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What is Dual Federalism?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated May 17, 2024
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Dual federalism is the political theory that two different governments share sovereign power over a certain region or people. Generally this is the concept of balancing the scales of power between a large, sweeping government and a more local, centralized one. Usually, this involves some sort of federal authority and a state regime. The theory works as a type of check to ensure corruption does not impact either government.

Rather than a form of cooperation, dual federalism is designed to create tension between the two forces. While the federal government mandates certain rules that cover a multitude of smaller governments, the state or local authority is responsible for nearly everything else. In most systems, the states are allowed to check the national authority through representation in the central government. Some countries even have a system of judicial oversight in which legal recourse is available to the state or local power.

Generally, a dual federalism maintains specific parameters by which the balance of power is maintained. National governments are only able to establish power through a system of laws. The overall purpose of the federal authority is limited by constitutional mandate. Throughout each government's sphere of influence, each authority maintains sovereignty that generally should not impact one another. In addition, it's important for both the federal and state governments to work together, but also maintain a certain level of distrust in order to operate efficiently and provide the best for its citizens.

Historically, the definitive example of dual federalism is the United States. The federal government is mandated by the US Constitution to maintain a series of laws defined by the Bill of Rights, constitutional amendments and US Code. In order to maintain control, representatives of the states are elected to a legislative body which creates these laws. The states themselves also have the formation of a government, which is responsible for all other rules. These states can check the federal government through judicial action.

Europe, too, has a system of dual federalism, albeit set up with state traditions. The European Union (EU) is organized into a federalist government with limited powers. Each member nation has its own system of government, some using a federalist system while others using methods such as constitutional monarchy in the United Kingdom or a presidential republic in France. The EU itself, however, enforces a series of laws but can be overridden by member states.

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Discussion Comments
By anon251310 — On Feb 29, 2012

We no longer have dual federalism. What we have have now is "new federalism" which means the national government has more power and authority over the states than it did with dual federalism. The authoritative citations would be the federalist papers written by Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay.

By anon239951 — On Jan 11, 2012

This is most definitely not a steaming pile. The 10th Amendment reads, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." In other words, if it's not in the federal constitution, the feds can't touch it. It's up to the states, or if prohibited by the state constitution, the people of that state.

The "dual" in dual federalism refers to the split of the powers between the state and federal governments. If the federal constitution grants authority, it simultaneously denies that power to the states. From Article 6: "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." Thus, the powers delegated to the federal government in the constitution supersede state authority. But such powers are limited to those enumerated.

This is not a difficult concept. To claim this is an invention of progressives is ludicrous. Yes the United States is intended to be a representative republic, but you have missed the point on the separation of the state and federal governments. There are two representative republics at work here, at both the state and federal levels. Each have separate powers and duties.

Of course, a lot of this theory has been perverted over the past 100 years or so by such groups as the progressive movement, so you are not wrong to excoriate them for dishonesty when it comes to American government. But I think you are missing the mark on this issue.

By anon102903 — On Aug 10, 2010

This dual federalism appears to be a steaming pile. And an invention of progressives.

I have looked at several articles and postings on this, and they all appear to claim this "theory" has been around since 1789 or the 1900's but provide no authoritative cites.

More importantly, persons are positing that we have a dual federalism government instead of a constitutional representative republic. Dual federalism talks about our government being the relationship between the state and federal governments. A representative republic (reprep for short) talks about the relations of the people and their government. Most important, it speaks about all citizens having certain inalienable rights and the protection of the minority from the majority. Where are the people under this faux dual federalism?

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