What Does "Federalism" Mean?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 30 2000 5:42 PM

What Does "Federalism" Mean?

Everyone is throwing around the word "federalism" in the legal fight between Al Gore and George Bush about whether the state courts or the U.S. Supreme Court should decide the issue over counting the Florida ballots. What do people mean when they say "federalism"?


As Humpty Dumpty, Al Gore, and George Bush said, "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean." The Federalist, essays first published in 1787 written primarily by Alexander Hamilton, advocated a strong central government as did the short-lived political party of the same name. But the word "federalism," which first appeared in 1789, according to Merriam-Webster has a more neutral meaning. It is a blanket term describing the division of power and responsibility between states and the federal government. But what has happened to the word is that people with righteous causes not only stand and give speeches in front of a whole lot of flags, they wrap themselves in the protective mantle of federalism. That's why Al Gore's legal brief on why the U.S. Supreme Court should stay out of Florida's business says "principles of federalism counsel strongly against interference by this court. ..." And that's why the Bush side sees the appropriate interpretation here of federalism to mean that the federal court has to straighten out the erring state court. What's so wonderful about this is that the positions of the two parties are generally reversed on the question of whether the states or the federal government should exercise the most power.

Explainer thanks Frederick Shauer of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Akhil Reed Amar of Yale Law School, Donald Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office, and Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas School of Law.



Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 4:33 PM Walmart Is Killing the Rest of Corporate America in Solar Power Adoption
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 4:14 PM Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.