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Contemporary American Federalism Essay

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Updated: May 4th, 2020


Federalism is defined as a system that is used to govern a single territory by using two levels of government; national or central government and state governments (Janda, Berry and Goldman 88; Schütze 4; Zimmerman 5; Bianco and Canon 83). The American federal system has a national government that governs all the states within the country and a second level of government where each state has its own sub-government. Both levels of government have the power to make and enforce laws with autonomy to each other.

The dual federalism theory, in practice between 1789 and 1901, held that both levels of government were equally powerful with the only distinction arising in their spheres of influence (Bianco and Canon 113; Zimmerman 9; Janda, Berry and Goldman 89). Cooperative federalism ideology came after dual federalism and picked in the early 1930’s to the late 1960’s (Schütze 124).

Cooperative federalism defined a system where both the national and state governments cooperated and their functions were often viewed to overlap (Bianco and Canon 115; Zimmerman 11; Janda, Berry and Goldman 90; Schütze 124; Krotoszynski 1598). This study seeks to examine dual and cooperative federalism systems. Moreover, it aims at identify the reasoning American founders had in establishing the federal system, as well as the system’s suitability to the United Sates.

Dual Federalism and Cooperative Federalism

Dual federalism is a system characterized by a national government that only governs by the rules that have been laid out in the constitution, national and state governments that are supreme in their allocated spheres and their cooperation is primary tense (Zimmerman 9). On the other hand, cooperative federalism is characterized by rational sharing of power between the central and state governments where their governmental functions are bound together and their spheres of influence are not clearly defined (Schütze 123-125).


Although Dual and Cooperative federalism were ideas that were distinctively practices over different periods in history, the two ideologies shared several similarities. The fundamental similarity the two approaches share is their recognition of two levels of government (Janda, Berry and Goldman, 135).

The need for a federal system of governance is paramount for both systems to exist and function. Both systems also recognize the attachment that people held to the existence of their own state governments (Janda, Berry and Goldman, 135). Both dual and cooperative federalism advocate for state governments that are independent of the central government.


Dual federalism is distinctly different from Cooperative federalism in several aspects. One difference between the two ideologies comes from their distinction of power and sphere of influence allocated to the national and state governments (Janda, Berry and Goldman 168). While Dual federalism clearly distinguishes the powers and the sphere of influence each of the two levels of government have, cooperative federalism does not. Another difference between the two ideologies is the sharing of responsibility and cooperation in solving problems.

Cooperative federalism creates a system where the central government share responsibilities and support each other, while dual federalism creates a tense system where each level of government is independent (Schütze 136). Some powers held by states government are equal to those held by the central government in a dual federalism system (Bianco and Canon 62). On the other hand, cooperative federalism focuses on cooperation between the central and state governments (Krotoszynski 1602).

Adoption of Federal System in the United States

The Adoption of a Federalism as the preferred system of governance in the United States began with the formation of the U.S constitution. In 1787, America’s founding fathers called on all state elected delegates to come together and select a governance model (Schütze 23; Zimmerman 18; Janda, Berry and Goldman 77). The leaders and delegates at the meeting rejected both the confederal and unitary model of governance and opted for the federalism system (Schütze 23; Zimmerman 18; Janda, Berry and Goldman 77).

The possible reason that confederalism was rejected is because citizens of the various states are not recognized as members of the nation since the individual states held all the power. On the other hand, in a unitary system, the national government holds all the power while state governments are only viewed as administrative centers that reported to the central government (Krotoszynski 1598). In addition, the unitary system does not guarantee the recognition of states within its structure (Zimmerman 19).

While the unitary and Confederate systems of governance were found to be unsuitable, the federalism model of governance was found to be appealing since it did not suffer from the shortcomings associated with other two systems. State governments ensure that the needs of the few within the state are not suppressed by the needs of the many (Janda, Berry and Goldman 111).

These very same governments also bring citizens closer to government and also offer a platform for the national government to experiment the viability of certain laws (Schütze 45). In addition, federalism creates a training ground for future national leaders through the numerous political positions available in state governments.


The federalist system that was selected by the founding fathers appears to be the most efficient system for governing the United States. This conclusion comes about due to two main reasons. Firstly, federalism offers each state a certain level of independence from the central government. Secondly, this system of governance if flexible (as indicated by the dual and cooperative federalism ideologies) and can thus be adjusted to overcome any shortcomings that may arise. The federalist system of governance offers equality and fairness across the board and should thus continue being applied in the U.S.

Works Cited

Bianco, William T and David T Canon. American Politics Today. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010. Print.

Janda, Kenneth, Berry J, Goldman J and Schildkraut D. The Challenge of Democracy: American Government in Global Politics. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2015. Print.

Krotoszynski, Ronald J. “Cooperative Federalism, the New Formalism, and the Separation of Power Revisited: Free Enterprise Fund and the Problem of Presidential Oversight of State-Government Officers Enforcing Federal Law.” Duke Law Journal 61.8 (2012): 1599-1669. Print.

Schütze, Robert. From Dual to Cooperative Federalism: The Changing Structure of European Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Zimmerman, Joseph F. Contemporary American Federalism: The Growth of National Power, Second Edition. New York: SUNY Press, 2009. Print.

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IvyPanda. "Contemporary American Federalism." May 4, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/contemporary-american-federalism/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Contemporary American Federalism." May 4, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/contemporary-american-federalism/.


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