There are different types of Federalism.

The Difference Between Federalists and Federalism and the Different Types of Federalism

The term Federalism can be confusing due to its varied uses over time, however, generally speaking:

Federalism describes a union of entities under a central government, and the different types of Federalism denote how power sharing works.[1][2][3]

For example Dual Federalism (Big Government Federalism) is the idea that the union and the state share power but the Federal Government holds more than the individual states, and Cooperative Federalism (Small Government States’ Rights Federalism) is the idea that the federal government and the state government share power equally.

Likewise, a Confederation typically describes a union of States (or other self-governing bodies) that cooperate. Although any type Union in which states or other entities retain power can be described as a Confederation, given American history, we typically would consider a confederacy to have a weak central power or no central power. It denotes a “very small central government focused on states’ rights”.

With that said, many complex types exist and some also deal with other forces like local governments and the branches of government.

The problem with a simple definition of federalism is that ever since 1776 the term Federalism has been used politically by divisive factions to describe both the original Union of States (the Confederation of States favored by the Anti-Federalist) and the idea of creating a more perfect Union (via the Constitution, favored by the Federalists).

Like the original parties, the term Federalism arose from an debate about dropping the Articles of Confederation for the Constitution. See Madison and drafting the Constitution.

TIP: There are different attributes of a governing body that define its type. Power source describes if it is a monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, and power structure describes whether it includes a federation or not. The United States is a Federal Republic (a federation of states with a mixed power source). Learn more about the types of governments.

CYNICAL MUSING: In other words, what a surprise, the term at the heart of America is a term that describes the argument over big government and states’ rights small government. 😀

TIP: Federalism, Federalist, Federal, and other similar terms all have specific meanings that shouldn’t be confused with each other. They are all related in denoting stances on the Federal Government (the government that governs the states), but each has specific meaning.

What Does the Term Federalism Mean?

Now that we have the basics covered, lets look at more definitions and the history of the term Federalism.

While Federalism generally describes “a union of states with a central government”, its usage almost always depends on context and subtexts as it has meant different things over the ages (often at least two different things in any era). The same is also somewhat true for the related terms of Federal and Federalist, so lets look at a bit of history and then we’ll discuss the types.

The History of the Term Federalism

Federalism is a term that began in popular usage when used by the Federalists.

The Federalists were America’s first political party, they are well symbolized by Northern socially liberal elite (like Alexander Hamilton) who favored a strong central government over a confederation of states.

Thomas Jefferson, an anti-Federalist was annoyed that Hamilton corrupted the meaning of the word. He thought of Federalism as being about States’ Rights.

So right off the bat we have a semantics problem. In both cases Federalism is talking about a Union of states, but the Anti-Federalist version sees it as a confederation and the Federalist as a more centralized power with a Federal Government.

In other words, the term isn’t just confused today, but was in its inception (when it was likely derived from the term Confederation; an old term that describes a Union of states).

With that history lesson in mind, below are some more definitions of terms.

Definitions for Federal, Federalist, and Federalism

Federal denotes the central government.

Federalist means supporting a central Federal Government and Federalism in 1776.

Anti-Federalist means support a looser confederation of states in 1776 (they still call it Federalism).

Federalism means a government with a confederation of states under some sort of Federal government.

Federation or Confederation means a union of states (or other entities). Federation implies a stronger central governing body than confederation, but they both essentially mean the same thing (a union of entities).

FUN FACTThe United Federation of Planets describes a [fictional as far as we know] form of interplanetary federalism in which sovereign planets coordinate via a central governing body.

The Basic Types of Federalism

Dual Federalism (Big Government Federalism) is the idea that the union and the state share power but the Federal Government holds more than the individual states. This is currently how the U.S. system works, and this is what the Federalists wanted far more than the Anti-Federalists (although they both generally agreed on dual federalism).

Cooperative Federalism (Small Government States’ Rights Federalism) is the idea that the federal government and the state government share power equally.

A Confederation is a union of states (or other entities), typically implying a loose confederation of separate cooperating self-governing bodies (a Small Government States’ Rights sort of Federalism with less central power than cooperative Federalism).

Notes on the Other Types of Federalism

All the other types of federalism, anything that isn’t purely a statement on how much power a central government should have with the general answers being “less, more, or equal” really is a mixed type.

he mixed types are useful to understand, but they can become frustrating when they start to appropriate the original meaning of the term for ideological political purposes.

Since Federalism is at the heart of the foundation of our country, and since we know we didn’t agree on its meaning then, it seems silly to twist the word around to make it seem to fit a modern political view.

With those asides said, below are other types of federalism that have some valid logic behind them despite the fact they are just mixes of the above forms.

The Complex Types of Federalism

Creative Federalism (AKA Marble Cake or Layer Cake Federalism) means shifting power towards the federal government by bypassing state governments and allowing the federal government to have direct control over statewide programs. This “picket-fence federalism” comes from Eisenhower’s time but was most prevalent during the terms of Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society. This made each state’s government weaker, and we wonder why the South Switched?

