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Federalism is a political movement that advances the governing concept of shared rule and self-rule through the development and operation of governmental arrangements called “federations.” It represents an ideology of a particular form of divided government that promotes and preserves both unity and diversity. Most federal countries comprise some combination of territorial, ethnic, economic, and social diversity as the basis of their constituent units.

Federalism EssayAlthough only about twenty-five or so existing nation-states encompass full constitutional divided rule federations, they tend to include many countries that are large in both area and population, for example, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Nigeria, India, and the United States. Such smaller nations as Austria, Belgium, Malaysia, and Switzerland are federations as well. Also, many countries either experience high degrees of federal arrangements—Bosnia, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Ethiopia—or devolve substantial subnational autonomy in all or in parts—United Kingdom, Denmark- Greenland, France-Corsica, Tanzania—to be included in Federalizing nations. In addition, supranational movements such as the European Union (EU) are federal-like or at least confederal in nature. The EU country interests are struggling with a constitution that vacillates between maintaining state powers and upholding the more Federalist view of forming a strong European government.

It is not easy to conceptualize Federalism, because of the variety of interpretations that have been ascribed to it in the three centuries or so of its modern existence. William Stewart (1984) provided a list of almost five hundred labels characterizing Federalism, for example, “centralized Federalism,” “marble cake Federalism,” and “judicial Federalism.” The list has since grown considerably to include such common terms as cooperative Federalism, coercive Federalism, and regulatory Federalism. Recently, vertical fiscal imbalance in Spain and South Africa has been called “consumption Federalism,” whereas Germany’s proclivity to forge countrywide agreement on major policies is called “unitary Federalism.”

How can Federalism and federation be defined both in practice and as objects of study? Preston King (1982) considers federation to be “an institutional arrangement, taking the form of a sovereign state, and distinguished from other such states solely by the fact that its central government incorporates regional units into its decision procedure on some constitutionally entrenched basis” (p. 8). Federalism, which obviously informs federation, is “the recommendation and (sometimes) the active promotion of support for federation” (p. 8). Daniel Elazar (1987) defines Federalism simply as self-rule plus shared rule, operating contractually on a noncentralized basis through a matrix of governments, with fluid power loadings. Since their inception in the late eighteenth century, Federalism and federation have become important areas of study within political science.

Unity in federal countries is represented by a single federal or general (national) government, whereas diversity is manifested through constituent unit governments: states, provinces, and regions. The general government holds together the constituent units and acts, for all the people, on behalf of the entire country. Diversity is enhanced by the power that is shared in constituent governments through its own set of institutions. Depending on the country, respective ethnic, economic, geographic, and social differences, in combination, normally demarcate these units. Canadian provinces, for example, represent different linguisticethnic, geographic, and economic interests. Australia’s federation is based largely on both geographic and economic differences; its states were preindependence colonies. Belgium is federated by linguistic-ethnic differences between the Flemish and Walloons. India’s states are a mixture of historic principalities, distinct ethnic-language groups, British colonial demarcation, and religious preferences. In each case, federal arrangements have developed to allow for representation and promotion of these differences within the framework of a single country.

For some time, divided rule was considered to be a product of some bargain among sovereign entities that agree to yield sovereignty to increase their public security, sometimes economic interests, or both. William Riker (1964) notes that the product of the bargain is a division of final decisions between two levels. Alfred Stepan (1999) argues that the problem with this definition of origin is that many democratic federations follow a different political and historical logic, one of “holding together” through Federalism. He cites as examples India in the late 1940s, Spain in the late 1970s, and Belgium from the 1970s to the 1990s, where strong unitary features were set aside in favor of constitutionally devolved power and their polities were transformed into federal countries.

Historical Developments of Federalism

As numerous theologians and political philosophers have noted, the federal idea has biblical roots. Theologically speaking, the partnership between people and God as described in the Bible was covenantal in idea, which in turn was transformed to the covenantal (or federal) relationship between individuals and families leading to the formation of political bodies as compound polities. The term federal is derived from the Latin foedus, which like the Hebrew term brit means “covenant.” The political application of this theological use gave rise to federal as explicitly governmental. The ancient Greeks used federal arrangements after the Peloponnesian War (431– 404 BCE) for military purposes, as small city-states combined in limited union or confederation to ward off larger powers. The constituent cities delegated to federal rulers only military authority, retaining diplomatic, treaty, and related powers. Similarly, in northern Italy and southern Germany, medieval cities formed military confederations to resist the power of larger nation-states. Both of these federative movements suffered from increasing restrictions on the authority of military leaders by their constituent governments, which led to ineffective defensive performance and eventual dissolution. Moreover, in general, confederations were unable to mobilize sufficient political support or government power to maintain themselves in an age of exclusive nationalism. They proved unable to raise revenues, promote their economies, or even defend themselves.

