What is Federalism?

The United States government practices federalism.
The United States government practices federalism.

Federalism is the sharing of government power between two entities. In the United States, federalism refers to the federal government and the state government. While the federal government make take care of certain elements of running the country, like foreign affairs and even mail service, the state government may be responsible for many other laws that affect everyday life, like gun licenses and certain industry regulations. Federalism is commonly practiced in large countries that have several smaller divisions of government. However, federalism may look different from country to country.

European federalism originated in post-World War II Europe. However, federalism has been an important part of the government structure of the United States since the time of its constitution.

Types of Federalism

The meaning of the term "federalism" depends on historical context.

Dual Federalism

Dual Federalism was practiced from the time of the founding of the United States of America up until the Second World War (specifically the signing of the "New Deal). Dual federalism is sometimes referred to as "layer-cake federalism". This is because the state government and federal governments shared mixed duties, where the roles of each branch of government are very defined. In dual federalism, the federal government had less power than the state government.

In dual federalism, some of the matters controlled by the federal government included:

  • International trade and tariffs
  • Upkeep of state roads

While some of the matters controlled by the state included:

  • Types of law (like family law, banking law, and property law)
  • Education
  • Public health
  • Criminal law

Duel Federalism

  • New Federalism, from around 1969 to present

Cooperative Federalism

Cooperative federalism was practiced from the end of the Second World War (1945) until the 1960s. In contrast with the "layer-cake" analogy of duel federalism, cooperative federalism is sometimes referred to as a "marble cake". This type of federalism is defined as a collaboration between federal and state level governments. Together, these two governments work together towards a common goal.

In the United States, the federal government can encourage a state government through what is called "grants in aid".

New Federalism

New federalism refers to the type of federalism that is practiced in most areas of the world in the modern day. It was popularized by former presidents like Nixon and Reagan. It is somewhat of a departure of the "marble cake" of cooperative federalism, as it involves some transfer of power back to the state level. One way in which power is being transferred back to the state includes through block grants, which is a type of government funding where the state has the freedom to decide where it is spent. In the past, the federal government allocated funds for a specific purpose.

Where is Federalism Practiced?

United States

Federalism in the United States was established as one of the provisions of the Tenth Amendment, drafted in 1791 when the country was gaining independence from Great Britain. However, before its adoption, the bill received resistance from the Anti-Federalism movement whose members rejected the creation of a powerful federal government. Federalism in the United States has continued to evolve since its first adoption.


While federalism was only officially adopted as law in Canada in 1982 as one of the provisions of the Canadian Bill of Rights and Freedoms, the system of government was conceptualized as early as 1864 during the Quebec Resolutions. The early leadership in Canada favored a unitary system of governance, but upon witnessing the American Civil War, they began the process to establish the current federal system. Canada is one of the few countries in the world who practices a federal monarchy where the jurisdiction of the Crown - the sole conveyor of sovereignty in the country - is devolved to all territories and provinces. There also exists 11 crowns which represent the ten jurisdictions present in the country; 10 represent the provinces while 1 represents the country as a whole. In a case where conflict arises between the federal government and the provincial governments, the federal government takes precedence if the constitution offers no solution.

European Union

While the European Union has numerous characteristics of a federation, the system in which the EU operates is a hybrid of supra-nationalism and intergovernmentalism and therefore is not a de jure federation. Some institutions developed by the European Union such as the European Court of Justice have precedence over all member states, a characteristic seen in most federal systems. However, the founders of the EU intended to create a unified European state as one of the solutions to prevent a repeat of the Second World War which was particularly caused by nationalism inspired by extreme ideologies.


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