Federalism: Why & How, Part 1 of 4


Many Americans feel distrustful of people who are not like them, and many do not trust our system of government to serve them well.  There is much debate in this regard whether the federal character of our system is a help or a hindrance. 

The purpose of this short course is to provide you with a brief introduction to some key aspects of federalism in the United States and how they interact with the quality of our politics.  Federalism is a large, complex topic.  Many specific issues such as elections administration, education, or health care are not covered here.  Instead, th­is short­ course touches only on aspects likely to be relevant to readers who want to better understand the general nature and value of our federal system in the context of our politically charged circumstances.  

The course is arranged in four parts. Part 1 provides a short definition of federalism and its alternatives.  Part 2 explains why and how the framers created our federal system of government.  They had to do a lot of inventive thinking to get past some fundamental issues of distrust between various state leaders. Part 3 explains how and why the system changed over time. Part 4 provides some modern perspectives on the pros and cons of various forms of American federalism related to our opportunities to be heard, opportunities to compete, accountability, fairness, tyranny, trust, and political polarization.

Three fundamental conclusions are advanced: (1) federalism is important because it touches our lives in many ways; (2) federalism by itself does not guarantee political freedom, fairness, or good quality of life; and (3) much depends on the quality of people we elect to our state and federal offices and what we ask of them.

Portions of this short course are drawn from the following sources: Rozell, M. & Wilcox, C. (2019). Federalism: A very short introduction, Oxford University Press; Kincaid, J. (2017). The eclipse of dual federalism by one-way cooperative federalism; the Encyclopedia of Federalism; and the Congressional Research Service. If this short course increases your appetite to learn more, these are good places to start.  A historical timeline of events related to American federalism is available from the Center for the Study of Federalism.   The links and end notes contain extra information, including references to other useful books and journal articles.

Part 1: What is Federalism?

When the framers drafted our national Constitution in 1787, their use of federalism made republican government possible on a scale large enough to include each of the states.  Until then, there were two main ways of governing territories.  A unitary system consolidates all sovereign powers into one central government. In such systems, some powers can be devolved to lower regional layers of administration, but each is responsible to the layer above it, and all are ultimately responsible to the one central government.  Great Britain is an example of a unitary system.[i]  The other form of government is a confederation where all power originates in the individual provinces or states and where a weak central government has only those powers the states explicitly delegate to it. The thirteen colonies established such a confederation after the War of Independence and fairly quickly replaced it with the federal system we have today.

In contrast to the unitary and confederation models, U.S. federalism divides and shares powers between the federal government and the states.  Each state has all powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government or reserved to the people.    

Because of this arrangement, the states play vital roles in our lives: elections, state courts, policing, immigration, business regulation, environmental regulation, education, healthcare, roads, land-use policies (zoning), and even creating local governments! Most of the world’s 197 recognized governments are unitary. At least 25 countries have federal systems.  Among these are Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, the United States of America, and Venezuela.[ii]  Together, these countries are home to 43 percent of the world’s population.

© Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy

July 2021

This booklet is to be used only for civic education.

It may be copied and distributed only for non-profit, non-partisan, educational purposes and only with proper credit to the Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

Written by Peter Alexander and Douglas Addison
for the Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

Principle Reviewers:

John Kincaid, Robert B. and Helen S. Meyner Professor of Government and Public Service,
Director of the Meyner Center for the Study of State and Local Government,
President of the Center for the Study of Federalism
Lafayette College

Mark J. Rozell, Dean and Ruth D. and John T. Hazel Chair in Public Policy,
Schar School of Policy and Government,
George Mason University

Internal Reviewers:

Cheryl Cook-Kallio, Review Board

Mark Molli, Advisory Board

The reviewers are not responsible for any errors of omission or commission.

CFFAD is a non-profit organization providing non-partisan civic education.

Cover image: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics & Statistics Admin., U.S. Census Bureau


[i] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalism_in_the_United_Kingdom

[ii] See http://www.forumfed.org/countries/

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