4.2 Political Institutions of a State

There are various forms of government a country can adopt and how government forms the foundations of the institutions that countries build. Although this course tries to give a global perspective on government, a lot of the specifics we will look at will be from the perspective of the United States.

Divisions of Power

How do societies remain free? Constitutions, as we have seen, can declare there are all kinds of freedoms. For them to work, people have to obey the law. One answer has been dividing power within a government, so that there are checks on the power of any one part of the government, or the power of any particular interest group. If the power of the government is limited, citizens see that government is not overstepping its bounds, and are more likely to go along and obey the law.

The power within a government can be divided in various ways. Obviously, in authoritarian governments, power is not divided, and so there is no check on the power of whoever has the authority. This can create a couple of problems. First, it robs people of the ability to peacefully take action if the government does something they do not like. Second, there are no brakes if the government gets carried away – nothing in the system that could force those in authority to adhere to the laws as written.

Checks on power begin with elections. Elections effectively split power between the people and the government. If citizens do not like something government is doing, they can vote elected leaders out of office. However, elections are periodic – they only happen every so often – and in the short term, the government can do things that an election will take too long to rectify.

A second check on power is the division of power into different branches. This is not very common around the world; many republics tend to concentrate power in the legislative branch. That is especially true of parliamentary systems, where the head of government, the prime minister, is usually the leader of the majority party in parliament. So in that system, there is no separate branch that checks the power of parliament (except, perhaps, a constitutional court that can rule on the constitutionality of a particular law). This is called legislative supremacy – most power in the government rests with the legislative body. It has the advantage of letting things happen more quickly. In a parliamentary system, a new majority party can make changes more quickly, as there is no president to veto new laws, or usually even another legislative chamber where proposed changes can bog down.

That happens in a country such as the United States, where power is divided between co-equal branches of government. In the case of the U.S., that means only Congress can pass laws; the president must sign them to become law, and the court system can declare laws to be unconstitutional and thereby null and void. Of course, the president appoints federal judges, who must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and Congress as a whole can impeach and remove any federal official from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The problem with this term is that the Founding Fathers never clarified what “misdemeanors” constituted a big enough crime to remove a sitting president from office. The ancient Roman Republic had even more checks on power, to the point where needed reforms were impossible to push through because somebody nearly always had the power to keep them from happening. The American government can sometimes look that way, although when the game is on the line, the system does allow change to happen, such as the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s. On the other hand, it took nearly 100 years after the Civil War for the question of civil rights to be meaningfully addressed. Consequently, division of power into branches is both a prize and a penalty in government. The checks and balances inherent in such a division make it harder for government to get carried away, and also make it harder to get anything done.

Unitary and Federal States

Most governments are placed into two categories: federal states or unitary states. Unitary states place most of the political power in the hands of a central government. The unitary state model works best with states that have little cultural or ethnic diversity and strengthen national unity. The United Kingdom is an example of a unitary state. Federal states, like the United States, works best with nations that have greater diversity. Size also determines if a government tends to be unitary or federal. Large states like the United States, Russia, or Canada tend to be federal because having the entire country controlled by one city (i.e., capital) becomes impractical. Many states around the world have been pressured to decentralize their governments and provide more political power to smaller ethnic groups.

Federalism, Unitary Systems, and Confederations

Federalism is a system of government that divides power between different levels of government. A Confederacy would give most if not all the power to states that make up the confederation, while a unitary system of government puts all the power in the hands of the central government.

The vast majority of the world’s governments are unitary. A strong central government lends power to subnational governments, who cannot make and execute policy on their own. Unitary governments can create or abolish subnational units of governments. Federal governments typically cannot. The U.S. national government, for example, cannot decide that Wyoming would be much better as a part of Montana, or that two Dakotas is just one too many.

The other choice usually is a confederation, in which a group of states is equal partners in a government. While this prevents a strong central government from dictating to its members, it also means nobody is in charge. The United States, from 1783-1788, was a confederacy, under the Articles of Confederation. It did not work very well. The national government could not pay its debts, which caused the economy to shrink; the states were on the edge of war over trade and territorial issues. The Confederate States of America seceded from the Union in 1861, leading to the Civil War. They, too, suffered the problem of being unable to compel the member states to support the war effort fully.

