High school and college essays on federalism in the United States should focus on the benefits and disadvantages of having a political system in which the power to govern is shared by national and state institutions. You might provide historical background on the Founding Fathers' differing views on the federal government's role and disagreements about the Constitution, but you should link those ideas to current issues or controversies. The goal is to address the pros and cons of federalism and show how those factors influence government today.
Pros and Cons of Federalism
Write your essay on the advantages and disadvantages of federalism, focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of the federalist government structure. Explain why American revolutionaries were divided over the question -- why some wanted to follow Great Britain's pattern by supporting a strong central government and others wanted to put governing power in the hands of state leaders. Discuss how these foundational differences contributed to the Civil War and how tensions between national and state governments persist, as when state lawmakers express frustration with federal mandates they say they can't afford or when Congress complains about state programs that don't follow federal spending guidelines.
Recent Shifts Toward State Governance
Discuss how Americans have shifted away from supporting a strong centralized government in favor of state or local governing agencies over the past few decades. For example, the percentage of Americans who want state or local governments to make decisions on drug policy increased from 39 percent in 1973 to 61 percent in 2013, according to a 2014 Cato Institute study conducted by political scientists John Samples and Emily McClintock Ekins. Likewise, those who support state and local governance on prison reform increased from 43 percent to 68 percent during the same period. Use specific examples to support your essay and explain possible reasons for the shift. Provide examples of where the shift isn't as noticeable, such as the areas of education and national defense.
Founding Father Followers
Parallel a Founding Father's views on federalism with a present-day politician's views on the subject. For example, James Madison -- a leader in Virginia politics who played an important role in amending the Articles of Confederation -- was a strong supporter of a national government. Without it, Madison believed that the U.S. was weak and had no centralized system for dealing with economic crises or establishing laws. You might compare Madison's views with those of President Barack Obama or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Support your comparisons and parallelisms with documented quotes and voting patterns.
Discuss shortcomings in the Constitution that make it difficult to operate a federalist system of government. For example, the Supreme Court has the power to limit the federal government's use of court proceedings to force states to obey federal laws. Use examples, such as the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, to prove that federal mandates -- in this case, federal laws that criminalize marijuana -- don't always override state legislation. Explain how some wording in the Constitution is vague, general and open-ended, the University of Washington suggests. A system of shared governing powers keeps one entity from having too much authority, but that doesn't mean it's easy to divide, implement or enforce those powers.
- U.S. History: Federalism
- This Nation: Controversies
- The Washington Post: Changing Public Attitudes Toward Federalism [Updated with Correction About Continuity in Public Attitudes Towards Federalism and Education Policy]
- The Constitution and Its Amendments, Vol. 1: Roger K. Newman
- University of Washington: Controversies About the Constitution
- Christopher Futcher/Hemera/Getty Images