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.
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:
A Basic Introduction to Federalism
In America we have 50 states, each with its own Republican Government.
The idea that each state can have unique laws and customs, while at the same time sharing laws, customs, and currency, is at the heart of Federalism.
Federalism describes how governing power is shared between a central government (or “federal” government) and regional governments (provincial, state, cantonal, territorial or other sub-unit governments) in a single political system.
Federalism allows for a Union of diverse regional interests to be bound under a single social contract (in our case, the Constitution).
With that in mind, the different types of federalism simply describe the different ways power sharing can work between states (or other entities) and a central (“federal”) government.
TIP: Federalism (the way power sharing works and a concept of political philosophy), Federalist (a member of the Federalist party or a supporter of Federalism in general; often implying the favoring of a central government), Federal (a term that describes a central government; like the U.S. Federal Government), Federation (a federalist system of entities; like the U.S. or NATO), a Federal Republic (a state in which the powers of the central government are restricted and in which the component parts, states, colonies, or provinces, retain a degree of self-government; ultimate sovereign power rests with the voters who chose their governmental representatives) and other similar terms all have specific meanings. They are all related in denoting stances on the Federal Government (the government that governs the states) and the power sharing relationship between entities. Each term is generally related to the concept of federalism, but each has a specific meaning (especially in history when considering Federalists and Anti-Federalists…. who are, somewhat confusingly, all Democrats, Republicans, and Federalists, classically speaking, despite their different positions on each ideology).
Federalism as Degrees Between Separatism and Unionism, and Federalism as Power Sharing in Terms of Power Structure
We’ll discuss the different types of federalism (including confederalism) below.
TIP: The attributes of a governing body define its type. The Power source will tell you if it is a monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, and the power structure will tell about “powering sharing” and denote whether the government 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.
NOTE: We also have some degree of “devolution” in the U.S. (which is a a degree away from federalism, D.C. is a “devolved government”; it is separate from any state and has its own elected government). Likewise, the U.S. is part of international organizations like NATO.
TIP: When the Confederates tried to secede en-masse, they were trying to ensure a Southern Confederation. However, when Texas, California, or another state talks of secession, they are talking of “separatism” (breaking away as a single “small separate state”. Brexit is a “separatist” movement.
Examples of Different Types of Federalism
The following types of Federalism work well to illustrate the general differences between the many different types of Federalism:
- Dual Federalism (Big Government Federalism) is the idea that the union and states share power, but that a central Federal Government holds more power than the individual states. This is a more classically conservative form that can ensure cohesive policy between states due to the fact that it can dictate state policy to some extent.
- Cooperative Federalism (Small Government “States’ Rights” Federalism) is the idea that the federal government and the state government share power equally. This is a more classically liberal form that allows for a wide range of differences between states. This form generally sacrifices some classical conservative central control for “states’ rights” (as the federal government can’t fully dictate policy, states have more flexibility to write their own rules).
- A Confederation (Confederalism) typically, at least in more modern times (when not used as a synonym for a federation, as it often was in history), describes a union of States (or other self-governing bodies) that cooperate, but are only loosely beholden to a central government. Or, according to the CIA, “a union by compact or treaty between states, provinces, or territories, that creates a central government with limited powers.” In other words, if we consider a confederation to be a looser union of entities (like cooperative federalism) and a federation to be a union with a more prominent central government (like dual federalism), then we can see confederalism as a very classically liberal solution to unionism with a focus on states’ rights over central government. NOTE: To be clear, Although any type Union in which states or other entities retain power can be described as a Confederation (as it often was in history), given American history specifically, we typically would consider a confederacy to have a weak central power or no central power. It denotes “very small central government states’ rights focused federalism.”
With the above said, many complex types of federalism exist, and some also deal with other forces like local governments and the branches of government (any sort of power sharing between governing entities, from the branches of government to the relationships of NATO and the EU, can be described as in terms of “federalism”).
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). This has led to the problem of finding a simple definition of Federalism.
