Steve Chapman

No issue in recent years has polarized Americans as much as Obamacare. It produced a party-line vote in Congress, a near-fatal court battle, a revolt by states that refused to run exchanges or expand Medicaid, dozens of House votes to repeal it and, now, a bungled launch that could be its undoing. It's a barroom brawl that never ends.

Barack Obama's health care plan hit nerves that are still radiating pain among many people. But being a federal program, it couldn't accommodate the many Americans who want a different approach. It's a zero-sum game. One side has to win, and the other has to lose. It didn't have to be that way. Why is same-sex marriage, which was once politically preposterous, faring so much better than health care reform? Why has liberalization of marijuana laws happened without provoking threats of secession? One simple reason: Those changes have taken place at the state level -- and only in states that chose them.

They're the product of an ingenious but often unappreciated ingredient of our system of government: federalism. In a nation with 317 million people spanning a continent, there are great differences in culture, politics, religion and barbecue. What allows us to be united states rather than warring ones is that on many things, we can agree to disagree.

Just because Vermont and New Hampshire are the Mary-Kate and Ashley of states doesn't mean they want the same things. One has a state income tax, and one never will. The people of Maryland wouldn't want to live under the laws that suit Mississippians, and vice versa. Decentralization allows peaceful coexistence.

State prerogatives have long been a cause of conservatives, but some liberals have come to prize them as well. Oregon successfully fought off a federal court challenge to its law allowing doctors to prescribe medicines for patients who want to end their lives. If legalization of marijuana had to win the approval of Congress, Coloradans would still be waiting for it.

Federalism is equally suited to the right and the left. Gun-rights advocates can have their way in Texas, while gun-control supporters can prevail in California. Laws allowing the carrying of concealed handguns gained attention when Florida passed one in 1987, which soon spread. But some states, like New York, exercise considerable discretion over who gets a permit.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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