The Significance of Federalism in the USA

Categories: Federalism

Federalism is a division of power between a central government and smaller regional government. Both levels of government share authority over their citizens. In the United States federalism can be seen in the distribution of powers between the federal government and state governments (Magleby, Light and Nemacheck, 2015).

This duality is mandated and protected by the United States Constitution.

The Framers of the Constitution recognized that the United States covered a vast area and consisted of a very diverse group of people.

Therefore, they needed state governments to have some control to adapt to the unique situations that may occur. Framers also knew that a division of power between the federal government and the states would keep the federal government from obtaining too much power, which could potentially be abused (Magleby, Light and Nemacheck, 2015). Additionally, the state and local governments were closer to the people, where local citizens could participate and interact with the government. This also provided a training ground for future national politicians, allowing them to gain experience before running for federal offices (Magleby, Light and Nemacheck, 2015). Lastly, federalism encouraged each state to experiment with policy and democracy, in what Justice Brandeis called “laboratories of democracy” (Magleby, Light and Nemacheck, 2015).

This concept of a “laboratories of democracy” refers to each state being able to implement different policies and legislation based on their unique problems, needs, desires and culture. Current United States Federal Judge Sutton writes, “Fifty imperfect solutions—each grounded in constitutional guarantees the States have chosen for themselves, crafted to meet the peculiar needs of each State, and implemented by accountable state officials—are almost certainly superior to one imperfect solution.

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(White, 2018). Furthermore, states can learn from one another about what policies are effective and which are not. Other states or even the nation can adopt successful legislation. Additionally, if policies are ineffective or have negative effects on citizens, these policies are limited to only impact one state instead of the entire nation (Gardener, 1996). However, it should be noted that states must still operate within the rules of their own Constitution and the United States Constitution. Additionally, despite the term experiment, it is not a methodical process where two ideas are tested against one another to see which is better. Instead legislation is experimental because it may be unclear what the consequences, especially unintended consequences may be (Gardener, 1996). There is a hope that legislation will solve a problem, improve life, better the economy or right a social wrong in the state but the actual result is unknown (Gardener, 1996).

Experimentation has been successful in many cases. Massachusetts was the first state to experiment with universal health care, something that has now been adapted at a national level. New York was the first to pass common core in education, with an emphasis own universal curriculum standards, something was eventually adapted by almost every state. Wisconsin pioneered Welfare to Work programs, which is now a national policy (Magleby, Light and Nemacheck, 2015).

Experimentation can go also very wrong. States over turn their own laws on a regular basis, especially those revolving around tax rates. Additionally, states can attempt to pass laws that impede the rights of a group of citizens due to cultural pressure from the population, despite this being forbidden by the Constitution. Examples of this are the Jim Crow laws in the south that established segregation or more recently, state bans on gay marriage (White, 2018). In these cases, laws were challenged through the judicial system and eventually overturned by the United States Supreme Court.

State experimentation continues to today. Oregon, Colorado, Arizona and other states are attempting to boost voter turnout by having the option to mail in ballots for elections. Four states have recently legalized marijuana. California has some of the strictest environmental protection laws (Greeve, 2001). States are experimenting with immigration policies on both ends of the spectrum. In these cases, each state is passing legislation based on the unique needs and wants of their people. States who are considering such legislation may wait and see the effectiveness of the legislation currently in use and may learn from their mistakes. Conversely, other states may not want these laws to be passed and are instead focused on other issues based upon their own needs and wants, allowing each state to adapt to their own micro culture.

As the “laboratories of democracy” examples show, federalism is not always positive. For example, it can be difficult to determine if the state or federal government is responsible for an issue. This may cause delays in responses to issues, problems or crises (Magleby, Light and Nemacheck, 2015). Division of power can also make it difficult to hold elected officials accountable, as again it can be unclear who is responsible or at fault for an issue. Layers of government can also cause redundancies, inefficiencies and inequalities, making government less productive and effective (Magleby, Light and Nemacheck, 2015). Lastly, the lack of uniformity in laws can create conflict between states or between states and the national government. This is especially true with social laws that may express very different views compared to other regions of the nation. The above examples of the Jim Crow laws and gay marriage bans are specific examples (Magleby, Light and Nemacheck, 2015). These both cause social unrest, protesting and in some cases violence.

Not all governments are federalist. In fact unitary systems of government are the most common. Under this system all governmental power resides at the national level. The national government can delegate power to smaller units as it sees fit and can also remove that delegated power at any time (Magleby, Light and Nemacheck, 2015). The United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, and China are examples of countries with unitary systems of government (Magleby, Light and Nemacheck, 2015). Unitary systems are more efficient and cut through some of the red tape. However, errors in policy impact the entire nation and can be devastating. Additionally, there is more potential for power to be abused in this type of system. This unfortunately happens frequently in Africa.

No governmental system is perfect. In fact the Framers of the Constitution were counting on this imperfection to keep tyranny and absolute power from occurring. Federalism is effective in the United States because we are diverse culture where each state has their own economy, culture, need and wants. By allowing each state to experiment with their own policies, states can learn from one another and chose legislation that best fits their micro culture. The Supreme Court can overrule laws that prohibit the rights of others, again keeping the balance of power in place.


  1. Gardener, J. (1996) The ‘States-as-Laboratories’ Metaphor in State Constitutional Law, Valparaiso Law Review, Vol 30, Number 2. Pages 475-491. Retrieved from:
  2. Greve, M. (2001, March 21) Laboratories of Democracy: Anatomy of a Metaphor. American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved from:
  3. Magleby, D., Light, P. and Nemacheck, C. (2015) Government by the People: 2014 Elections and Updates Edition. Boston, MA: Pearson.
  4. White, Adam (2018, June 8) Laboratories of Liberty. The Weekly Standard. Retrieved from:

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The Significance of Federalism in the USA. (2021, Apr 20). Retrieved from

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