The Evolution of American Federalism: 1937-Present

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  • 0:55 Dual Federalism
  • 2:12 Cooperative Federalism
  • 2:57 Creative Federalism
  • 3:38 New Federalism
  • 6:00 Progressive Federalism
  • 7:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Federalism is written into the United States Constitution, but it hasn't always worked the same way. It has evolved over the course of American history. This lesson takes a look at the evolution of federalism from the Great Depression to today.

Dual Federalism

Think of a game of tug-of-war. The state governments are on one side, and the federal government is on the other. The rope pulls back and forth during the game. At times, one side seems to be winning, but then the rope pulls back in the other direction. It's a battle of wills!

The framers of the United States Constitution based our federal government on federalism. Federalism is a division of power between the federal government and the individual state governments. Though we still use federalism today, it's not exactly what it was when the Constitution was first enacted. Federalism has evolved over the course of American history. Some important events have shaped the balance between the national and state governments so that federalism best suits the needs of the country at that time.

Our first system of federalism was dual federalism, which means that the states have their responsibilities and the national government has its responsibilities. This is largely based on the Tenth Amendment, which states that all powers not constitutionally given to the federal government are reserved to the states.

Using dual federalism, each government entity has responsibility for those matters that are best addressed at that level of government. For example, the states handle most things themselves, but the federal government handles items like our national defense and interstate commerce. Because the powers rarely overlapped, dual federalism is also known as 'layer cake' federalism.

Dual federalism was used in this country for a long time. However, by the 1930s, 'layer cake' federalism began to morph into 'marble cake' federalism. In the 1930s, the New Deal brought new federal legislation implementing several programs and policies geared toward reviving the economy. In response to the Great Depression, the federal government was regulating areas it hadn't previously regulated.

Cooperative Federalism

By 1945, the U.S. used a system of federalism known as cooperative federalism. In cooperative federalism, federal and state government responsibilities are intertwined.

Think of cooperative federalism as a true, marbled cake, or a tied game in a tug-of-war. It's difficult to tell where one government's power ends and the other begins. The federal government and state governments cooperate, or work together, to provide services. For example, state governments often administer federal programs, and states often depend on federal grants to support state government programs.

State governments eventually became dependent on the federal government in order to administer many of their programs, like housing and transportation. This led to a subset of cooperative federalism known as creative federalism. Creative federalism favors the federal government by creating a dependency on the federal government. Because the states depended on federal financial grants, creative federalism weakened state powers and strengthened federal powers. In other words, the federal government was winning the tug-of-war. This type of federalism was used through the end of the 1960s.

New Federalism

In the 1970s, the U.S. moved toward new federalism. New federalism allows the states to reclaim some power while recognizing the federal government as the highest governmental power. It's a response to the argument that the federal government grew too powerful and overshadowed many of the responsibilities originally reserved to the states.

New federalism is based on the political philosophy of devolution. Devolution is the transfer of certain powers from the federal government to the states. Devolution allowed the tug-of-war game to shift back toward the states.

President Richard Nixon was the first U.S. president to openly support new federalism. Nixon served as president from 1969 to 1974, as new federalism first took root. However, new federalism is mostly associated with President Ronald Reagan's years, from 1981 to 1989.

Reagan thought federal grants were improperly used to impose the interests of the federal government on the individual states. With new federalism, the federal government provides large block grants, or blocks of money, to the states to be used for social programs. Unlike in previous years, the states have broad discretion to implement the programs as they best see fit. The federal government mostly only monitors the progress and outcomes of the projects.

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