Sovereignty in Practice in the United States

Evaluate the extent to which sub-national units exercise effective decisional sovereignty. Illustrate your answer with reference to real world examples and/or empirical evidence.

Sovereignty is a complex subject at the national level. At a sub-national level it's at least as complex, and sometimes more controversial. This paper will explore the subject of sovereignty in sub-national units using the vertical governmental orientation with the local municipality of Dalton Township in Michigan, USA as a centering perspective.

Sovereign can be defined as "having the highest power or being completely independent." (Cambridge Dictionary, 2022) Whether in a unitary or federalist system, a sub-national unit will by definition not be completely independent. (Hague, Harrop, McCormick, 2016, pg 182) Theoretically, a sub-national unit in a confederate arrangement that was voluntary and at-will with the ability to leave the confederacy at any time could be considered an independent sub-national unit. In practice things are not so explicit and clear.

The primary division of power in the United States is between the state and national governments. Before the Constitution was ratified in 1788 the original states along the Atlantic coast were formed into a type of confederacy. The Constitution was passed to give more control to the national government. The state congress originally chose the national senators, which put a strong federalist check on the national government, but that was removed with the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. Still, it remains a federalist system with dependence going in both directions, however independence seems to have been decided as not being an option in the American Civil War, although independence movements in states continually occur to a limited extent.

Power is a function of dependency. (Emerson, 1962) The states and the nation are co-dependent, and therefore could be said to share sovereignty in the United States. The local municipalities are created by the state. On an origin basis you could say the creation of the nation depended on the states, and the creation of the municipalities depended on the state, thus making the state the primary unit of government in the US. The case does change when we think of it in terms of ongoing dependence. Almost wholly townships, cities, villages, and counties depend on the state for their continued exist as recognized units of government. In practice it could be politically and legally difficult to dissolve or reform them, although possible. In the end, all of these levels of government are dependent on the people, and therefore both in theory, and through complex and escalating means in practice, the people are the true sovereign.

A common belief in the United States is that ultimate sovereignty lies with the people, and since all levels of government involve direct elections of the people, all levels of government include an aspect of the people's sovereignty that is shared with the other levels. 

For instance, in Dalton Township we are currently discussing a food sovereignty ordinance which would protect local food rights such as the ability to grow, trade, buy, and sell locally produced and processed food. This however will conflict with county, state, and federal regulations concerning the food industry. Which level of government holds the highest power? The state is the most obvious answer. However, much of state power has been preempted by the national government under the commerce clause in the Constitution. The national government also uses financial resources as incentive and threat for policy. The state holds similar power over the local municipalities. 

It would appear that it may be best to go directly to the sovereign in this case to resolve this, which is a direct ballot election on the issue by the citizens. But, the state enumerates the issues that the township can put on the ballot for a vote, which is checked by the county clerk for compliance. We are once again back to at least three levels of government involvement. The state doesn't give the county clerk the duty of deciding what should or should not be on the ballot at the county's discretion, but according to parameters by the state. I am not aware of food sovereignty being an enumerated township ballot proposal option, so it could be brought into question.

With the complexity of this structure in both practice and theory it could be argued that a township has no sovereignty because the duties, rights, responsibilities, authorities, and powers exercised by the township are given by the state to the local municipality. However, because elected officials hold office it could be argued that the township exercises a level of co-sovereignty on behalf of the people of the township along with the county, state, and national governments. Because there is a large amount of inter-dependence in the functions and operations in these governmental tiers of administration, along with the necessity of maintaining general public support, the resolution of the tensions in these situations is difficult to predict.

Sovereignty is an issue of immense importance often used in political slogans and rarely discussed in the more serious manner and at the depth it should be for a greater public understanding in a participatory, representative, constitutional, democratic, federal, republic as is the United States. This is true at every level of governance. The complexity of the issue warrants continual review and renewal.

Reference List

Cambridge Dictionary (2022) "sovereign" accessed on 11 October 2022 at

Emerson, Richard (1962) Power-Dependence Relations. American Sociological Review, vol. 27, no. 1 (Feb., 1962), pp. 31-41.

Hague R, M Harrop & J McCormick (2016) Comparative Government and Politics: An Introduction. 10th Edition. London UK: Palgrave Macmillan.



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