When We Talk About “Systems” And “Structures”

Speaking of communication, as I did yesterday–Sometimes, it’s a good idea to define your terms.

I’m as guilty as anyone–I sometimes use terms without stopping to specify what I mean. In the interests of clarity, today I’m defining three structural labels that I use frequently–terms that identify aspects of America’s political environment that it’s past time to revisit and revise.


Federalism is the name given to America’s division of authority among local, state and federal levels of government. That division recognizes realities of governance: state and federal governments have no interest in handing out zoning permits or policing domestic violence disputes, to cite just two examples. Increasingly, however, many original assignments of responsibility are no longer workable. State-level management of elections, for example, was necessary in the age of snail-mail registration and index cards identifying voters; in the computer age, it’s an invitation to chaos and misconduct.
Federalism also facilitates assertions of state sovereignty where there really is none. Federal highway dollars are conditioned on state compliance with federally mandated speed limits, and similar “strings” are attached to almost all of the federal funding that cities and states rely upon. There are also an increasing number of issues, including climate change and pandemics, that must be addressed globally.

Businesses need uniformity in state laws in order to operate efficiently across state lines. Problems with acid rain can’t be solved by municipal ordinance. The internet cannot be controlled by a state legislature–or even by Congress. Even in law enforcement, generally considered the most local of issues, multistate criminal enterprises justify an increased federal presence.
The world has changed since the Constitution was drafted. Today, where should authority for governmental responsibilities reside? What should federalism mean in the age of technological connectivity and globalism?

Home Rule

Despite the existence of an Indiana statute labeled “Home Rule,” efforts at self-government by Indiana municipalities are routinely pre-empted by the Indiana Legislature. Just in the past few years, lawmakers have prevented local governments from restricting the use of disposable plastic bags and dictated what modes of public transit cities are permitted to use and tax themselves for. In a particularly ironic ruling, a Judge found that the state’s Home Rule statute itself blocked Ft. Wayne’s enforcement of a “good government” ordinance intended to restrict “pay for play” politics. The ordinance would have limited the amount of money owners of a company could give elected officials and still bid on city contracts.

In Indiana, the absence of genuine home rule means that decisions affecting residents of urban areas are routinely made by representatives of suburban and especially rural populations (see gerrymandering), whose grasp of the challenges and realities faced by elected officials in metropolitan areas is limited, at best.

Indiana is not unique. The Brookings Institution has described the extent to which state laws preempt local control over public health, economic, environmental, and social justice policy solutions. In 2019, state lawmakers made it illegal for locally-elected officials to enact a plastic bag ban in Tennessee, raise revenues in Oregon, regulate e-cigarettes in Arkansas, establish minimum wages in North Dakota, protect county residents from water and air pollution produced by animal feedlots in Missouri, or protect immigrants from unjust incarceration in Florida.
There are clearly issues that should be decided at the state or federal level. (See Federalism) Policy debates should center on what those issues are, and state-level lawmakers should to allow local governments to make the decisions that are properly local. Right now, they can’t.


Every ten years, the Constitution requires that a census be taken and the results used to remedy population discrepancies in the succeeding year’s congressional redistricting.

In our federalist system, redistricting is the responsibility of state legislatures. Gerrymandering, or partisan redistricting, occurs when the party that controls a statehouse manipulates district lines to be as favorable as possible to its own electoral prospects. “Packing” creates districts with supermajorities of the opposing party; “cracking” distributes members of the opposing party among several districts to ensure that it doesn’t have a majority in any of them; and “tacking” expands the boundaries of a district to include a desirable group from a neighboring district.

Partisan redistricting takes its name from then-governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry.

Studies have tied gerrymandering to the advantages of incumbency and to partisan rigidity, but by far its most pernicious effect has been the creation of hundreds of Congressional seats that are safe for one party. The resulting lack of competitiveness reduces the incentive to vote or otherwise participate in the political process, because the winner of the district’s dominant party primary is guaranteed to win the general election. Primary voters tend to be more ideologically rigid, and as a result, candidates in safe districts are significantly more likely to run toward the extremes of their respective parties. Gerrymandering is thus a major contributor to partisan polarization.

Thanks to the way gerrymandered districts have been drawn in Indiana, a majority of policymakers in the Statehouse represent predominantly rural areas. As a consequence, state distribution formulas that allocate funding for roads and education significantly favor rural areas over urban ones, and members of Indiana’s General Assembly are more responsive to rural than urban concerns.

When I use these words, this is what I mean.


  1. Sheila; thank you for these explanations, trying to understand the meanings by Googling separately is confusing. Being able to compare them in one place will help understand the current national chaos and how and why Trump has dumped HIS responsibility onto Governors who are left to sort out the escalating confusion in their own states.

    Gerrymandering is by far the most dangerous “legality” in all states; somehow states enact laws which go against the Constitution, which is the deciding factor in the States Rights issue but all of them are now working against their own residents rights and in many cases are working against their individual State Constitutions. Pence’s RFRA, total anti-abortion and the voucher system here in Indiana proves it is not only the southern states which are at the base of the current loss of voting and civil rights issues which are divisive within states and across the nation.

    “Gerrymandering, or partisan redistricting, occurs when the party that controls a statehouse manipulates district lines to be as favorable as possible to its own electoral prospects.” This system also decides the Electoral College membership in each state. A vivid memory of Rudy Giuliani’s evil grin as he began announcing 2 weeks prior to the 2016 election, “The Republicans have something up their sleeves. They have the Electoral Colleges sewn up and Trump will win the election. We are facing the same outcome in this November election.

    Yesterday Trump issued a reminder of one of his initial public speeches and has again turned Police Officers loose on victims in all states; which is contrary to his dumping all responsibility on all Governors. Is this covered in State Constitutions? Does the State Constitution include any protection from Gerrymandering in any of the 50 states and is Gerrymandering used in any of our territories? Basing the number of State and Federal Representatives on population count, have any states LOST Representatives due to fluctuating population changes. We have been a transient people, almost nomadic, for many years now but Red states seem to remain Red and Blue states seem to remain Blue.

    And all of these explanations and my questions takes us straight back to Sheila’s frequent reminder of the vital need for Civics classes in all schools.

  2. With the explanation of “systems and structure” I’m going to ask a question of the commenters on this blog, we are all governed by them or victimized. Are there any blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Middle Easterners or other races among you? If you are commenting here you must know your voices will be heard on this venue with open minds and hearts. Just as men cannot understand the years of monthly menstruation problems or childbirth pain women have endured, nor can women understand the effects of erectile dysfunction or prostate problems endured by men; the white race cannot fully understand the pain and degradation suffered by other races. These issues are tearing this country apart openly and violently now.

    I will also paraphrase Emile Zola but do not separate his comment from my paraphrase as it is a greater part of problems we face today. Zola first, “Civilization will not attain to its perfection till the last stone from the last church has fallen on the last priest.”

    Civilization will not attain to its perfection till the last racist and bigot from the last city, state and nation has died out.

  3. These questions should be the topics of today’s post:

    “Where should authority for governmental responsibilities reside? What should federalism mean in the age of technological connectivity and globalism?”

    One other pertinent question MUST go along with the above:

    What role do politically involved billionaires, influence peddlers, and Oligarchs play in the distribution of power within our government?

    And finally, who is holding those within the power structure accountable to the people for which the government serves?

  4. Looking at these systems and structures today and considering the intent of the founders, I keep thinking of that old saying, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” I especially wonder what James Madison would say, if he were here today.

  5. Sheila – kudos for underlining an important conversation that might just lead a day of solid comments about something other than ideology.

    JoAnn – thanks for the “walk a mile in my shoes” reminder…

  6. Systems and Structures words that can have different meanings, depending upon the context. A bridge a cathedral, skyscraper, etc., are structures built within certain parameters, using systems that allow for the construction. Bottom line the structures will not stand unless they are designed, built and maintained within the parameters. Many factors must be taken into consideration, gravity, water, and air among the factors.

    Our political systems and structures likewise have certain parameters. Unfortunately, these political institutions are corruptible. Our billionaires, oligarchs and lobbyists have found these political systems to be easily corruptible. The best laws with the best intentions are only as good as the weakest link which is the elected officials, since they have the power to change the laws or not enforce them.

  7. Sheila, obviously professor is not just an honorary title, you know what you are talking about! And, I agree with you about the Constitution, it has to be a living breathing document and not words etched on a parchment. With the advancement of society, technology, communications, travel abilities, changes in societal living conditions and conduct, i.e. the advancement of women’s rights, rights of minorities, lifestyle choices, and such, the words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in 1940, ring true!

    He stated; “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

    So, for officials in our government HIGH or petty cannot force persons to sign documents to silence them, or force them to take oath’s that are against their rights as citizens in this country, cannot prevent people from petitioning government to redress their grievance, protesting is a form of this!

    The NAACP V. Alabama, Edwards V. South Carolina, Cox V. Louisiana, Brown V. Louisiana, United States V. O’Brien, Colhen V. California, Virginia V. Black, Texas be. Johnson, United States V.Eichman, Speiser V. Randall, Garner V. Board of Public Works, I could go on and on and on and run out of space! But, the point is, the Supreme Court has upheld the right of free speech, the right not to be coerced into making oaths or statements, and of course freedom to protest. You government has lost its way, whether government is big or small, they do not have the right to use its authority and purview’s as a bludgeon on its citizens!

  8. Thanks. Everyone speaking the same language always improves communications.

    Our founders were not able to envision much less anticipate political parties. So the inclusion of them as central to government has always been regulated by them.

    The fox has been guarding the henhouse from their inception.

  9. Pete – per se, the parties are not the problem – it is the people in them who use that structure for their and special interests’ advantage. Good people do good – a simple haberdasher from Missouri integrated the armed forces years before Brown v/s Education – he was a Party man….

  10. in NoDak we have whatever you can carry across the field..sold. the local reps,seems they are tied at birth to one another. theres few who dare run for office,due, your not on the good ol boy team..make a move to tax something,er, let it die instead,we didnt need it..their jobs should reflect that pay stub.. we only see, er hear them every two years,and by that time,its said and done. they spend little time talking with anyone..(execpt oil and coal, and your power stations) especially liberals like me..i dont exist..since the affairs of the streets have finally awaken some rockheads here, of course,its as what you would expect,damn nnnnnn,,, they want something now. sorry,but as this state goes, it would still vote for wallace.. im hoping the younger ones from elsewhere,get some of the locals to see over the cesspool.. we had a protest from downtown bismarck, to capital building,peaceful,until some locals with harleys,(i ride one to) decided to start a fight, seems the cops only had the bikers to deal with,
    (note, these are family oriented clubs,not real clubs) i have a ACLU sticker on my bags, and ride alone……

  11. Lester, I hardly think Truman really and truly integrated much. There still was no fairness in the armed forces! The darker green folks we’re always late to the party and first to the front lines! The lighter green received the metals much more frequently and also field promotions and such. The civil Rights movement played much more of a role in leveling the playing field as much as they could than Truman ever thought about. And, I’m here to tell you, the field is not level yet! Not only is there racism, sexism, and more than just a modicum of misogyny in the armed forces, there is a significant presence of white nationalism. When a government can deport veterans who had fought and put their lives on the line for this country, there is no equality!

  12. Peggy asks what Madison would do if he were around today. Madison, the first distributor of powers based on a then reading of how to integrate state and federal jurisdiction in the few states scattered along our eastern seaboard with a population of a some mere four million former colonists would today, I am sure, write up a different and more explicit menu for the distribution of powers for some 330 million people stretching from sea to shining sea. However, I think without knowing that he would keep the basic language of our Constitution intact in terms of three SEPARTE BUT EQUAL branches of government as now, an important distinction to be made whether in horse and buggy days or in an age of bullet trains and the internet. This was and is a brilliant and ageless concept for any time (and one we see sullied daily by our dear leader who thinks he was appointed God).

    Leetle Jimie (as he was known to many in his day) may have been short in stature, but he was a heavyweight between his ears. I wish he (and his quill) were here today to end the guesswork and set us (and the Supreme Court) straight on exactly what the Founders’ intent was in 1789 (the Constitution) and 1791 (the Bill of Rights), since the Federalist Papers leave much to the imagination, but that’s not going to happen, so we will have to struggle along with the politically opinionated judges politicians such as McConnell elevate to the bench and do our best to remove such politicians from the fray.

  13. “Federal highway dollars are conditioned on state compliance with federally mandated speed limits”

    Sheila, in 1995 Congress passed the National Highway Designation Act, which removed all federal speed limit controls.


    I am familiar with it because in my poli classes I used the old national 55 mile speed limit law (enforced like with federal dollars like you indicate) to explain federalism, and how to get around it. As I recall the feds replaced the national 55 mph limit with another law moving it up to 65 mph before they ended up getting rid of federal control of speed limits completely.

  14. Why do smart people think our founders were not able to imagine certain things? The list is long, if you think about all the times you’ve read allegations of the intellectual limitations of our founders. There was their presumed inability to imagine crowded cities. Non-agrarian societies. Machineguns. Steam power.

    And today–their inability to imagine political parties.

    Goodness! In the 1700s, they didn’t even need to imagine political parties. There were already political parties–Whigs vs Tories–operating with enough precision in England to frustrate the King. And the American Constitution–the thing they fashioned together–came out of the crucible of two opposing factions curiously called “parties” at the time: the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party.

    Perhaps the founders could not imagine the extremes to which Political Parties would eventually go in their ideology and centralized internal control. But perhaps the founders did imagine such a thing. It appears to me that they tried to account for such influence on government and establish hurdles and road blocks to impede them. However, certain things, though clearly imagined, are so often limited as to prevention, such as preventing or limiting the reach of wealth and power.

    The founders mistake, to me, is that while they were obsessed with limiting power AFTER politicians gained office, they were derelict somewhat in limiting politicians’ power to GAIN AND KEEP OFFICE.

  15. John Song – I didn’t say Truman created instant equality. Neither did Brown V/s The Board of education end segregated, unequal public education. Change is not as simple as flipping a switch. Those who continue to believe that are smokin’ something and practicing dangerous wishful thinking.

  16. Monotonous Languor:
    “The best laws with the best intentions are only as good as the weakest link which is the elected officials, since they have the power to change the laws or not enforce them.”

    Case in point:
    Here in Florida, the people voted to restore the franchise to all those who had completed their prison and jail terms. The [gerrymandered] Republican state legislature immediately set about negating the law by requiring that all court costs and other state fees be paid in full before the vote would be restored to the effective people thereby instating a poll tax. One which, of course, the vast majority of the people the law was meant to help could not pay.

    We’re still working to reinstate the law we passed but the only real remedy will be to vote out of office the people who negated the will of the people.
    See gerrymandering to understand how virtually impossible that task will be. And this year, in particular is key, since districts will be redrawn after the coming election. If we don’t do it now, the next 10 years are toast.

  17. Oops:
    ” The [gerrymandered] Republican state legislature immediately set about negating the law by requiring that all court costs and other state fees be paid in full before the vote would be restored to the effective people – – – ”

    should be AFFECTED people.

    Where’s my proofreader when I need her?
    Staying home due to COVID, of course.

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