In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Federalism in the United States

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews and Resources
  • Journals and Anthologies
  • Origins
  • The Founding Fathers
  • Fiscal Federalism
  • Diffusion and Experimentation
  • Democratic Values (Accountability, Participation, Representation)
  • Rights
  • Diversity and Minority Rights

Political Science Federalism in the United States
Troy Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0024


Federalism is one of America’s unique contributions to modern political systems. Generally, federalism refers to a political system that unites separate polities into an overarching political organization with protections to maintain the fundamental political integrity of each. This definition limits federalism to a specific governmental structure and emphasizes the state and sovereignty. Federalism is also understood as the institutionalization of relationships via a particular constitutional framework that facilitates autonomy, diversity, and equality among participants, in contrast to the subordinate relationships found in ordered, hierarchical, and centralized political structures and institutions. Federal structures commonly fragment authority and create overlapping jurisdictions to foster coordinative relationships. Federalism studies are interested in the causes and foundation of federal systems, what federal systems require to be self-reinforcing, how different units of government interact with each other and the public, and how federal institutions affect political outcomes, including fostering democratic values, diversity, and good policy.

Introductory Works

While modern federalism’s roots are found in the United States, understanding the basic concepts and ideas of federalism is often facilitated with a comparative focus; hence, a few of the following materials introduce federalism’s concepts, terms, and theories via a comparative perspective. A good place to begin one’s study of federalism is Elazar 2006. A more basic introduction, with a comparative approach and specific examples, is Anderson 2008. A video introduction to the basic ideas and elements of federal systems (in a series of ten lectures) is found in Exploring Federalism: The Kingston Session, which uses examples from many federal countries. More-scholarly introductions with references to the literature are found in Watts 1998, the broad investigation of federalism in Elazar 1987, and the Global Dialogue series, which includes books on a specific federal topic and a chapter in each book dedicated to the United States. Hooghe and Marks 2003 introduces readers to the different literatures on multilevel governance and presents an important distinction in federal systems that should be kept in mind as one works deeper into the study of federalism. Kincaid 1995 explains the values and benefits federalism facilitates and the values it neglects or impairs.

  • Anderson, George. Federalism: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    A small book providing a concise, jargon-free overview of federalism; emphasizes the main elements of federal governments and their likely outcomes. Good for practitioners and beginning students.

  • Elazar, Daniel J. Exploring Federalism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.

    Providing a broad, comparative perspective, Elazar explains how federalism’s fragmentation of power fosters democracy, liberty, and justice and why federalism is expanding. Elazar’s enthusiasm for federalism at times pushes the concepts of federalism to their extreme limits and fails to clearly assess federalism’s deficiencies. Good for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses with a strong comparative focus.

  • Elazar, Daniel J. “Federalism.” In Federalism in America: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Edited by Joseph R. Marbach, Ellis Katz, and Troy E. Smith, 223–242. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006.

    A very good general overview of federalism and its definition, major concepts, and components.

  • Exploring Federalism: The Kingston Session. The Forum of Federations.

    Ten online video lectures (lasting from 21–25 minutes) on introductory themes of federalism (including the division of powers, judiciary’s role in a federal union, intergovernmental relations, and fiscal federalism), based on a comparative focus. (Other valuable resources on federalism are available on this website.)

  • Global Dialogue series: Forum of Federations. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

    A series of nine books examining different themes of federal governance. Each chapter describes a different federal country, and each volume contains a chapter on the United States. Volumes are dedicated to such topics as the structure and institutions of federal states, the role of executive and legislative branches in federal states, intergovernmental relations, fiscal federalism, diversity, and more.

  • Hooghe, Liesbet, and Gary Marks. “Unraveling the Central State, but How? Types of Multi-Level Governance.” American Political Science Review 97.2 (2003): 233–243.

    Excellent review of various literatures on multilevel governance (international relations, European Union, federalism, local government, and public policy). Divides multilevel governance into two types and explains the advantages and costs of each type. Both types represent alternative responses to fundamental problems of coordination and reflect distinct conceptions of community.

  • Kincaid, John. “Values and Value Tradeoffs in Federalism.” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 25.2 (1995): 29–44.

    Describes the values and governing advantages that federal systems theoretically foster (e.g., peace, security, economic prosperity, democracy, liberty, innovation, efficiency, and efficacy), as well the challenges to creating a federal union and the values forgone when a country selects federalism.

  • Watts, Ronald L. “Federalism, Federal Political Systems, and Federations.” Annual Review of Political Science 1 (June 1998): 117–137.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.1.1.117

    Provides a good overview of the field of federalism and seeks to provide conceptual clarity between federalism and federation; reviews the extensive literature on the design and operation of federal systems.

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