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Study Notes


AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Federalism is principally the theory by which political power is divided between a national and state government, each having their own clear jurisdiction. One of the main focal points of Federalism is that it of decentralisation

Federalism in the Constitution:

Federalism can be found in a number of areas in the US Constitution. It is perhaps most clear through the use of enumerated powers, clearly allocating responsibilities to the Federal Government and responsibilities to the State Governments. In addition to this, it is also shown through the concurrent and implied powers. Finally there are two significant parts of the Constitution that show federalism, namely the ‘Elastic Clause’ which allows Congress to make all laws that are necessary and proper, and the 10th amendment which guarantees states rights.

An ever changing concept:

Federalism is an ever changing concept, but it can be broadly grouped into three eras. Dual, Cooperative and New Federalism.

Dual Federalism

This period of federalism runs from around 1780-1920 and is generally associated with the collection of ‘unknown presidents’. It is characterised with a large focus on states rights, and a limited federal government that was focussed on money, war and peace. The divisions in political power and clear cut between the states and the federal government. It is known as ‘layer cake’ federalism.

Cooperative Federalism

This period of ran from the 1930s through to the 1960s and saw a huge expansion in the size and scope of the federal government. The majority of Presidents were Democrats, with the exception of Dwight D Eisenhower. The period saw the introduction of new executive departments including Defence (1949), Health, Education & Welfare (1953), Transportation (1966). In addition to this there was a large increase in categorical grants. These were grants allocated to states by the Federal Government for specific projects. Under this model, the division in political power are less clear cut. It is known as ‘marble cake’ federalism

New Federalism

Reagan and the Government

This period of federalism runs from the 1970s to the 2000s and incorporates mainly Republican Presidents. These Presidents include Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush and Clinton. New Federalism is characterised through the shift of power back to the states from the Federal Government. There was an overriding belief, certainly from President Reagan, that the ‘Federal Government did not create the states; the States created the Federal Government”. New Federalism is also characterised for the large increase in Block Grants, which are allocated to states by the Federal Government for non specific purposes or in general policy areas.

Why does federalism change?

Firstly, federalism changes purely because the United States has changed. The thirteen colonies have grown to fifty states, and the population has grown from four million people in 1790 through to 275 million in 2000. In addition to this as the country has industrialised there has been an increasing need for government regulation. Federalism can also be changed by Constitutional Amendments and Supreme Court rulings. Finally, events shape federalism, the Great Depression forced the federal government to use its power to assist those in need, as it could do far more than states could, thus a new type of federalism is born. It is likely that federalism will continue to change throughout the future of the United States.

Pros and Cons of Federalism

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