Federalism is the American political system’s arrangement of powers and responsibilities among national, state, and local governments. While the general principle of divided power under federalism is fairly easy to grasp, in practice the commitment to this sort of “sovereignty sharing” has become far more complex over time. During the early years of the republic, the clear divisions of authority between the levels of government gradually evolved into a more interconnected and cooperative reality—a reality that also includes ongoing conflict and competition as the nation grapples with policy challenges the framers of our system didn’t anticipate.
In this modern context the national government has accumulated far more power than was originally designed into the system, mostly because of continuing attempts to deal with the consequences of industrialization, as well as increased efforts to defend civil rights and liberties. Big-ticket political controversies of the day have focused attention on debates over the proper arrangement and location of governing power. Republicans—especially since the 1970s—tend to be associated with calls to “devolve” power back toward the states in the name of democracy, however problematic that may be in a post-industrial era characterized by concentrated private power. Meanwhile, Democrats are often more comfortable moving authoritative decisions up the ladder to the federal level. Of course we need to be careful with these generalizations since, as we have seen, they tend to break down from time to time depending on the issue at hand. It’s complicated!