American Federalism, Political Inequality, and Democratic Erosion

AuthorJamila Michener,Jacob M. Grumbach
DOI10.1177/00027162211070885
Published date01 January 2022
Date01 January 2022
Subject MatterHow Spatial Organization Endangers Democracy
ANNALS, AAPSS, 699, January 2022 143
DOI: 10.1177/00027162211070885
American
Federalism,
Political
Inequality, and
Democratic
Erosion
By
JACOB M. GRUMBACH
and
JAMILA MICHENER
1070885ANN THE ANNALS OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMYFEDERALISM, POLITICAL INEQUALITY, AND DEMOCRATIC EROSION
research-article2021
The United States has a particularly decentralized form
of federalism that provides important authority to mul-
tiple levels of government. This decentralization is
typically seen as beneficial for democratic politics. But
while federalism both constrains and enables demo-
cratic participation, we argue that it does so unevenly,
and in ways that deepen inequalities in the processes of
democracy. We propose four mechanisms by which the
institutional decentralization of American federalism
obstructs or reduces democratic accountability and
equality: (1) inequality in venue selection, (2) informa-
tion asymmetry, (3) an unequal exit threat, and (4)
decentralized accountability. In contemporary
American politics, these mechanisms both create and
expand advantages for economic and political elites,
while generating and deepening barriers to the full and
equitable inclusion of less powerful groups in society,
especially economically and racially marginalized
Americans.
Keywords: federalism; inequality; democracy; race;
class; American politics
If the United States has a civic religion, then
federalism is certainly at the heart of it.
Federalism—an institutional design by which
constitutional authority is divided between
Jacob M. Grumbach is an assistant professor of political
science at the University of Washington. His research
uses statistical methods to study the political economy
of race, labor, and policy. His forthcoming book
Laboratories Against Democracy (Princeton University
Press) investigates how national parties transformed
American federalism and this transformation’s conse-
quences for democracy.
Jamila Michener is an associate professor of government
and public policy at Cornell University. Her research
focuses on poverty, racial inequality, and public policy in
the United States. Her recent book, Fragmented Democracy:
Medicaid, Federalism and Unequal Politics (Cambridge
University Press 2018) examines how Medicaid—the
nation’s public health insurance program for people with
low income—affects democratic citizenship.
Correspondence: grumbach@uw.edu

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