Federalism was James Madison’s great invention. An innovative system of power sharing that balanced national and state interests, federalism was the pragmatic compromise that brought the colonies together to form the United States. Yet, even beyond the question of slavery, inequality was built into the system because federalism by its very nature meant that many aspects of an American’s life depended on where they lived. Over time, these inequalities have created vast divisions between the states and made federalism fundamentally unstable. In The Divided States of America, Donald Kettl chronicles the history of a political system that once united the nation—and now threatens to break it apart.
Exploring the full sweep of federalism from the founding to today, Kettl focuses on pivotal moments when power has shifted between state and national governments—from the violent rebalancing of the Civil War, when the nation almost split in two, to the era of civil rights a century later, when there was apparent agreement that inequality was a threat to liberty and the federal government should set policies for states to enact. Despite this consensus, inequality between states has only deepened since that moment. From health care and infrastructure to education and the environment, the quality of public services is ever more uneven. Having revealed the shortcomings of Madison’s marvel, Kettl points to possible solutions in the writings of another founder: Alexander Hamilton.
Making an urgent case for reforming federalism, The Divided States of America shows why we must—and how we can—address the crisis of American inequality.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Until his retirement, he was the Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Can Governments Earn Our Trust? and Escaping Jurassic Government. Twitter @donkettl
"A clear and cogent exposition."—Colin Woodard, Washington Post
"The situation, Mr. Kettl concludes, ‘is serious, perhaps even bleak.’ He chooses to believe that it ‘need not be fatal to the nation’s grand democratic vision.’ In these perilous times, made worse by a pandemic, one can only hope he is right."—Glenn C. Altschuler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"The book sets the stage for a more informed inquiry into the quintessential public administration problem – can we use historical knowledge to design better institutions and incentives to address socioeconomic inequalities of the future."—Meril Antony, Journal of Public Affairs Education
"The Divided States of America is a masterful analysis of the ways in which federalism has accelerated inequality and polarization in the United States, written by one of the most acute observers of contemporary government."—Francis Fukuyama, author of Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
"James Madison masterfully crafted a plan to create a united America, built around federalism, dividing power and responsibilities between a national government and the states. But federalism has turned, in an age of polarization and tribalism, into an instrument driving inequality and disunity. In The Divided States of America, Donald Kettl brilliantly examines the history of federalism, looks at its evolution and devolution, and, recognizing the formidable challenges ahead, offers a path forward. Every student of American government and politics will learn and profit from reading this book."—Norman Ornstein, The American Enterprise Institute
"Arguing that the current balance of power between the states and the federal government is leading to growing inequality and eroding trust in government, Kettl makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the roots of inequality in our society and the complexity of resolution in our current system. The Divided States of America is a must-read."—Sandra O. Archibald, dean of the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington
"This outstanding book offers a fresh take on both classic and contemporary debates on American federalism. Kettl's work, scholarly yet spritely, shows why this is among the most important subjects in politics."—John J. DiIulio Jr., author of Bring Back the Bureaucrats: Why More Federal Workers Will Lead to Better (and Smaller!) Government
"Donald Kettl brings years of scholarship to a problem that has been neglected too long—the basic strains on our federalist system embedded in the Constitution. The Divided States of America is a must-read for anyone searching for a path toward restoring a healthy government."—Paul A. Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve