Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Howard Dean and Emerging Federalism

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It is always interesting and entertaining to listen to Governor Howard Dean and his take on new trends.  He has never hesitated to explore new areas of interest. Irrespective of party affiliation, Governor Dean can be described as a pragmatic progressive. After all, this was the first Internet presidential candidate.  This is the governor who, against the wishes of more veteran operatives, adopted the 50-state strategy that led to the Democrats takeover of Congress in 2006.  This is the first presidential candidate to oppose the Iraq War in 2003.  As governor of Vermont, he balanced budgets, while being a fervent progressive on issues like civil unions and universal health care for children.  It would be accurate to say that this governor has governed both “in poetry and in prose.”

His latest take came during a conference about U.S. federalism in Montréal, Canada.  The venue was a Montréal-based think tank, The Federal Idea, and the goal was to see whether there were lessons to be learned when looking at the state of federalism in both countries.  Rather than treat us to a political treatise on the benefits of federalism, Governor Dean told us that federalism as we know it, and governance as we know it, may be on the cusp of major adjustments. The conventional paradigm for looking at federalism may be a vestige of the past. And he bases his observations on the role of today’s social media technology.

To be fair, his address was meant to be instructive, not to provoke shockwaves.  He lauded Canadian federalism, explained the evolution of American federalism since World War II and showed how the system of federalism is best suited to dealing with diversity and competing interests within a state.  This being said, he argued that today’s generation is no longer limited by the traditional structures of federalism.  Rather, today’s social media gives them a greater say, a more direct voice and a greater capacity to affect change beyond constitutional jurisdictions.

Using examples such as Bank of America debit card fees and the reaction of cardholders, events in Egypt during the Arab spring and the collapse of the intellectual property bill in the Senate following a campaign by web users, he made the case that people today will no longer use the old ways because they no longer believe in them.  He may have a point as polls consistently give Congress a 90 percent disapproval rate.

When it came to Canadian federalism, a subject of interest to his Montréal audience, Governor Dean ventured on controversial terrain: Québec separatism.  He, in effect, declared that it was less needed because of the empowerment social media gives individuals.  I too subscribe to the notion that social media has transformed the way French-speaking Quebecers relate to the outside world, and how the English language is seen as a vehicle to this outside world and not a tool of an oppressive linguistic group.

His conclusion was that federalism will become more decentralized, not as much by Supreme Court rulings or constitutional amendments, but by more direct democracy facilitated by social media.  It may be early to draw conclusions on the future of U.S. and Canadian federalism as he cautioned, but Governor Dean, who has been a trend setter throughout his career, may actually be on to something.

*John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

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