That indeed is a primary force behind the American transformation from a confederation into the first modern federation. The Articles of Confederation were written in 1777 but were not adopted until March 1781 as the War of Independence from Britain (1776–1783) was ending. The roots of the struggle between the forces of strong national government and independent states go deep into colonial history and experience, as do quasi-independence and partial self-governance under the British Crown. In the end the articles left ultimate power in the hands of states, whereas the general government was given, according to Merrill Jensen (1950), “specific and circumscribed powers.”

The story of the first federation that followed the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787 is well known. The new federal system, which developed largely along nationalist lines and very much according to James Madison’s image, would occupy some middle ground between a confederation of sovereign states and a consolidated (or unitary) nation. After much debate and compromise, a single countrywide union was formed that would act directly on the population, through representative assemblies rather than through the states. The national government was to be insulated from the direct political control of the states, but its own influences would be checked by division of institutional powers between the legislative bodies, the executive, and a judiciary. The new national government was to be a limited government of enumerated powers but with all of the necessary means to secure the safety, liberty, and prosperity of the larger community.

The nineteenth century saw the establishment of a number of federations or at least constitutionally federal regimes, influenced to some degree by the United States. The first was Switzerland in 1848, followed by Canada in 1867, the German Empire (and Reich) from 1871 to 1918, and Australia in the early twentieth century. Four Latin American countries— Venezuela (1811), Mexico (1824), Argentina (1853), and Brazil (1891)—followed suit with federal constitutions, although they all have faced varying degrees of instability and/or military governments that, in effect, have attenuated their federal arrangements and have experienced periods of strong centralization.

Federalism In Thought

Neither the ancient Greek philosophers (e.g., Plato and Aristotle) nor their successors developed a theory of Federalism. The earliest writings surrounded the Swiss and Dutch confederations, which led to the first full-blown conceptual framework. Johannes Althusius (1562–1638) made the connection of union or consociatio, the first federal theory of popular sovereignty. Althusius stated in his Politica that “human society develops from private to public association by the definite steps and progressions of small societies, the public association exists when many private associations are linked together for the purpose of establishing an inclusive political order (politeuma)” (Carney 1964, 84).

The work of James Madison at the American Constitutional Convention and in the Federalist Papers, which supported ratification of the proposed Constitution, did the most to forge modern federal theory. Madison argued for a large republic in which both local and collective interests were to be represented, where power given by the people would be divided between two governments (Federalist No. 51). It is described as “a compound republic, partaking of both a national and federal character” (Federalist No. 62), “a confederated republic” (Federalist No. 63), forming a combination of the great and aggregated interests, the local, and particularly state representations (Federalist No. 10). At the time Madison made no distinction between “federal,” “confederate,” and “confederacy,” but Gottfried Dietze (1999) maintains that he clearly meant to distinguish between a compact forming a league among distinct societies and a compact by the people, not of individuals composing one entire nation but of the people of the states. The federal state is one state composed of several states, invoking “both the national and federal character” (Federalist No. 62).

Alexander Hamilton, like Madison, thought the supremacy clause granting the general government ultimate power when there were disputes among the levels is where the emphasis of Federalism lies. He writes in the Federalist Papers, “The vigor of government” is “essential to the security of liberty” (Federalist No. 1) and to be effective must possess energy in pursuing the public good (Federalist No. 30). He clearly considers territorial power (and institutional power division) less important than does Madison. The advantage of a modern federation is that it can act directly on individuals, and through its greater powers the federal government prevents states from falling into a state of anarchy, civil war, or dissolution. A strong federal government is more likely to slay “the political monster of imperium im imperio” (Federalist No. 15). Hamilton makes it clear that there is only one national government, one federal republic, one federal state.

Federal theory in the United States and elsewhere has naturally been expanded through the number of applications to different countries and, of course, as these countries evolve and deal with new situations. Robert Agranoff and Michael McGuire (2003) note that the application of U.S. Federalism has changed and theoretically has been characterized as dual, cooperative, coercive, and more recently open to a number of models of overlapping and opportunistic behavior. American theory in general has been centralizing or national in focus. In a similar vein, federal experiences on a cross-national basis have been ideologically identified as leaning toward pluralist in a multiple institutional sense, centralist in formation of a union, decentralist in the sense of reinforcing multiple power centers, and balanced between integration and diversification.

Federal theory has also been closely attached to particular value or normative positions. Alain Gagnon and Charles Gibbs (1999) indicate the three most central as (1) communitarian, both social and political; (2) functional, in the sense of operating manageable political systems; and (3) democratic, enhancing the liberty of persons plus participation of citizens and the promotion of equality. Promotion of these principles has evolved as being part of the federal ideology. For example, as democratic ideals and universal suffrage systems emerged, federal systems evolved along with the rise of democracy through political parties and other forms of mass political participation.

Federal Constitutionalism And Law

Ronald Watts (1999) writes that federal systems normally require “a written supreme constitution not unilaterally amendable and requiring the consent of all or a majority of the constituent units” (p. 7). Because federal countries share rule, their constitutions must identify the broad foci of powers since two levels govern the same territory and people and each has the authority to make some decisions independent of the other. Watts identifies the following essential features of federal constitutionalism: (1) delineation and distribution of powers and institutional structures, (2) broad design of constituent units, (3) allocation of legislative and executive powers, (4) essential federal or general government powers, (5) the role of constituent unit representatives in decision making, (6) special provision for proportionate representation, (7) role of courts and judicial review, (8) constitutional amendment processes, (9) protection of individual and collective rights, and (10) the status of the constitution as supreme law.

Most federal countries live under systems of dual constitutionalism wherein constituent unit’s—states’, provinces’, and regions’—government constitutions frame their governments, similarly distributing powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and generate provisions governing local governments. Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Spain, and the United States are among those with subnational constitutions.

Federal Institutions And Power Sharing

Institutions within federal countries make a difference because they structure patterns of interaction within societies. One important institutional feature of federal countries is the distribution of powers between levels. In 2004 Enric Argullol Murgadas and associates examined the allocation of competencies by level in some twelve federal countries. In all systems some powers are exclusive by level, and some are concurrent, with residual powers varying by particular federal system. While such powers as foreign policy, defense, the monetary system, borders and immigration, and management of the economy are normally exclusive general government powers in all countries, a mixed pattern of overlapping responsibilities between the first and second tiers of governments exists in most countries, with states, provinces, or regions taking the lead responsibility for the operation of most domestic/welfare state functions, for example, employment, health, education, social services, and economic development.

Almost all federal countries employ legislative second chambers or senates that to varying degrees are representative of area or constituent units. Some are appointed, and some are popularly elected by the constituent units. Their powers vary considerably from country to country. In the United States, Australia, and Brazil senate and lower-house powers are equal, whereas in Canada and Spain second chambers are considerably weaker. Germany has a unique situation wherein the upper house Bundestag not only has equal powers to the Bundesrat, its parliament, but includes direct representatives from the Lander (state) governments, most of whom are Lander cabinet administrators.

Legislative bodies are normally organized by the major political parties that are in the majority and minority of each chamber, similar to that of nonfederal parliaments. The parties in federal systems, however, are almost always organized on a federal basis. Spain’s two major statewide parties, for example, maintain their basic units at the regional or autonomous community level so that, in effect, there are at least thirty-four party organizations (more, when nonstate parties are considered) that convene centrally only around general elections. The same pattern holds for Canada, Australia, the United States, and many other countries.

All federal countries distribute revenue powers among the levels of government, although the general governments tend to raise the largest sums of money. Vertical and horizontal (among subnational units) imbalances are then adjusted through such mechanisms as tax sharing and subventions. Older federations, for example, the United States, Canada, and Australia, use the federal general spending power for broad purposes, even those that effect exclusive powers of other levels. These actions have generally been upheld by their courts.

The divided power nature of federal systems means that some form of court must adjudicate jurisdictional disputes and resolve conflicts. Some differences are, of course, worked out politically and/or administratively, and some systems rely on referenda to settle some issues. All federations nevertheless provide for judicial remedies for disputes relating to federal questions, that is, matters of power and responsibility by level. Some countries use their general federal court systems to adjudicate such constitutional issues as well as other matters relating to general government. This is the case for Austria, Australia, Canada, the United States, Malaysia, and India. Other countries—Germany, Spain, and Belgium—employ dedicated constitutional courts, which specialize in matters of rights and constitutional interpretation, particularly matters relating to issues and conflicts between the tiers of government.

Intergovernmental Relations

Fiscal and program interdependencies among governments mean that officials within federal countries must interact regularly. These actions are called intergovernmental relations (IGR). Dale Krane and Deil Wright (1998) define IGR as “the various combinations and interdependencies and influences among public officials—elected and administrative—in all types and levels of governmental units, with particular emphasis on financial, policy, and political issues” (p. 1168). The concept (not the practice) originated in the United States during the Great Depression of 1929, when new activities and programs drastically altered the concept of separation of functions by level of government. It has come to characterize the patterns of interaction among levels in many countries, particularly in federal systems.

Deil Wright (1988) sets out five distinct features that define and guide IGR studies: (1) number and types of governmental units, their legal status, and changes over time; (2) number and types of public officials by jurisdiction and unit; their background, attitudes, and perceptions of their roles and responsibilities; and their actions; (3) patterns of interaction among and between officials representing various jurisdictions and governmental units; (4) range of involvement by all public officials elected and appointed, national and local, executive, legislative, and judicial, particularly when involved in policies that affect multiple units; and (5) policies and programs implemented through intergovernmental arrangements, with emphasis on administrative rules in programming, fiscal flows, and services delivery. In many ways the process study of IGR as a means of understanding federal countries stands in contrast to and considerably enhances more legalistic and institutional analyses. It is studied in many other federal contexts under different labels, for example, “central-local relations” and “multilevel governance.”

IGR unfolds in federal systems through a number of administrative, political, economic, and legal mechanisms or practices that operate across jurisdictional boundaries. Among the more important economic mechanisms are the various forms of subventions or grants, tax efforts (e.g., shared taxes), tax forgiveness/reciprocal taxation, fiscal auditing and accounting, intergovernmental loans, and intergovernmental fiscal equalization commissions. Among the more important and widespread legal mechanisms are regulations imposed by higher-level governments on subnational governments, cooperation and intergovernmental agreements among governments, and reciprocal or interdependent legal actions (e.g., EU social policy and the many organic laws governing subnational governments). There are several important political instruments, including various intergovernmental councils, first ministers’ conferences in parliamentary federal systems, sectoral conferences, second legislative chambers in countries such as Germany and South Africa, forms of intergovernmental contacts and lobbying by individual officials and by associations, and use of internal political party channels to advance intergovernmental interests. Finally, the most notable administrative instruments include contracts for services, program assessments or audits, negotiation for performance or results in exchange for controls, and various forms of place-based or regional management at the horizontal level. While the extensiveness of these practices obviously varies from country to country, they have proved to be the major lenses through which researchers examine the various IGR dimensions.

Social Federalism: Values And Attitudes

Vincent Ostrom (1987) writes that the way “people think and relate to one another is a most fundamental feature in the governance of human affairs” (p. 10). It is believed that the manner and the customs of people, called “habits of the heart” by Alexis de Tocqueville (1848/1969, 305), include the covenantal forms of Federalism. To William Livingston (1952), where there are geographically distributed diversities the result may be a society that is federal, and “coherence in the society may depend on devolution upon these groups of the exercise of functions appropriate to the diversities they represent” (p. 37). Social Federalism includes (1) an underlying culture or belief in the values of Federalism; (2) mutual respect or comity among the partners, who will not harm one another’s interests; and (3) recognition by all or most parties of the social diversity that different constituent units manifest politically.

It is thus not only economic and political forces that ultimately make the outward forms of Federalism (e.g., an ideology) necessary. Social and cultural issues are also forces of maintenance and growth. Federal systems do not grow by accident but as a result of multiple forces. As William Livingston (1952) writes, “a federal system is consciously adopted as a means of solving the problems represented by these stimuli” (p. 36).


The Federalism idea involves both structure and processes of governance that seek to establish unity on the basis of consent while preserving diversity by constitutionally uniting separate political communities into an encompassing polity. Powers are divided and shared between constituent governments and a federal government, where the constituent governments have broad responsibilities and the autonomy to carry out responsibilities and the federal government undertakes broader countrywide responsibilities. A democratic federation is, in effect, a republic of republics, which emphasizes partnership and cooperation for the common good while also allowing diversity and competition.

In an era of increasing globalization and international interdependence, along with increased contemporary within-country emphasis on ethnic identity and decentralization, there are those who maintain that a postmodern era of Federalism is emerging that promotes a variety of new federal arrangements. To Daniel Elazar (1996), the nation-state system is taking on a new dimension or overlay on government, “a network of agreements that are not only militarily and economically binding for de facto reasons but are becoming constitutionally binding, de jure” (p. 419). These agreements are federal in nature, not in the sense of federation but in other ideational manifestations of Federalism, including the revival of such confederal arrangements as the EU, various union arrangements (United Kingdom), devolved regional autonomy (Italy), consociational arrangements (Belgium), federacies (Puerto Rico and customs unions), and leagues (North American Free Trade Agreement, free trade areas). The state is not going away, but new forms of shared rule or multilevel governance are emerging. Wherever both unity and diversity must be simultaneously preserved, Federalism is an ideology that can offer solutions.


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  19. Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Edited by J. P. Mager. Translated by George Lawrence. New York: HarperCollins, 1969. First published 1848.
  20. Watts, Ronald L. Comparing Federal Systems in the 1990s. 2d ed. Kingston, Canada: Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, Queens University, 1999.
  21. Wright, Deil S. Understanding Intergovernmental Relations. Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks Cole, 1988.

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