The European Union is a confederation. Although there is a freely elected European Parliament, it lacks the full authority to force the 27 member states to do everything it might. The power of the confederation primarily exists because the member nations have signed on to the treaties creating it, because they share a common currency (the Euro) and because states such as Germany and France have so much more economic power than the other members (and cannot afford to see it all fail). It helps that all the member nations are relatively well-developed states and all republics with regular elections of their own. The EU also seems to be very careful in not stepping on the sovereignty of its member nations. As a consequence, despite EU provisions that require member nations to maintain roughly balanced budgets, significant budget deficits in Greece, Italy, and Spain have provoked a financial crisis for the entire union.

imageFederalism divides and shares power between the national government (often referred to as the federal government in the U.S.) and subnational governments such as states or provinces. Subnational governments may be bound by a national constitution, but have some ability to work within that framework to create their particular laws. In U.S. federalism, for example, states can regulate trade within their borders, but only the federal government can regulate commerce that crosses state borders. National governments usually retain the sole ability to provide for national defense and the conduct of foreign relations, whereas both the states and the national government can create traffic and environmental laws. Both levels can raise revenues and spend money, while only national governments can address topics relating to international trade. Larger nations sometimes turn to federalism to manage widespread territories, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Federalism comes in varies degrees. In weak federalism, states do not get very much power, as in Mexico or Brazil. In strong federalism, subnational governments have a higher degree of power, as in Canada. The federalism in the United States is somewhere in between. Worldwide, 26 states are federal republics; nine more have granted some local authority to regional governments.

For example, for most of its history, the United Kingdom was a unitary state. England conquered Wales and Ireland, and was united with Scotland when James I became king of both nations in 1603. Ireland won its independence in 1921, but the six counties of what became Northern Ireland voted to remain in the United Kingdom. However, then, in 1997, people in Scotland and Wales voted for devolution, by which the central government granted some authority to local assemblies there. Northern Ireland also now has its local assembly as well. All can raise taxes, spend money, and order their affairs, but they are not sovereign states.

Creating a federal structure on paper does not make one, however. China has 22 provinces, four municipalities, five autonomous regions, and two special administrative regions. Of these, only Hong Kong and Macao, the special administrative regions, can be said to enjoy any self-rule, and a majority of their legislatures are appointed by the central government in Beijing. The autonomous regions include Tibet, where dissatisfaction with Chinese rule has led to violence and unrest.

American Federalism

Being in between weak and robust federalism, the American version of federalism is an excellent example of all the challenges and benefits of a federal society. There are some important distinctions regarding American federalism. American federalism divides power between the states and the national (federal) government. That equation does not include the many thousands of local governments, which are not mentioned in the Constitution and mostly borrow power from the states. Each state is, in effect, a unitary government. Some states have granted limited home-rule charters to large local governments, but that is a state-level decision, and not provided for in the U.S. Constitution.

The division of power at the national level into three branches, while an essential feature of American government, is not a feature of American federalism. A unitary-style government could also have a similar division of power into branches; a federal government could also have no division of power at its upper level.

Federalism is, in some ways, an American invention. Confederacies had existed before, and they lacked central power and hence the ability to get anything done. The Founding Fathers, having lived through four years under the Articles of Confederation, saw that they needed a central government with enough power to do what was needed, but still not so much power that it could oppress the people and the states. Moreover, the states, to buy into this, were going to want to retain some of their power as part of the bargain. This fundamental distrust of centralized power, along with the perhaps grudging admission that some of it was necessary, led to both the division of federal power into three branches, and the division of power between the states and the national government.

So who has the power? The U.S. Constitution does seem to provide some space for a strong national government in several places:

  • The “necessary and proper” clause (sometimes called “the elastic clause” because of its ability to stretch to cover much ground) of the Constitution (Article I, Section 8, clause 18): This says Congress shall have the necessary and proper authority to do what needs to be done.
  • The supremacy clause (Article VI, clause 2): The Constitution is established as the supreme law of the land.
  • The commerce clause (Article I, Section 8, clause 3): Only Congress can regulate interstate commerce.
  • The spending clause (Article I, Section 8, clause 1): Congress is expressly granted the ability to raise taxes and spend money.

