What is Federalism?

Federalism is a way to structure a government so that power is divided between the national government and sub-ordinate (state) governments. Two power-centered models of federalism are nation-centered and state-centered.  Nation-centered federalism has been called permissive federalism, whereas, “there is a sharing of power and authority between the national and state governments, but the state’s share rests upon the permission and permissiveness of the national government” (Walker, 22). State-centered federalism does not subscribe to the notion that the national authority supersedes state’s power; rather, that duel federalism exists, or, that there are “separate, equal spheres or power…” (22).

The powers designated to national or state governments may be observed through the functions, or operations, of those governments.  Independent-competitive vs. independent collaborative models may be viewed via the administration and execution of public policies. Since the Framers of the Constitution articulated the intent of dual federalism, often national policy (pre-1933) was likened to a layer cake.  Here, an independent observer could see that taxation, for example, was operationally separate in the state and national spheres.

In the 1950s, people began to see American federalism as more of a marble cake, called cooperative federalism, because of “extensive intergovernmental collaboration in the form of Federal grants, services-in-aid…” (23). However, in the 1960s and 1970s, national policy became “geared toward achieving individual or group modification behavior” and thus, collaborative federalism was likened to “Controversial, confrontational, conflicting, even litigious” federalism (23, italics in original).  Thus, when viewed through public policy, state-centered federalism faded during recent decades to national-centered federalism.

Independent-collaborative dualism became independent-competitive federalism.

The Rebirth Of Federalism: Slouching Toward Washington, 2nd Edition by David B Walker  (Jul 26, 1999).


6 thoughts on “What is Federalism?

  1. Another way, perhaps to discuss federalism, is that the federal government may only have power that is granted to it by the Constitution. All other power not precisely granted to the federal government belongs to the states.

  2. And I wonder how many people have actually read the Constitution, and secondly, whether they think the Constitution applies today?

  3. to your 1st point, since the Great Depression, the Federal Government–with the help of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause and 14th Amendment–has become more involved in the people’s general welfare. “precisely granted” should read “necessary and proper”, which has radically expanded since the Great Depression. Perhaps most importantly, states don’t need to accept lots of federal stipulations, like the Obamacare expansion–so long as they chose not to take federal funding… this is why it’s “cooperation.” The states choose to take X-millions / billions of $$ from the federal government–and the states change their “state policy.”

  4. to your 2nd question–I think the Supreme Court makes the constitution apply to federal / state laws on a daily basis; either as constitutional or unconstitutional…so it’s “institutionalized” in our culture, regardless of how informed or uninformed the average Joe or JoAnn may be.

  5. Pingback: Poltical Scientists: “I’m American” | Political Pipeline

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