Politics and Policy in State and Local Governments


The United States of America has witnessed various periods of federalism, which is described as the continuous evolution of the relationship and balance of power between the federal government and the various state and local governments.

The first federalist movement occurred in the 18th century, and the need for it arose because the party which later came to be known as the Federalists believed that the national government according to the Articles of Confederation was weak and they proposed certain amendments. The Shays’ Rebellion between 1786 and 1787 added fuel to fire as it further showcased the failure of the Federal Government to deal with the aftermath of the American Revolution as well as its inability to deploy an army to suppress this rebellion. After the Articles were amended, the Federalists started to prepare a new Constitution and once it was ready, published it for the public. Then, they wrote the Federalist Papers, which to date remains one of the most important publications in American political history, the purpose of which was to persuade the people of New York to vote for ratification of the Constitution since the Federalists believed the Articles contained many deficiencies (Harrigan & Nice, 2004).

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The Anti-Federalists did not agree with the new Constitution but backed by George Washington and ratified by the requisite number of states, the new government under the Constitution commenced operations on March 4, 1789. Then in the early part of the 19th century, The United States Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice John Marshall, assumed a chief role in demarcating between the powers of the federal and state governments, specifically in its decision in the cases of McCulloch v. Maryland and Gibbons v. Ogden, where it broadened the scope of the Federal government’s powers. Marshall’s successor, however, increased the power of the states, equating it with that of the national government. Dual federalism also became popular at this time, which defined a specific limit to the National Government’s powers and held the national and state governments supreme within their own scope of operations (Harrigan & Nice, 2004).

This philosophy prevailed for more than a century until the Great Depression of the 1930s forced the end of Dual Federalism and a significant shift to a more powerful Federal center. The New Deal initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt has as its basic premise that the federal government must get people out of their misery, and the national government worked with all layers of government to implement new policies and programs. This was a very critical time period in the history of federalism because there was a dramatic shift in the balance of power towards the Federal Government (Harrigan & Nice, 2004).


President Ronald Reagan started a wave of New Federalism in the latter part of the 20th century and allocated some of the powers back to the states. While earlier the states were given funds by the federal government under specific conditions to deploy these funds towards certain programs, Reagan granted state governments the autonomy to spend their funds as they wanted to. The contemporary federalist movement is focused on interpretations and practical applications of the Commerce Clause, which dictates the balance of power between the Federal and state governments, and grants Congress the exclusive authority to administer commercial activities between the states and with foreign nations. Landmark cases have included the United States v. Lopez, which limited the power of the Congress on the issue of gun possession, the United States v. Morrison, and Wickard v. Filburn (Harrigan & Nice, 2004).


Harrigan, John & Nice, David. Politics and Policy in States and Communities. 8th ed. Pearson Longman, 2004.