Couple these features with the power of the presidency and the national government’s more exceptional ability to raise money, and you have a recipe for a strong national government. I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing. Others disagree.

Then again, there is the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, and the last piece of the Bill of Rights: “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.” That can be interpreted in any number of ways, and has been. Does it mean the federal government can only do things expressly described in the Constitution? Does it mean anything not addressed in the Constitution is up to the states? Does it create wiggle room for interpreting the Constitution, or take it away? Some people would tell you they are sure it means one thing or another, and others would disagree.

American federalism is said to have gone through several phases, including the following:

  • Dual Federalism: 1790 – 1932. The federal government did its thing, and the state government did their thing, and there was minimal overlap.
  • Cooperative Federalism: 1933 – 1980. This featured a much more significant role for the federal government, with more money flowing to the states, along with marching orders to go with the cash. States became conduits for federal policy, with federal matching funds there to entice the states to administer programs such as welfare.
  • New Federalism: 1980 – present. Some scholars would divide this up into more than three categories, and probably call this era something else. However, these are not necessarily meaningful distinctions. Sometimes the federal government has pushed programs onto the states (pay for it yourself). At other times, the federal government has attempted to dictate to the states (the Defense of Marriage Act, No Child Left Behind, the continued criminalization of marijuana). The Feds have given states money via block grants with few restrictions, categorical grants with lots of restrictions, and revenue sharing with no restrictions. Typical federal funding still often involves matching funds for a specific purpose. An unresolved question remains: Should the federal government have the ability to mandate state and local programs based on its ability to provide money for them? What if it provides no money? So it is unclear what New Federalism is precise, because it is not consistent in how it treats state/federal relations.

Moreover, that is typical of U.S. federalism in general. As with so many things in the U.S. government, the precise nature of American federalism is ill-defined. Thomas Jefferson, who was not an author of the Constitution, thought that states should be able to say no to acts of Congress (a term called “nullification”). State governors in our own time are sometimes hard to express such thoughts. The term “states’ rights” gets trotted out from time to time, to justify something states want to do or to protest an imposition from the federal government. We should be clear: for most of its history, the term states’ rights mostly meant only one thing: The ability of states to discriminate against citizens of color legally. So while it has taken on a broader meaning in recent decades, it does not have a happy history.

Whatever the issue, the states and the federal government are often at odds at who gets to do what, and who gets to pay for it. So while states tended to favor the reform of the welfare system in the mid-1990s, they certainly did not want to give up federal funding of the system. Similarly, Congress has used federal funding of the highway system as a carrot and a stick to get states to raise their minimum drinking laws: Raise it to 21, or you lose your federal highway funds. Only tourism-dependent Louisiana did not comply.

Federalism’s Strengths and Weaknesses

These kinds of issues underscore both the strengths and weaknesses of the federal system, which are many.


  • It allows experimentation and specialization at the state and local level. States are free to try different ways of pursuing policy objectives.
  • It allows flexibility and diversity in making policy. States can tailor programs to the particular conditions, needs, and desires of their citizens.
  • It brings government closer to the people, ensuring responsiveness. All those levels of government mean that there is someone you can turn to for help.
  • It helps to protect liberty, by providing a strong national government that can prevent states from usurping liberty, but also making it hard for the federal government to do the same. States provide, in effect, another interest group that can contend with the power of the national government.
  • Increases opportunity for participation. Once again, there is room amid all that government for people to get involved.
  • Improves efficiency. States and local governments may be more efficient at providing public services.
  • Helps to manage conflict by providing arenas for its articulation. By giving more people more access to a responsive government, people are more likely to address their grievances without resorting to violence.


