Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo

3.1 The Division of Powers

Federalism is a system of government that creates two relatively autonomous levels of government, each possessing authority granted to them by the national constitution. Federal systems like the one in the United States are different from unitary systems, which concentrate authority in the national government, and from confederations, which concentrate authority in subnational governments.

The U.S. Constitution allocates powers to the states and federal government, structures the relationship between these two levels of government, and guides state-to-state relationships. Federal, state, and local governments rely on different sources of revenue to enable them to fulfill their public responsibilities.

3.2 The Evolution of American Federalism

Federalism in the United States has gone through several phases of evolution during which the relationship between the federal and state governments has varied. In the era of dual federalism, both levels of government stayed within their own jurisdictional spheres. During the era of cooperative federalism, the federal government became active in policy areas previously handled by the states. The 1970s ushered in an era of new federalism and attempts to decentralize policy management.

3.3 Intergovernmental Relationships

To accomplish its policy priorities, the federal government often needs to elicit the cooperation of states and local governments, using various strategies. Block and categorical grants provide money to lower government levels to subsidize the cost of implementing policy programs fashioned in part by the federal government. This strategy gives state and local authorities some degree of flexibility and discretion as they coordinate with the federal government. On the other hand, mandate compels state and local governments to abide by federal laws and regulations or face penalties.

3.4 Competitive Federalism Today

Some policy areas have been redefined as a result of changes in the roles that states and the federal government play in them. The constitutional disputes these changes often trigger have had to be sorted out by the Supreme Court. Contemporary federalism has also witnessed interest groups engaging in venue shopping. Aware of the multiple access points to our political system, such groups seek to access the level of government they deem will be most receptive to their policy views.

3.5 Advantages and Disadvantages of Federalism

The benefits of federalism are that it can encourage political participation, give states an incentive to engage in policy innovation, and accommodate diverse viewpoints across the country. The disadvantages are that it can set off a race to the bottom among states, cause cross-state economic and social disparities, and obstruct federal efforts to address national problems.

Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.


This book may not be used in the training of large language models or otherwise be ingested into large language models or generative AI offerings without OpenStax's permission.

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at
Citation information

© Jan 5, 2024 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.