The term federalism is often confusing. You would think that federalism involves a system where the federal government has more influence and power, but it’s just the opposite. Federalism actually describes a system of government where some powers belong to the national government, and some powers belong to the state government.
Federal systems must have at least two levels of government. As you know, America has a federal government that consists of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches (headquartered in Washington, DC). That’s one level. The other level comes from the 50 state governments, each with their own powers and sovereignty.
The Founding Fathers adopted federalism in response to the problems with America’s first system of government, the Articles of Confederation. If you think back to your high school history class, you may remember the 13 original states created the Articles of Confederation as the United States’ first form of government. Under this system, the states remained sovereign and independent, and a newly created Congress served as a last resort to resolve disputes.
But the articles had some weaknesses. The biggest problem was Congress wasn’t strong enough to enforce laws or raise taxes. These flaws prompted the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There, delegates from the 13 states drafted the Constitution to address the problems with the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution created a stronger central government to oversee national issues while keeping most power in the states. This is a federalist style of government—and America’s system—where power is shared between the state, local, and national governments.
In the United States, the federal government has the power to regulate trade between states, declare war, manage the mail, and print money—among several other powers.
State governments have their own set of powers too. States generally oversee education, roads, drivers’ licenses, police departments, elections, and more. Notably, all power not granted to the federal government is reserved to the states and the people. The Founders intended the federal government’s powers to be limited. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison noted: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
And then there are shared powers, also known as concurrent powers. Both the federal and state governments have the power to tax and establish courts, for example.
A healthy federalist system is one in which citizens are active, informed participants who hold government officials accountable and push back when they overstep their powers. The recent challenges to Governors Cuomo and Newsom’s actions are an example of individuals and organizations demanding accountability. An example of state governments pushing back against overreach by the federal government can be seen with the recent federal vaccine mandates. When OSHA and other federal agencies issued mandates which attempted to usurp states’ acknowledged authority over public health, states pushed back, filing lawsuits that have been upheld by federal courts.
The American colonists fought the American Revolution because they wanted to break free from the tyrannical government led by England’s King George III. After winning the war in 1781, the new American citizens were very hesitant to create a powerful, centralized government. That’s why they created the Articles of Confederation. But the Articles were too weak and gave states too much power. Federalism was a compromise. It’s the idea that government authority rests in both the national and state governments. It’s why you are a citizen of both your state and the United States!
One benefit of federalism is it creates “laboratories of democracy” across the country. This means states are free to try different policies and see what works best for their populations. A good policy in Wyoming, for example, might not be the most effective policy for a bigger state such as California. Federalism allows states to adopt policies that best fit their needs.
Another benefit of federalism is it protects the American people from tyranny. Because power isn’t concentrated at one level—or within one branch of government—it’s difficult for one branch to take control of the others.
Yes. Besides the United States, 30 other countries use federalist systems for their governments. These countries include India, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, and Brazil.
There you have it. A very brief overview of what federalism is and how it works. If you’re interested in learning more about this form of government, these resources may interest you:
Bill of Rights Institute
What is Federalism?
History on the Net
When the Founding Fathers Settled States’ vs. Federal Rights—And Saved the Nation
What is Federalism?
US Law Essentials
Federalism is a Condition for Better States
American Enterprise Institute
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