Federalism is based on the idea that power should be shared between the center and the periphery. The thinking behind federalism is that if power is more widely dispersed it makes it harder for some kind of tyranny to develop. This was certainly the rationale behind the establishment of federalism...
Federalism is based on the idea that power should be shared between the center and the periphery. The thinking behind federalism is that if power is more widely dispersed it makes it harder for some kind of tyranny to develop. This was certainly the rationale behind the establishment of federalism in America, where the colonists had just fought a long, bitter war against what they perceived to be a tyrannical British government.
In the American context, federalism involves a share in power between the federal government in Washington D.C. and the governments of the fifty states. Initially, ultimate political sovereignty resided with the states as the early American colonists were loath to contemplate having a strong centralized government after their negative experience of British rule. In due course, however, this proved to be an unworkable arrangement, and ever since America prevailed in the Revolutionary War, the balance of power between the federal government and the states has shifted dramatically toward the center.
In principle, federalism is a perfectly noble concept, and certainly seems the governmental arrangement most conducive to a free society. Nevertheless, there are problems with how it often works in practice, particularly in the American context. The relative strength of state government in relation to the federal government allowed the Southern states to pursue slavery without any outside interference. Even after slavery was abolished, the system of federalism allowed the very same Southern states to smuggle slavery in by the back door, so to speak, by their introduction of legal segregation, also known as the Jim Crow laws.
What this unfortunate historical example appears to illustrate is that federalism is at its most effective when there already exists a strong, long-standing tradition of freedom for all in society. However, where such freedom is severely restricted, as it most certainly was in the Southern states, then federalism can unwittingly serve to maintain and strengthen existing power structures built on racial oppression and injustice.