Jonah Goldberg is encouraged by what he sees as a potential crack in liberal ideology whereby at least some of its adherents may be giving the principle of federalism a fresh look.
In our system, federalism means that the several (necessarily democratic) states retain sovereignty, i.e., governing authority, over all matters not otherwise explicitly enumerated in the Constitution. (As we know, our system has been at most nominally federalist for some time now.) However, federalism more broadly understood means that most political questions are best decided at the lowest level of authority practicable. It is at that lowest level that the resolution of those questions are most likely to be legitimate, that is, acceptable to the largest possible majority.
But federalism is also, and importantly so, a measure whereby liberty is secured, where the parts, in our case the states, are protected from encroachments from the whole, the national government, on their right to rule themselves freely. And that is precisely the rub for most liberals. Why? Because at the end of the day, their supreme commitment is to equality, not liberty. (This is so, by the way, despite their confusing label as liberals.)
Liberals understand justice foremost as equality, even radical equality. For them, the more equal a society is, the more just it is. As a result, the liberty to rule differently, via federalism or otherwise, is the liberty to be un-equal, and therefore, un-just. Hence, always and necessarily, liberals seek to centralize power, to vest governing authority in the whole rather than the parts that make up the whole. Only a centralized system of government can ensure laws and regulations that are equal for all and therefore just.
Or at least that is what liberals believed until they became enthusiastic as well about multiculturalism, i.e., the celebration of diversity. What better way to allow for diversity, to ensure it even, than to practice federalism? In a genuinely federal system, states or local communities that are predominantly black or latino or even homosexual, for example, would be free to govern themselves accordingly.
So there it is and maybe it is good news. But I would still caution Jonah Goldberg and others about becoming too encouraged by it.
First, call me cynical, but I've never thought most liberals' embrace of multiculturalism had much to do with celebrating diversity. Rather, I thought and still do think that their enthusiasm for it is chiefly about disparaging and thereby weakening the still dominant Anglo-Saxon culture, along with its attendant sensibilities. For liberals, that long dominance is responsible for creating what they see as a false equality, an equality born of power and privilege. Since it's a false equality, it's no equality at all and, as a result, unjust as well.
Second, it occurs to me that the liberals who are giving federalism a second glance haven't yet thought it through. When they do, they'll abandon it. Why? Because, again, the defining characteristic of a liberal is one with a commitment to equality first and last, a commitment that ultimately allows for no differences at all and certainly not the liberty to be so that a federal system would allow.