New Federalism describes what I was complaining about above. It starts with Reagan, with more power given to the states (where anything not stated in the constitution is a reserved power for the states). Then the Bush administration uses the term to justify a stronger federal government in terms of things like the NSA and Iraq war, but otherwise favors states. Thus, new federalism isn’t just about states’ rights and block grants for “competitive or cooperative federalism”, or “marble cake federalism” for power sharing, and it isn’t just about police and military state polices, instead it is like this picky-choosey thing where we try to mash up the above forms (which makes sense given its chronological place in history).[4]

In other words, Federalism is just the idea that the Union of states is held together by a central government and that both the government and the states have rights. Whether it is the LBJ, Reagan, Bush, or Obama administrations or parties tweaking the meaning is an aside. Federalism isn’t political it is governmental at its core, it has just been used politically since 1776, and this has resulted in a large host of definitions and types.

OPINION: Generally, given all the above, we can say that the “correct” position is a type of New Federalism / Marble Cake Federalism where there is mixing of powers, resources, and programs between and among the national, state, and local governments in an effort to maximize individual liberty and equality, local and state-based sovereignty, and the effectiveness of the central government, without inhibiting the individual, local regions, businesses, states, or the federal branches. In other words, the ideal type of federalism is, in my opinion, one that respects the separation of powers and enlightened principles upon which the country was founded, taking into account the complexities of the modern era, not just the one that ideologically pleases this faction or that one (for example, we know some want “total states’ rights”, but we have a legacy system to deal with here, I don’t see how ideological absolutist position are going to cut it in the modern day). But like, that is my opinion based on the facts about the two most recent forms of Federalism in-action and American history.

For more reading, here are a few smart sources on federalism which explain what I do above in more detail: The Federalist Structure of U.S. GovernmentDifferent Types of Federalism, and Types of Federalism.

Also considerSeparatism describes a small decentralized power with no nation, and unionism describes any form of Union between nations and states. Unionism can lead to non-self-governing states, but it doesn’t specifically denote a lack of sovereignty. The U.S. is a hybrid of Federalism and Unionism. Ex. A Federation of states may form a Union under a central government.

TIP: We can also denote other types like Judicial types and Permissive type (where state and local governments seek permission). Like types of political ideologies we can make a complex mix out of a simple left-right split… and that only gets frustrating when politicians start twisting the words for pure politics (true for any term). We should take care not to conflate the classical meanings of things with modern expedient linguistics.

Understanding the Modern Usage of the Term Federalist and “New Federalism”

Frank Luntz, and other modern Anti-Federalists (small government Americans), like to make the term Federalism about States’ Rights to fit their modern right-wing agenda, and this isn’t fully incorrect. For example the famous GOP strategist says, when talking about Americans and States’ Rights sentiment:

This isn’t an academic exercise or an ideological appeal for “federalism.” (Note to reader: Federalism is about taking power away from Washington. Many Americans think exactly the opposite.) It’s not about smaller or more limited government. Almost no one I interview cares about the size of government as much as the efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of government. Americans want to empower states and governors to take a more active role in that governance because they’ve given up on Washington – Trump or no Trump. – See Frank Luntz: Americans Trust Their Own States But Not Washington.

Luntz makes a good point, when they say Federalism they are talking about the idea that Federalism is to the left of a purely centralized government. It isn’t about limiting government or making it smaller, it is about decentralizing it and putting States’ Rights in states’ hands.

My problem isn’t with Luntz (I admire smart people, even when they don’t share my politics) or the general argument.

My problem (in respect to using the term) is with his clients, namely the Democratic Party’s old dear southern allies who want to use States’ Rights to tell us what sort of plant we can put in our pipe and which we can’t (no free person should be shackled in a for-profit prison system, public or private, by moral police, state or federal. Taking one’s liberty over a plant and then profiting off of them is only a semantic argument away from chattel slavery).

In other words, my problem is with using New Federalism to allow states to ban some things and the federal government to ban others to fit a politically ideological agenda. We must apply the same logic to a trans kid from choosing their own bathroom as we do to the liberty of a state to make a plant legal. Form that point we can have additional moral and principled arguments, we can’t just let Federalism as a blanket term usurp the argument.

When you call the above Federalism, when the term fits an ideological political viewpoint instead of a principle, that is when there is a problem.

Of course, this debate is one of liberty, right, the spirit of the laws, and our republic. It is an issue of democracy. It is an issue we call Federalism, and that issue is at the heart of our American Republic.


Despite the complexity it is as simple as this: One type of federalism favors decentralized government and one favors a central government. All other types are mixed. Typically we are talking about States’ Rights vs. Federal Power, but the relation can work in so many ways and can also denote branches, so the conversation that arises can get complex.

All that said, be we talking about parties, policy, or government in-action, no political term is more at the heart of America than Federalism (except maybe Democracy and Republic and liberalism).


  1. The Federalist Structure of U.S. Government
  2. The Federalist Structure of U.S. Government
  3. Types of Federalism
  4. Different Types of Federalism

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