  • It can make the government seem more remote – insulating the government from the people. While in many ways the many levels of government can be a good thing, it can also be confusing. Who is responsible for what, and where do you turn?
  • Federalism, and all those levels of government, makes elections more complex. The United States has perhaps the longest ballots in the world. Ballot drop-off is a common feature of U.S. elections. Citizens get to the bottom of the ballot, decide they do not know anything about either candidate for state superior court judge, and stop voting
  • It impedes the adoption of national standards. One state or province might want one set of environmental laws, while another might want fewer protections and more emphasis on economic opportunity.
  • Moreover, that gets at the heart of the matter: Divisions of power make an action more difficult, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. Federalism’s strength is also, thereby its weakness. It is a slow system of government, which keeps us from doing foolish things in the heat of the moment (Prohibition being one of the few bad examples). It also, however, is slow to change, with a compromise between the factions represented in Congress, the presidency, the courts, and the voters being required for anything to get done. So federalism forces deliberation and caution, which can be both good and bad.

Applying Policies Close to Home

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the surrounding areas on August 29, 2005, it exposed federalism’s frailties. The state and local government were overwhelmed, yet there was uncertainty over which level of government should be in charge of rescue attempts. Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco refused to sign an order turning over the disaster response to federal authorities. She did not want to cede control of the National Guard and did not believe signing the order would hasten the arrival of the troops she had requested. President Bush failed to realize the magnitude of the disaster, then believed that the federal response was sufficient. As was evident to anyone watching television, it was slow and ineffective. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and state officials accused the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of failing to deliver urgently needed help and of thwarting other efforts through red tape.

Hurricane Katrina was an exceptional challenge to federalism. Typically, competition between levels of government does not careen out of control, and federalism works, more or less. We have already discussed one reason: a legal hierarchy – in which national law is superior to state law, which in turn dominates local law – dictates who wins in clashes in domains where each may constitutionally act.

There are three other reasons. First, state and local governments provide crucial assistance to the national government. Second, national, state, and local levels have complementary capacities, providing distinct services and resources. Third, the fragmentation of the system is bridged by interest groups, notably the intergovernmental lobby that provides voices for state and local governments. We discuss each reason.

State and local governments are essential parts of federalism because the federal government routinely needs them to execute national policy. State and local governments adjust the policies as best they can to meet their political preferences and their residents’ needs. Policies and the funds expended on them thus vary dramatically from one state to the next, even in national programs such as unemployment benefits.

This division of labor, through which the national government sets goals and states and localities administer policies, makes for incomplete coverage in the news. National news watches the national government, covering more political games and honest intentions of policies than the nitty-gritty of implementation. Local news, stressing the local angle on national news, focuses on the local impact of decisions in distant Washington.

Complementary Capacities

Another reason federalism often works is because the national, state, and local governments specialize in different policy domains. The main focus of local and state government policy is economic development, broadly defined to include all policies that attract or keep businesses and enhance property values. States have traditionally taken the lead in highways, welfare, health, natural resources, and prisons. Local governments dominate education, fire protection, sewerage, sanitation, airports, and parking.

The national government is central in policies to serve low-income and other needy persons. In these redistributive policies, those paying for a service in taxes are not usually those receiving the service. These programs rarely get favorable coverage in the local news, which often shows them as “something-for-nothing” benefits that undeserving individuals receive, not as ways to address national problems.

States cannot adequately provide redistribute benefits. It is impossible to stop people from moving away because they think they are paying too much in taxes for services. Nor can states with generous benefits stop outsiders from moving there—a key reason why very few states enacted broad health care coverage—and why President Obama pressed for and obtained a national program. Note, however, that, acknowledging federalism, it is the states’ insurance commissioners who are supposed to interpret and enforce many of the provisions of the new federal health law

The three levels of government also rely on different sources of taxation to fund their activities and policies. The national government depends most heavily on the national income tax, based on people’s ability to pay. This enables it to shift funds away from the wealthier states (e.g., Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire) to poorer states (e.g., New Mexico, North Dakota, West Virginia).

Taxes of local and state governments are more closely connected to services provided. Local governments depend mainly on property taxes, the more valuable the property, the more people pay. State governments collect state income taxes but rely mostly on sales taxes gathered during presumably necessary or pleasurable consumer activity.

The language of “no new taxes” or “cutting taxes” is an easy slogan for politicians to feature in campaign ads and the news. As a result, governments often increase revenues on the sly, by lotteries, cigarette and alcohol taxes, toll roads, and sales taxes falling mostly on nonresidents (like hotel taxes or surcharges on car rentals).

