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Elazar: American federalism

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Elazar. 1966. American federalism: A view from the South. New York: Crowell.

In Brief

Elazar identifies three critical components of state political structures: political culture, sectionalism, and the continuing frontier.

Place in the Literature


Culture has three main aspects: (1) what is politics for and what should government do, (2) what kinds of people participate in politics, and (3) how "the art of government is practiced" (85). Across the US, Elazar sees two general ways of thinking: either the government is a marketplace (e.g. for libertarians: individuals use government as a bargaining forum to work out things that need coordinating) or it is a commonwealth (in which we strive for the "good life"). Elazar identifies three sub-cultures in the US (which he stresses do NOT correspond with "conservative" and "liberal" labels):

  1. Individualists (I) use the government for utilitarian, individualist reasons. Politics is a business, like any other, which is dominated by "firms" (parties). In the give-and-take of politics, some corruption is tolerable. Government should not interfere much in individuals' lives.
  2. Moralists (M) want the government to help them find the "good life." Governmental service is "public service." The community can intervene in private affairs if it serves communal goals.
  3. Traditionalists (T) (i.e. Southerners) combine hierarchical views of society with ambivalence about the "government-as-marketplace." Social connections and prestige matter; in fact, popular participation is scarcely important in comparison with elite participation. Parties aren't that important, since politics organizes around dominant personalities or families.


Though these 3 cultures have their roots in America's original settlement patterns, much of America's expansion into new frontiers kept these three cultures largely segregated. M's went due west from the NE, settling the northern Midwest and the Pacific northwest and California. I's went due west from the mid-Atlantic regions. T's went due west from the South.

At least, that was true as we settled the "rural-land" frontier. Later, when we settled the "urban-industrial" frontier, these sectional divisions held, because people just went to the big cities nearest them. Now, however, people are migrating again as we settle the "metropolitian-technological" frontier, which IS causing people from these different subcultures to settle in similar areas.


Sectionalism is not regionalism. It's not just that you border another state; it's that you share economic and historical ties. See pg 115 for a map of Elazar's sections.

Comments and Criticisms

I don't see these three cultures today, especially when it comes to the dichotomy between I's and M's. Instead, we see factions that are M's in some policy areas and I's in others. For example: The Left is M's for economic policy (higher social spending and redistribution) but I's for moral/family policy (gay marriage, abortion). The Right is the opposite. We're all happy to use the government to promote our own interests but don't want our political opponents to do the same. Perhaps the strangely regional results on pg 97 simply reflect people's opinions on the dominant issues of the time. For example: perhaps the "M" areas on this map simply supported using the government to end segregation, the "I" areas opposed that, and the "T" areas are the South.

Research on similar subjects


Elazar, Daniel (author)American PoliticsFederalismCultureSocial CleavagesDemographyState Politics (U.S.)Political Subcultures

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