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Measuring Leviathan

The Federalism Index is excited to announce the release of a new resource for students, teachers, and researchers. Our newest dashboard focuses on one of the key conceptual difficulties in American federalism: to what extent has power “shifted” from the states and local governments to the federal level? To what degree is centralization the main story in American politics, and how can we measure a system that many now worry is “out of balance”? Asking this question has always been of interest to scholars, and it takes on new significance today. Americans are divided in new and deeply personal ways. Trust in government remains at record lows. With each presidential election cycle raising the stakes, many Americans who are not by nature “culture warriors” are nevertheless feeling forced to pick a side in the arena of national politics. After picking a side, they are also fighting harder not to lose. Today’s arguments about the “true size of government” are not new. As federalism scholar John Kincaid has noted, “Americans have debated de-centralization since the Anti-Federalists portrayed the Constitution as a plot to obliterate the states” (2019). Yet, there are notable differences between the founding era and 2022. The size and scope of federal activity is larger than at any time in U.S. history. New technologies and trends in social media have brought more voices into the arena of national politics (see “All Politics is National Because All Media Is National”: These two factors have no doubt helped “democratize” the public sphere, but they have also contributed to the Hobbesian “winner takes all” character of political debate. One of the most obvious victims of these trends is the quality of civil discourse. This is true especially in the contentious arena of Big Government. Arguments about the size of government are often couched in oversimplified claims about federal spending; allusions to the backwardness of local governments, or the irredeemable bigotry of the states; cherry-picked claims about the size of the federal workforce; or tautological references to the number of pages in the federal register, and so on. None of these measures of government size are unimportant on their own. In context, each of these standard measures of federal activity raise serious questions about government efficiency, accountability, effectiveness, and democratic legitimacy. The problem is not that we lack data. The larger problem is that we lack a shared empirical vocabulary when arguing about the actual size and true power of the federal Leviathan. It would be hard to overstate the potential benefits of finding a shared vocabulary. First, with more accessible measurements, we could imagine ways to avoid some of the bluster and confusion which hangs over public debate. Second, teaching with accessible data visualizations could raise the confidence of students or teachers who feel left out of the complexity of the academic discussion. Third, access to engaging data might encourage a healthier re-focus on state and local politics, where people are more likely to have their voices heard. All of this is doable, but none of this is possible without more accessible data, and perhaps even larger efforts to increase awareness of the importance of Constitutional structure in K-12 and at the college level. Here is how famed federalism scholar Martha Derthick summarized the enormous scope of such an educational challenge: “American federalism is a very large elephant indeed, and it is hard for a lone observer to grasp the properties of the whole beast. One needs to be abreast of constitutional doctrines; of legislative, judicial, and administrative practices over the whole range of government activities, from taxation to the protection of civil liberties to pollution control; of the development or disintegration of political parties…of the volume and locus of interest group activity; of trends in public opinion and public employment, and more. To understand the condition of federalism, one needs to comprehend the functioning of the whole polity” (Keeping the Compound Republic, 2001 p. 36).

Derthick’s point, of course, is not that "doing federalism" is too hard for the average American. But it is complicated.

In another context, Derthick pointed out that the main development in American federalism has not been over-centralization, but fragmentation. If Derthick is right, the problem with American federalism today is primarily a knowledge problem - like the cliched mosquito at a nudist colony, it is difficult to know where to start. Which brings us back to the driving purpose of the centralization dashboard. If we think of government as a “very large elephant” (to follow Derthick), it might be best to start slow, and in areas that we can find empirical common ground. Eating the elephant is not impossible if we approach it “piece by piece.” To help users get started, the dashboard is laid out with three basic questions in mind, focusing on the size of government:

  1. How much does it spend?

  2. How many people does it employee?

  3. How much does it do?

Within these three areas, users can find easy-to-digest summaries of the latest research. They can then navigate to more advanced studies on different dimensions of federal and state activity. Finally, a special thanks to the student researchers who have helped on this “first draft.” Let us know how we can improve this dashboard by clicking on “Let’s Chat” in the bottom right.

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