Like the original parties, the term Federalism arose from a debate about dropping the Articles of Confederation for the Constitution. See Madison and drafting the Constitution.
TIP: I use the term “true Federalism” on this site. What I mean is “a sort of reasonable marble cake/layer cake mix” (a left-right mix so to speak), implied by the enlightened philosophers, where States’ Rights is used to respect different climates and cultures. This type of true federalism is what allows for a Mormon Community, an Amish one, one that is more progressive, and one that is more conservative (with 50 shades in-between). It, however, does not denote the use of federalism as a tool for political gain and oppression. I think of this as “false federalism,” which is to federalism what “false equality” is to the idea of equality. States’ Rights Federalism wouldn’t include using “States’ Rights” to strip people of rights and liberties based on color or faith. True States’ Rights federalism is about maximizing liberties and rights and respecting different “states of being.” This may seem confusing, but thinking critically and using reason can’t lead to many other answers.
CYNICAL MUSING: Is it any surprise that a term at the heart of American politics describes the argument over “big government” and “states’ rights small government”? I think not. Consider past party names like Federalists and Anti-Federalists, the difference between the Anti-Federalist favored Articles of Confederation and the Federalist favored Constitution, and the relation to the current major party names Democrats and Republicans.
What Does the Term Federalism Mean?
Now that we have the basics covered let’s look at more definitions and the history of the term Federalism.
While Federalism describes “a union of states with a central government,” its usage almost always depends on context and subtexts as the term has had varied meanings. In fact, it often had at least two different meanings in any era. The same is also true for the related terms of Federal and Federalist, so let’s 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 represented by the 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, the term “Federalism” refers to a Union of states. However, the Anti-Federalist version sees it as a Confederation, and the Federalist group sees it as a more of a 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 a 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 FACT: The 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 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.
The 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.
Below are other types of federalism that have valid logic behind them despite the fact they are all combinations 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 starts with Reagan, with more power given to the states for anything not stated in the constitution is seen as a reserved power for the states. The Bush administration used the term to justify a stronger federal government in terms of things like the NSA and Iraq war, but otherwise, favored 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 policies. Instead, it is a mixture of the above forms, which makes sense given its chronological place in history.
In other words, Federalism describes the idea that the Union of States is held together by a central government and that both the government and the states have rights. Federalism isn’t political; it is governmental at its core. It has been used politically since 1776, and this has resulted in a host of definitions and types.
OPINION: It is said that the “correct” position is a type of New Federalism/Marble Cake Federalism in which powers, resources, and programs are mixed between and among the national, state, and local governments. The aim is to maximize individual liberty and equality, retain local and state-based sovereignty, and the improve the effectiveness of the central government. This needs to be accomplished 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 and takes into account the complexities of the modern era. Federalism should not ideologically please one faction or another. For example, we know some want “total states’ rights,” but we have a legacy system to deal with. I don’t see how ideological absolutist positions are going to be widely acceptable in the modern day. The above is my opinion based on the facts about the two most recent forms of Federalism in 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. Government, Different Types of Federalism, and Types of Federalism.
Also consider: Separatism 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 see 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. That gets frustrating when politicians start twisting the words for politics. This is 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 people refer to 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 the states’ hands.
My problem isn’t with Luntz or his argument. I admire smart people, even when they don’t share my politics.
My problem (in respect to using the term) is with his clients, namely the Democratic Party’s old 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 state or federal police. Taking one’s liberty away over a plant and then profiting off of them is only a semantic argument away from chattel slavery.
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 transgendered individual choosing their own bathroom as we do to the liberty of a state to make a plant legal. From that point forward, we can have additional arguments; we can’t just let Federalism as a blanket term usurp the argument.
A problem arises when you call the above Federalism, and when the term fits an ideological, political viewpoint instead of a principle.
Of course, this debate is one of liberty, rights, the spirit of our laws, and our republic. It is an issue of democracy. We call the issue Federalism, and it is at the heart of our American Republic.