Dr. Stephanie Walls and her book "American Federalism and Individual Rights"

BGSU Firelands professor writes book on federalism, individual rights

Stephanie Walls hopes 'American Federalism and Individual Rights' people understand federalism

When it comes to protecting the rights of individual U.S. citizens, who should decide policy, the national government or the states?

The establishment of federalism — the division of power between the states and national government — was supposed to be a way to limit the power of the national government and protect the rights of the individual citizens. But how successful has federalism been in protecting individual rights?

A new book, American Federalism and Individual Rights,” by Dr. Stephanie Walls, associate professor of political science and department chair of Natural and Social Sciences at BGSU Firelands, delves into the compatibility of individual rights and federalism on several key issues.

“I think it is important for people to understand federalism, why it was established here and how it works in practice in order to more fully understand the debates in politics today,” Walls said. “From issues of reproductive rights and gun control to religious freedom and speech, federalism plays a key role in most policy debates.”

Walls, who has been a professor on the Firelands campus since 2011, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Ohio University in 1998, a master’s in political science from the University of Cincinnati in 2003 and a doctorate in political science from Cincinnati in 2008, specializing in American government and political theory. Prior to joining the BGSU staff, she taught part-time for the University of Mount Union.

Walls previously published “Individualism in the United States: A Transformation in American Political Thought” in 2015 with Bloomsbury Publishing.

“My research interests have always centered on American political culture with a focus on individualism,” she said. “After writing my dissertation and then my first book on American individualism, I wanted to delve into how the preservation of individual rights works with our other founding principles.”

A Timely Subject

Given the renewed focus in the United States on individual freedom and the role of state and national government to protect it, Walls said the time felt right to work on this project.

“The research for this book involved an in-depth survey of a variety of literature, not only about federalism but about the policy areas I chose to present as well,” she said. “The purpose of the book was not to present everything, but to present enough that anyone could read the book and come away with a working knowledge of federalism and an ability to assess for themselves whether or not federalism has served to protect or inhibit individual rights.”

Doing all necessary research through University Libraries, Walls’ goal was to select topics that represent a broad scope of issues and showcase policy areas that are in different phases of development.

“Civil rights and education policy are well-established in this country and I could document a rich history of how and where policy has been made in these areas and the role federalism has played,” she said. “However, I also wanted to highlight some newer areas of policy that have been especially impacted by federalism. Marriage equality and physician-assisted death fit the bill as they are newer — they are dynamic — and I thought people might be interested in learning more about how federalism impacts policy at these earlier stages.”

As for the overall result, Walls said it is not safe to assume that policymaking at any one level of government will always be better for individual rights.

“In fact, what I found is that there is nothing inherent in federalism that protects the individual," she said. "This distribution of power has to be carefully navigated and intentionally used to promote the individual, and that has not always happened. The better people understand federalism, the better prepared they will be to assess whether or not individual rights are being protected in a specific instance of policymaking.”

Regarding the subject of political involvement, Walls said it’s important for citizens of all ages — college students and beyond — to gather knowledge and be informed about both policy and process in order to hold our leaders accountable.

“Every day, people go to work in local, state and national government to make decisions that affect us all," she said. "Not knowing or not caring about government does not insulate one from the impact of policymaking. The quality of our governance relies on a knowledgeable citizenry. I believe it is a duty and a privilege to be able to participate in governance in such an impactful way.

“Additionally, the more college students learn, the less easily manipulated they are by others. There is so much information available, and not all of it is accurate. It is easy to become lost in the abundance of information that is available about policy and politics today. Learning the basics about governance and policy issues is the best way to navigate and assess the available information.”

“American Federalism and Individual Rights” was published in February 2021 by Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield. Below is the back cover copy:

The protection of individual rights and the division of power between the national government and the states are core principles upon which American governance is built, but how well do these concepts work together and to what extent could they be at cross purposes? American Federalism and Individual Rights presents both of these founding concepts and explores their compatibility through policy-specific studies, including civil rights, education, marriage equality, and physician-assisted death. Written for anyone interested in American politics, the author presents all of the foundational information one would need to make their own assessment of how federalism works to either promote or undermine the protection of the individual in these policy areas along with suggestions for further study.

Media Contact | Michael Bratton | mbratto@bgsu.edu | 419-372-6349