhood that they will opt to do so.
    – user4012
    Dec 10, 2012 at 15:47
  • 2
    Overall, I can follow the reasoning, but you haven't really addressed part 1 of the question: is the claim that the left by and large want more federal power actually correct? Or does it simply depend on the topic? I suppose that when it's about the military, the right supports a strong federal power.
    – gerrit
    Dec 10, 2012 at 15:47
  • 4
    @gerrit - It's about enforcement. Yes they can move from CA to AZ. And get arrested in AZ and deported (in the right's preferred model). The problem is, Federales are prohibiting AZ from doing that (while refusing to arrest and deport themselves).
    – user4012
    Dec 10, 2012 at 15:48
  • 3
    @gerrit - It's both. The left supports federal power much more than state power. But yes, depending on the topic, the roles may be reversed. But on average, Left supports Federal over State power MUCH more than either Left's support for State power, OR Right's support for Federal one.
    – user4012
    Dec 10, 2012 at 15:55
  • 3
    I've got to say, I'm sad this has a -2. I think it is a great example of agood, dispassionate analysis. Really not understanding the Downvotes. I'm a states rights right wing fundamentalist evangelical voter, and yet even I'm giving this a +1 Dec 12, 2012 at 11:25

I don't believe that members of the Left believe this at all. It is commonly accepted that in US politics, the States are the proving ground for new ideas, like how recreational marijuana use is now legal (at the State level) in both Washington state and Colorado, which is supported partially by the Democratic party and fully supported by the far Left Green Party. Coincidentally it is also supported by the majority of Libertarians as well.

Two factors at play I think play into this belief. The Left in the United States believe in a strong Federal government over matters of regulation. Some people who view politics as a black and white thing will see strong support for the Federal Government as Anti-State government.

Furthermore many on the Right are against new regulations and against much of the Federal government as it stands now, including what they view as out-of-control spending and extreme crippling taxes. Their strategy for coping with what they perceive as major problems with the Federal government are to offload power and responsibilities to the individual States. To form a unified opposition to such ideals, they will commonly paint Leftist opposition to such policies as Supporters of Big Government and thus Anti-State government.

Their policy strategy is such that affecting major policy changes that they desire are not politically achievable at the Federal level, but offloading responsibility to the States makes it easier to slowly push for the budget cuts and tax cuts for wealthy Americans on a State by State level which is more possible to achieve. 

It is hard to say how history affected this mindset. Traditionally the Democrats were the party of slavery and states rights while the Republicans were the party of a strong Federal government and promotion of a strong Republic. This continued up until about the Civil Rights era where we started to see a shift in party ideals. Republicans became the party of business and frugality, where Democrats became the party of the Workers and minorities. About the time where this minority shift happened, the Democrats lost common cause and we started to see a gradual migration of southern states to the Republicans. To this day, southern Democrats are a dying breed.

  • 2
    Do you have any examples where the federal government implemented policy and it did not limit the power of the state government? It would go a long way to validating this answer. As it stands, your first paragraph contradicts your third paragraph.
    – Popo
    Oct 12, 2017 at 16:36

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .