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Riker, William H.

Last Updated: 2022

William H. Riker (September 22, 1920 – June 26, 1993) was a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, where he served as department chair from 1962 to 1977. He earned his Ph.D. in 1948 from Harvard University. Riker is considered the founder of the field of positive political theory, which applies mathematical models through game theory and social choice theory to the study of politics. He transformed the University of Rochester’s political science department into the premier institution for doctoral training in positive political science. Riker’s “Rochester School” produced many of the most productive and influential scholars in the field, who carried Riker’s revolutionary approach to colleges and universities across the United States and around the world.

Riker used his signature approach, coupled with historical and qualitative analyses, to advance general and generalizable theories of the formation of federal systems, of their operation after their founding, and of their significance for public policy outcomes. Among his influential theories, Riker posited that most federal systems are founded based on political ambitions of territorial expansion coupled with military opportunities or threats that solidified the federal bargain. Regarding the operation of American federalism, he argued that strong centralizing forces were evident from the beginning, baked into James Madison’s design of the U.S. Constitution, with political parties serving as the sole check on such centralization. Also baked into American federalism, in Riker’s view, were various tools used by the states to maintain a system of slavery and later segregation and discrimination. He famously concluded his 1964 Federalism book with the line, “Thus, if in the United States one disapproves of racism, one should disapprove of federalism.” He softened this striking view later in his life following major civil-rights reforms.

Beyond the American case, Riker suggested that understanding the local or national bases of support for political parties offers an important window into the degree of centralization of federal systems. Perhaps most surprising, however, was his provocative argument in 1969 that, in terms of policy outcomes and how people are governed, federalism has very little impact whatsoever, his prior comments on racism in America notwithstanding.

Riker’s insistence on offering generalizable statements and putting them to empirical tests motivated many scholars of federalism to explore the impacts of federalism in the United States and around the world in a systematic and scientific manner.


William H. Riker, The Development of American Federalism (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1987); William H. Riker, Federalism: Origin, Operation, Significance (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1964); William H. Riker, “Federalism,” Handbook of Political Science: Governmental Institutions and Processes, edited by Fred I. Greenstein and Nelson W. Polsby (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1975), pp. 93-172; William H. Riker, “The Senate and American Federalism,” American Political Science Review, 49, No. 2 (June 1955): 452-469; William H. Riker, “Six Books in Search of a Subject or Does Federalism Exist and Does It Matter?” Comparative Politics, 2, No. 1 (Oct. 1969): 135-146; William H. Riker, Soldiers of the States (New York: Arno Press, 1957); Craig Volden, “Origin, Operation, and Significance: The Federalism of William H. Riker,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism, 34, No. 4 (Fall 2004): 89-107.