Federalism: Basic Structure of Government

A series of postcards from different states, with the slogan

Figure 1. Your first encounter with differences across states may have come from a childhood experience—perhaps visiting relatives in another state or on a cross-country trip during summer vacation. The distinct postcard images of different states are symbolic of American federalism. (credit: modification of work by Boston Public Library)

Part of the discussion at the Constitutional Convention focused on basic governmental structures. The Declaration of Independence rejected the experience of unitary (highly centralized) government under a king.  The Articles of Confederation promoted a confederation of the states (decentralized power with a weak central government–committee style). As previously discussed, this was not as successful as the delegates hoped.  Would a third option deliver positive results? A federal system (strong central government balanced with strong independent states) could be the answer.

The real key to the American federal system is a balance of horizontal and vertical separation of power. The federal design divides powers between multiple vertical layers or levels of government—national, state, county, parish, local, special district–allowing for multiple access points for citizens.  The governments at each level check and balance one another. As an institutional design, federalism both safeguards state interests and creates a strong union led by a capable central government.

At each level of the US federal structure, power is further divided horizontally by branches–legislative, executive, judicial.

GOVT 2305 Student Resource Federal Structure of Government Chart

American federalism seeks to balance decentralization and centralization forces. We see decentralization when we cross state lines and encounter different taxation levels, welfare eligibility requirements, and voting regulations. Centralization is apparent with the federal government’s unique authority to print money or to offer money grants and mandates to shape state actions. State border crossings may greet us with colorful billboards, but behind them lies a complex federal design that has structured relationships between states and the national government since the late 1700s.

Federalism: Questions to Consider

  1. What are the central differences between unitary, confederation, and federal governmental structures?
  2. Is national government power too centralized in the US federal structure?

Terms to Remember

centralization–power is concentrated at one horizontal level of government; for example, states are not permitted to make treaties with foreign governments or coin their own money

confederation–decentralized governmental power; group of separate entities share power

decentralization–power is divided or shared between vertical levels of government

federal–balance of power between centralized national authority and decentralized state and local authority

unitary–highly centralized governmental authority; centralized power with national government