Federalism & Polarization

The growing use of federal grants-in-aid to the states can contribute to our political polarization by affecting the stakes of winning and losing control of the federal government.1  The states are gradually accepting a greater share of revenues from federal grants-in-aid. According to calculations from the Pew Charitable Trusts, federal grants as a share of state government revenues increased from 26 percent in 1967 to 32 percent in 2017.2  Thirty-six states had shares of 30 percent or more in 2017.3 

Such high shares raise the stakes of winning and losing party control over Congress and the Office of the President.  Some federalism experts argue that those stakes contribute to our political polarization because the coercive elements of federalism often require all states to implement national policies such as abortion, gun rights, or education in the same way, regardless of local preferences.4

The bottom line is that federalism by itself cannot guarantee political freedom, fairness, or a good quality of life.  Much depends upon the mix of dualism, cooperative, coercive, and competitive elements of federalism in everyday use. (If you missed out on what those things are, you can learn here.) The outcome strongly depends on the quality of people we elect to our state and federal offices and what we ask from them.

This post concludes Federalism: Why & How.  If you have been following along for the last many weeks, you now have an understanding of federalism and its alternatives, why the framers invented American federalism, how they set it up, how it changed over time, and some of federalism’s pros and cons.

If you haven’t been following this topic until now, you can always catch up here.

1. Kincaid, 2017, p. 1089.

2. See https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2018/07/24/federal-share-of-state-revenue-rises-for-third-year  and  https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/data-visualizations/2014/fiscal-50#ind1

3. The smallest share was 20.7 percent (Hawai’i).  The largest share was 46.1 percent (Montana).

4. Kincaid, 2017, p. 1089.

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