How Does Federalism Constrain Democracy?

Updated on February 4, 2017

By Natasha Hoover


Does Federalism Constrain Democracy

I was recently required to research the issue of federalism and democracy. I discovered that most of the available literature on the subject is filled with dense legalese that makes understanding it virtually impossible! The hub that follows is my attempt at a somewhat scholarly piece explaining federalism, democracy, and how they relate to one another in the United States. There is a works cited section at the bottom, if anyone is interested in studying the subjected further.

Washington Monument
Washington Monument | Source

What is Federalism?

Federalism, the system through which powers are shared between the component states and the nation, is employed by roughly 25 of the world's nations and about 40% of the globe's population lives under a federalist system (Dye and Macmanus, 68). On all levels, federalism constrains democracy, but it is this very constraint that makes federalism an important democratic tool.

Federalism is a governmental power sharing system that affects the body politic at all levels. In a federalist system, power is divided between the national and subnational levels. Each level enforces its own laws on its citizens (Dye and Macmanus, 68). This division of power is believed to distribute power more evenly among different sets of leaders. For example, the country has a president, states governors, and cities mayors. Decentralization can increase government participation – there are more than 87,000 governments in America and nearly one million people hold some type of elected office, most at the local or state level (Dye and Macmanus, 69).

Federalism has inherent flaws, too. By dividing power and allowing an amount of state supremacy within its own boarders, states can pass laws seen as nationally undesirable and local leaders can frustrate national policies. These can be seen in current political events such as some states successfully legalizing marijuana and other states talking of refusing to set up health care exchanges. Historically, the federalism system was used to support a divided America in which some states were 'slave' states and others 'free.' Under the Constitution at the time, this was perfectly legal.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Thomas Jefferson Memorial | Source

What is Democracy?

Democracy, the idea of rule by the people, has inherent, built-in dangers. Without protections against mob rule, pure democracy can easily turn to majority oppression of the minority. This was a major concern for early Americans living under the Articles of Confederation and an “excess of democracy in the states” caused such concern that it was ultimately a leading reason for the penning of The Constitution (Greenberg, 33).

Though most casual discussion of the American political system refers to the US as a democracy it is not, in fact, a pure democracy, and was not indented to be one. The nations founders were leery of democracy, particularly direct democracy, which is why the republican system of government was created (Dye and Macmanus, 50). The differences between a democracy and a republic and comparatively small, but important; in the United States, the republican form of government means that the government rules with the consent of the people and is comprised of individuals representing the people, not every single individual in the nation, himself. These constraints on majority rule were intentional and designed to protect the rights of the few.

Washington, DC
Washington, DC | Source

It's a few years old now, but Founding Brothers remains a fantastic book. It gives great insight into the founders and how the United States was created.

Federalism caused some trouble for Lincoln because, prior to the Civil War, nullifciation was commonly viewed as a Constitutional right.
Federalism caused some trouble for Lincoln because, prior to the Civil War, nullifciation was commonly viewed as a Constitutional right. | Source

Constraints on Democracy and the Framers

By the same token, the American system of federalism is designed to restrain the majority. Hot on the heels of the tyrannies of King George, the Framers were cognizant of the dangers of a concentration of power, but the Articles of Confederation had proven the limitations of an overly-weak government. The new system of federalism allowed for a degree of compromise – a stronger central government with checks and balances to prevent tyranny and oppression. One of the most outspoken advocates of the Constitution, its ratification, and the federalist system was James Madison. His belief in the virtuousness of federalism's democracy-constraining powers is obvious in his Federalist Papers. As he explains in “Federalist No. 51,” “the compound republic of America” protects the people in a variety of ways. In a system of federalism, he explains, “A double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself” (Madison in Foner, 132). This is one way in which federalism is intentionally constraining.

Not only does federalism constrain government, but it can protect the governed from the governors and “one part of society against the injustice of the other part” (Madison in Foner, 134). As Madison points out: “If a majority be united by common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure” without protections in place to secure minority rights (Madison in Foner, 134). These protections are afforded by the American system of federalism and republicanism. By constraining the democratic privileges of the many, the rights of the few are protected.

While many today argue against the existence and employment of the Electoral College, its inclusion in the Constitution is an important part of the federalist, republican government outlined by the Framers. This issue is not a new one – since 1797 when Representative Smith from South Carolina first advocated the amendment of the Constitution to change the electoral college, virtually every session of Congress has encountered some proposal to change the way in which the President is elected (Silva, 86). For more than 200 years, opponents of the electoral college have tried to banish it and follow the so-called Lodge-Gossett plan for splitting state's electoral votes and doing away with the electoral college, but, so far, every attempt has failed (Silva, 86). This is primarily because, no matter its perceived shortcomings, the current federalist system has been reasonably effective in reaffirming the rights of the minority (Mabbutt, 542).

Federalism constrains democracy in several important, intentional ways. Familiar with the tyrannies of overly strong national governments and the tribulations born of excessively weak ones, the American system of republicanism and federalism was carefully crafted by the Constitution’s Framers to rain in the power of the governors and governed, alike.

Works Cited

Dye, Tomas and Susan Macmanus. Politics in States and Communities. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009. Print.

Greenberg, Edward and Benjamin Page. The Struggle for Democracy. Boston: Pearson, 2013.

Mabbutt, Fred. “Federalism, Democracy, and the Electoral College.” Thought. 45.4 (1970): 542-558. Web.

Madison, James in Eric Foner. “Federalist Number 51.” Voices of Freedom, Volume I. New Yorks: WW. Norton & Company, 2008. Print.

Silva, Ruth. “The Lodge-Gossett Resolution: A Critical Analysis.” The American Political Science Review. 44.1 (Mar, 1950): 86-99. Web.


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    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      Sure - because it has been ignored and circumvented. The system would word if we would use it!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Why does federalism not constrain government activities like it used to? The amount of political favoritism, crony capitalism, and unproductive entrepreneurship in Washington is disgusting. It is to my knowledge that these special interests always existed but were rarely granted any acceptance. Do you know why it has changed so much more in the past 100 years?

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      Excellent! That must mean everything is working as planned. =)

    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 

      7 years ago from Hudson, FL

      Nice job! I still have no idea what's going on. LOL

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks, HScheider and Raven Biker! Yes, the system can be cumbersome and as you point out, that is intentional. It makes things move along slowly sometimes, which, while frustrating at times, can be exactly what we need at others.

    • RavenBiker profile image


      7 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA.

      Thumbs up! A very well researched Hub. Thank you!

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Great Hub, Natashalh. The framers were very leery of both democracy and the possible tyranny of political leaders. Therefore they built in many checks and balances that constrain all parties. It makes for a highly inefficient government but it also makes dictatorship highly unlikely. The Bill of Rights also guards against this.

    • Natashalh profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hawaii

      I like your attitude! Nothing is perfect, but I'd rather live here than plenty of other places in the world.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      7 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Excellent research and points made. This is an imperfect governmental system; having said that it is the best this planet has seen in history. Until something better comes along I think I'll be happy with it. Maybe not completely satisfied, but happy nonetheless.


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