What is Dual Federalism? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Federalism
  • 0:50 Dual Federalism
  • 1:46 Problems with Dual Federalism
  • 3:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Mark Pearcy

Mark has a Ph.D in Social Science Education

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

A federal system divides authority between two levels, state and national--but who gets to do what? And how do we know? One doctrine, known as dual federalism, aims for a simple answer, but tends to find complexities.


First, let's take a brief look at what a federal system is, as in the United States. A federal system is one that divides authority and power between different levels of government. This can be in practically any structure, but the American system is a classic: one central federal government and fifty state governments.

How do we know what belongs to the federal government and what belongs to the states? Something called the reserved powers clause (from Article 1, Section 10, and the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution) basically says that any powers not specifically given to the federal government are reserved to the states. The powers that are specifically given to the state are called enumerated powers. Duties not mentioned in the Constitution (drivers' licenses, for instance) automatically become state powers.

Dual Federalism

Dual federalism is based on the relatively optimistic belief that a clear division between federal and state authority can, and does, exist. This theory states that authority between the two levels of U.S. government, national and state, could be treated equally, live together equally, and hold roughly equal authority. After all, the Constitution includes this very clever mechanism: the reserved powers clause, which seems to set a line between the two levels of U.S. government.

Dual federalism has been nicknamed 'layer-cake federalism', since it imagines an obvious separation between state and federal duties. So, for instance, since education isn't mentioned in the Constitution, that will be a state obligation under dual federalism, and the federal government will steer clear.

'But wait,' you might be saying. 'Isn't there a U.S. Department of Education? A federal department? Doesn't that blow the whole 'dual federalism' thing out of the water?'

Problems with Dual Federalism

The problem here is best illustrated by looking at another power of Congress: the power to regulate commerce with other nations and between the several states. The concept of dual federalism therefore holds that there is a distinction between interstate commerce (which Congress can regulate, as when items are bought and sold between states) and intrastate commerce (which only states can regulate; things like farming, manufacturing, etc.).

But in the modern world (and really, throughout history), this distinction has gotten amazingly complex. For instance, if grapes are grown in California, and made into wine that is sold in other states, that would seem to be a clear-cut case of interstate commerce. But what about a phone company based in New York that provides customers with the ability to call friends and family in other states? Is that interstate commerce? And what about the Internet?

Because of these hard-to-fathom developments, dual federalism has mostly been discarded by political scientists in favor of a more accurate model: marble-cake federalism, in which the authority between state and federal is shared and diffused, based on largely pragmatic reasoning.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Dual Federalism:

Graphic Organizer Prompt 1:

Create a graphic organizer (it could be as simple as an illustration) that depicts the federal system and that defines enumerated powers and the reserved powers clause.

Example: Draw something that represents the national (federal) government. Then draw an image to represent the state governments. You do not have to draw all 50 state governments; you might choose to just illustrate your home state, a state you would like to visit, or your favorite state. You can use text to define the reserved powers clause and enumerated powers.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay in which you explain why the concept of dual federalism is based, as the lesson states, on a "relatively optimistic belief." Why is this belief behind dual federalism "optimistic"?

Example: First define dual federalism. Then, define and discuss layer cake federalism and marble cake federalism to explain how dual federalism is meant to operate.

List Prompt 1:

The lesson gave the example of state control of public education with oversight by a federal department, the U.S. Department of Education, as a conundrum of dual federalism. Make a list of other aspects of American life where state and federal control overlap and seem to contradict layer cake dual federalism. List as many as you can think of.

Example: Health insurance. The Affordable Care Act is federal insurance legislation, yet each state is in charge of administering its own health insurance programs.

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