Do the People Rule?

Do the People Rule?

Michael Lind

Popular sovereignty is the foundation of the American political system, but the nation's leaders--from James Madison to Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan--have been divided over its meaning for practical government.

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If American government were a cake, what kind of cake would it be? Political science and law examinations at American universities frequently ask some version of that question. Is the best metaphor for the relationship between the federal and state governments in the U.S. Constitution a layer cake, in which each level retains its own identity? Or does the United States have a "marble cake federalism," in which, according to the political scientist Morton Grodzin, "ingredients of different colors are combined in an inseparable mixture, whose colors intermingle in vertical and horizontal veins and random swirls"? Layer cakes and marble cakes do not exhaust the metaphorical possibilities. The political scientists Aaron Wildavsky and David Walker have suggested, respectively, that a birthday cake and a fruitcake can symbolize American federalism. All the culinary constitutionalism seems appropriate for a nation that some claim was once a melting pot but is now a salad bowl.

This battle of metaphors reflects a deep and enduring disagreement among Americans about the nature of popular sovereignty in the United States. Is the United States a creation of the individual states--or are the states a creation of the Union? Is there a single American people--or are there as many "peoples" as there are states?

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