The Intergovernmental Lobby

Third reason federalism often works is because interest groups and professional associations focus simultaneously on a variety of governments at the national, state, and local levels. With multiple points of entry, policy changes can occur in many ways.

In bottom-up change, a problem is first identified and addressed, but not resolved at a local level. People, and often the media, then pressure state and national governments to become involved. Bottom-up change can also take place through an interest group calling on Congress for help. In 1996, pesticide manufacturers, fed up with different regulations from state to state, successfully pushed Congress to set national standards to make for more uniform, and less rigorous, regulation.

In top-down change, breaking news events inspire simultaneous policy responses at various levels. Massive publicity for the 1991 beating that motorist Rodney King received from Los Angeles police officers propelled police brutality onto the agenda nationwide and inspired many state and local reforms.

Policy diffusion is a horizontal form of change. State and local officials watch what other state and local governments are doing. States can be “laboratories of democracy,” experimenting with innovative programs that spread to other states. They can also make problems worse with ineffective or misdirected policies.

These processes – bottom-up, top-down, and policy diffusion – are reinforced by the intergovernmental lobby. State and local governments lobby the president and Congress. Their officials band together in organizations, such as the National Governors Association, National Association of Counties, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the National Conference of State Legislatures. These associations trade information and pass resolutions to express common concerns to the national government. Such meetings are one-stop-shopping occasions for the news media to gauge nationwide trends in state and local government.

American Democrats, Republicans, and Federalism

The parties stand for different principles concerning federalism. Democrats prefer policies to be set by the national government. They opt for national standards for consistency across states and localities, often through attaching stringent conditions to the use of federal funds. Republicans decry such centralization and endorse devolution, giving (or, they say, “returning”) powers to the states, and seeking to shrink funds for the national government.

Principled distinctions often evaporate in practice. Both parties have been known to give priority to other principles over federalism and to pursue policy goals regardless of the impact on boundaries between national, state, and local governments.

So Republicans sometimes champion a national policy while Democrats look to the states. In 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state could not deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and officials in cities like San Francisco defied state laws and began marrying same-sex couples. Led by President George W. Bush, Republicans drafted an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Bush charged that “activist judges and local officials in some parts of the country are not letting up in their efforts to redefine marriage for the rest of America.” Democrats, seeking to defuse the amendment’s appeal, argued that the matter should be left to each of the states. Democrats’ appeal to federalism swayed several Republican senators to vote to kill the amendment.

“The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” enacted in February 2009, is another example. This was a dramatic response by Congress and the newly installed Obama administration to the country’s dire economic condition, sometimes called the Great Recession. It included many billions of dollars in a fiscal stabilization fund: aid to the states and localities struggling with record budget deficits and layoffs. Most Democratic members of Congress voted for the legislation even though it gave the funds unconditionally. Republicans opposed the legislation, preferring tax cuts over funding the states.

Economic Woes of the Great Recession

The stimulus package for the Great Recession was a stopgap measure. After spending or allocating most of the federal funds, many states and localities still faced a dire financial situation. The federal government, running a huge budget deficit, was unlikely to give the states significant additional funding. As unemployment went up and people’s incomes went down, states’ tax collections decreased, and their expenditures for unemployment benefits and health care increased. Many states had massive funding obligations, particularly for pensions they owed and would owe to state workers.

State governors and legislators, particularly Republicans, had promised in their election campaigns not to raise taxes. They relied on cutting costs. They reduced aid to local governments and cities. They fired some state employees, reduced pay and benefits for others, slashed services and programs (including welfare, recreation, and corrections), borrowed funds, and engaged in accounting maneuvers to mask debt.

At the University of California, for example, staff were put on furlough, which cut their pay by roughly 8 percent, teaching assistants were laid off, courses cut, library hours reduced, and recruitment of new faculty curtailed. Undergraduate fees (tuition) were increased by over 30 percent, provoking student protests and demonstrations.

At the local level, school districts’ budgets declined as they received less money from property taxes and from the states (about one-quarter of all state spending goes to public schools). They fired teachers, hired few new ones (resulting in a horrendous job market for recent college graduates wanting to teach), enlarged classes, cut programs, shortened school hours, and closed schools.


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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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