Our Polarized, Presidential Federalism


Over the past three-plus decades, American federalism has taken on a decidedly executive, presidential coloration. The trend has persisted under Republican and Democratic administrations, and on all accounts it has accelerated. Moreover, federalism has become increasingly polarized at the federal and, perhaps more consequentially, at the state level. Controversies over environmental policy, immigration, health care, and other salient issues have been fought by remarkably cohesive, sharply polarized blocs of states. The extant literature has ably limned executive, presidential federalism’s contours and especially its intergovernmental dynamics. This Article seeks to extend and broaden the scholarly inquiry. It urges greater attention to questions of political economy; comparative politics; fiscal federalism; and constitutionalism and judicial capacity.

Those lines of inquiry and especially a comparative perspective provide cause for concern. Polarized, presidential federalism is a defining feature of political systems (especially in Latin America) that share our formal institutional arrangements, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. Those systems tend toward a highly personalized style of executive government, political and fiscal instability, and institutional corruption. The Article expresses no view on the likelihood of a similar scenario in the United States, let alone predict it. However, it suggests that such a trajectory is within the range of possibilities.