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What is Federalism and Its Governmental Forms?

The word “federal” is derived from the Latin word foedus, meaning covenant, pact, or treaty. Federalism is both a principle and a form of government.

As a principle, federalism is concerned with combining self-rule and shared rule and linking individuals, groups, and polities in lasting but limited union so as to provide for the energetic pursuit of common ends while sustaining the integrity of each partner, thereby fostering unity and diversity, while checking forces of centralization and anarchy. The federal principle aims at establishing justice among the consenting partners and ensuring liberty.

A federal arrangement is a partnership, established and regulated by a covenant. A covenant is a voluntary agreement, often written, between co-equals who agree to come together and form a lasting union for certain purposes such as the common defense and general welfare. In contrast to a social contract, the word “covenant” suggests a moral dimension and appeal to a higher moral source. The U.S. Declaration of Independence is an example.

The internal relationships of a federal system reflect a special kind of sharing that must prevail among the partners based on a mutual recognition of the integrity of each partner and the attempt to foster a special unity among them. As a political principle, federalism is concerned with the constitutional diffusion of power so that the constituting members in a federal arrangement share in the process of common policy-making and administration by right, while the activities of the general government are conducted in ways that maintain the integrities of the constituting members. Federal systems do this by constitutionally distributing power among general and constituent governing bodies in a manner intended to protect the existence and authority of all. Basic policies are ideally made and implemented through negotiation based on mutual consent among the members so that all share in the system’s decision-making and executing processes. As such, federalism is both a structure and a process.

Accordingly, federalism is a voluntary form of government and mode of governance that establishes unity while preserving diversity by constitutionally uniting separate political communities (e.g., the 13 original U.S. states) into a limited, but encompassing, political community (e.g., the United States) called a federal polity. Federalism may also be used to establish and organize nongovernmental organizations such as interest groups and political parties – a common practice in federal polities.

Powers in a federal polity are constitutionally divided and shared between a general government having certain responsibilities for general matters such as the common defense affecting the whole political community and constituent governments having certain local or regional responsibilities. Both the general government and the constituent governments have constitutional authority to govern individuals directly (e.g., regulate behavior and levy taxes), and each has final decision-making authority over certain constitutionally delegated or reserved matters. Some constitutional powers belong exclusively to the general government; others belong exclusively to the constituent governments. Still others are concurrent—that is, exercised by both the general and constituent governments. Some federal constitutions contain a list of concurrent powers. Some federal constitutions delegate powers to the general government and reserve all other powers to the constituent governments (e.g., the United States); other constitutions delegate powers to the constituent governments and reserve all other powers to the general government (e.g., Canada).

A federal polity, therefore, can be thought of as a matrix of governments looking something like a Rubik’s Cube or honeycomb composed of multiple cells of power. Constituent governments represent the cells of the matrix with a narrower scope of authority than the general government. However, these are differences of scale not status. By contrast, most unitary systems are organized along the lines of a hierarchical pyramid having levels of government in which differences are based on higher or lower status of authority. The imagery is important. Federal systems have no single center; hence, they are non-centralized rather than decentralized in form. In a federal system, public policies are ideally formulated by negotiation and implemented by collaboration.

Some federal polities, such as the United States, have a dualistic structure in which the general and constituent governments independently exercise certain separate powers; other federal polities, such as Germany, have integrated structures in which the general government enacts framework legislation that is implemented by the constituent governments. Most federal polities reflect some mixture of dualism and integration.

Most federal polities have two sets of constitutional government: a general government and regional constituent governments. A few federal polities, such as India and Nigeria, constitutionally recognize local government as the third order of constituent government.

In various federal countries, the general government is called the federal, national, union, or central government. Constituent governments may be called autonomous communities, cantons, Länder, provinces, regions, or states.

In some federal polities, all or some of the constituent political communities have a distinct linguistic, ethnic, racial, religious, and/or ‘national’ identity (e.g., Belgium, Canada, India, and Switzerland). In others, such as Germany, Mexico, and the United States, the constituent political communities have distinct, but not ethnic ‘national,’ political identities forged over time by the people who inhabit each territorial jurisdiction.

Some federal polities are formed by uniting previously separate political communities (e.g., Australia and the United States); others are formed by devolving powers from a centralized unitary polity to regional governments (e.g., Belgium and South Africa). A few, such as India, reflect both types of formation. Some of the world’s oldest modern federations are the United States (1789), Mexico (1824), Switzerland (1848), Canada (1867), and Australia (1901).

Whatever the precise form of federalism, most federal polities experience widespread relations among their governments called intergovernmental relations. These may entail relations between the general and constituent governments, as well as local governments, among the constituent governments themselves (e.g., interstate relations in the United States), between the constituent governments and their local governments (e.g., state-local relations in the United States), and relations among local governments themselves (e.g., interlocal relations). Ideally, intergovernmental relations are cooperative, collaborative, and competitive with mutual coordination and adjustment. However, partisan differences, personal ambition, social movements, and many other factors can make intergovernmental relations collusive, cooptive, conflictual, and/or coercive.

Different federal polities have different purposes and values. The American federal system, wrote James Madison, is intended to secure individual liberty and make republican government possible on a continental scale, in part by establishing a common market among the states to foster economic prosperity and by uniting the states for a common defense of the country. Most federal countries are democracies but some countries with federal constitutions, such as Russia, are not democratic. A federal democracy ordinarily requires a supportive political or civic culture that values federalism, democracy, and constitutional government.

An older form of federalism is called confederation. The principal differences between a confederation and a federation (which is the form of federalism invented by the U.S. founders in 1787) is that a confederation cannot legislate for individuals (e.g., levy taxes, regulate behavior, and conscript people into the military). Each constituent political community has one vote in the confederation assembly, and constituent political communities can secede from the confederation. In practice, the line between a federal and confederal system can be blurred, as in the European Union, which has a few federal features along with many confederal features.

There is no single, best model of federalism. Most federal polities are products of mutual accommodations achieved through bargaining and negotiation. The features of a country’s federal system reflect the influences of history, circumstances, and configurations of political forces at the founding and over time. Every federal polity experiences change, usually around periods of more centralization or more noncentralization.

Although there are only 21 to 27 federal countries (depending on how strictly one defines federalism), federal countries house slightly more than 40 percent of the world’s population. This is due to the large population sizes of some federal countries, especially India, the United States, and Nigeria, and to the fact that seven of the world’s eight territorially largest countries are federal.

An important historical feature of modern federalism is that it enabled democracy to be viable on a large scale for the first time in human history. Prior to the formation of the American federal union, most territorially large political systems were imperial empires; the few other large systems were weak and usually short-lived leagues or confederations.