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Federalism Definition

Federalism Definition


Federalism is a hybrid and compound type of government that distributes power within a single political system between a central administration (the "federal") and government entities (provincial, regional, cantonal, territorial, or other sub-unit governments). Federalism, as we know it now, initially appeared in the state unions that made up the Old Swiss Confederacy.

  • Federalism differs from confederalism, in which the overall government level is subordinate to the regional level, and decentralization within a unified system, in which the local governmental level is subservient to the broader level.
  • The more integrated side is bordered by devolution within a unitary state, while the less integrated side is bordered by confederalism, representing the core form in the road of regional cooperation or separation.
  • Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Iraq, Malaysia, Mexico, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, as well as the United States, are examples of federations or federal provinces or states. According to some, the European Union is the first instance of the federation in a multi-state framework, or "federal union of states" notion.


The Latin word foedus, which means "treaty, pact, or covenant," is the root of the words "federalism" and "confederalism," which have similar meanings. Until the late eighteenth century, their early common meaning was a straightforward league or inter-governmental connection among sovereign states predicated on a treaty. So, at first, they were synonymous. In this sense, James Madison's phrase "neither a national nor even a current Constitution, but just a composition of both" applied to the new U.S. Constitution. The definition of federalism in the United States would change during the years that followed, strengthening to relate specifically to the innovative compound political system formed at the Philadelphia Convention while confederalism's definition would stay as a league of states.


Federalism is most often used nowadays to refer to the internal organizational structure of a state's body politic in the restricted sense. Yet, political scientists use the term far more broadly, who speak of a "multi-layer and pluralistic notion of political and social existence."

  • In the form of coalitions between states, federalism's earliest origins may be seen in antiquity. The Led by athens League was a precursor to federalism in ancient Greece.
  • Changes in the political landscape forced many city-states to collaborate, even at the risk of giving up part of their sovereignty, in contrast to the Greek city-states of Ancient Times, whom all insisted on retaining their independence.
  • The United Provinces of the Netherlands (1579-1795), the German Bund (1815-66), the first and second American unions known as the Confederation of the United States of America (1781-89), and the third and fourth American unions known as the United States of America were among the subsequent unions of states.
  • The United States of the Netherlands (1579-1795), the first and second Swiss Confederations (1291-1798 and 1815-48), and the German Bund (1789-1865).
Federalism Definition

Political Theory

The national government & provincial/state governments have executive responsibility under contemporary federalism, a form of administration based on democratic values and institutions. Depending on the context, the word "federalist" may refer to several global political ideologies. The phrase "federalization" denotes separate political procedures and is context-dependent.

There are two primary forms of federalization acknowledged in political theory:

  1. Integration of non-federated political topics by founding a new federation, the admission of non-federated subjects into an already-existing federation, or the transition of a confederation into a federation are examples of integrative or aggregative federalization. Dis-aggregative federalization.
  2. Unification of a federation out of a unified country

Causes of Adoption

  • According to Daniel Ziblatt, there seem to be four opposing theoretical justifications for the establishment of federal systems in the academic literature:
  • Ideological theories contend that federalism is more likely to be embraced in societies with a stronger ideological position to decentralize concepts.
  • According to cultural-historical theories, government systems are more likely to gain popularity in nations with ethnically or culturally diverse people.
  • Federalism is said to develop due to a deal between a center and a periphery in which neither is strong enough to rule the other or to secede from the center, according to "social contract" ideas.
  • According to "infrastructural power" theories, federalism is more likely to form when the constituent parts of a possible federation already have sophisticated infrastructures.
  • According to Immanuel Kant, the establishment of a state "may be solved by any nation of demons," provided that they have a suitable constitution that puts competing factions against one another with a checks and balances system. A federation was especially necessary for individual nations as a defense against the risk of conflict.
  • Federal system supporters have always contended that federal systems' power-sharing features lessen internal and external security risks. Federalism reduces the potential of a totalitarian government via the centralized exercise of power by allowing for broad and varied states.


  • With differing degrees of the central and local authority, several nations have adopted federal governance systems. These countries' federal systems, comprising three too many separate regional administrations, may be classified as multi-regional or minimalist federations. Minimalist federations are those with just two sub-federal entities. They may also be categorized according to their body politic, such as state, federal, republican, provincial, or emirate systems. Another technique to examine federated nations is to divide them into those whose whole territory is federated and those whose federal share makes up a percentage of their total area. Although some political systems are supranational, like the European Union, others are national systems.
  • Federalism may generally be divided into two extremes: at one extreme, a strong federal state has practically no control over local governments and is nearly entirely unitary; on the other extraordinary, the federal gov't may only be a federation of states in name and operate more like a confederation. Like the case in Belgium or Bosnia and Herzegovina, federalism may have only two or three internal divisions.
  • Together with other countries, the administration's countries, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India, & Mexico, are structured according to federalist ideas.
  • Federalism in Canada often connotes resistance to groups that advocate for sovereigntism.
  • The Forum of Federations was founded by the Canadian government in 1999 as a global network for sharing best practices between federal and federalizing nations. The Forum of Federations, which has its headquarters in Ottawa, counts Australia, Brazil, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Switzerland among its partner nations.

Division of Powers

  • The constitution of a federation often specifies how much authority each level of government has over the others. Regional self-government is permitted in almost every nation, although the component states' constitutionally guaranteed right to self-government in federations is more firmly established. Component states sometimes have their constitutions as well, which they are free to alter as they see appropriate, but the federal constitution normally takes precedence in a disagreement.
  • Foreign policy & national defense are exclusive federal powers that the central government has in nearly all federations. According to the U.N. definition, a federation wouldn't be one sovereign State if this weren't the case. Significantly, the states of Germany continued to have the authority to act independently on a global scale. This privilege was initially provided in return for the County of Bavaria's consent to enter the German Empire in 1871.
  • We refer to a situation as "symmetric federalism" when each sovereign country of a federation has equal authority. Under asymmetric federalism, diverse powers are granted to the states, and some have more autonomy than others. This is frequently carried out to acknowledge the presence of a unique culture inside a particular place or region.
  • The Basques, Catalans, and Galicians led a historical effort in Spain to have their national distinctiveness acknowledged. This movement culminated in "historical communities" like Navarre, Galicia, Catalonia, and the Basque Country.
  • They have more authority than the later increasingly broad arrangement for those other Spanish regions or the autonomous communities of Spain, partly to deal with their distinct identity and to placate local nationalist tendencies and, in part, out of respect for certain historical rights they had previously held.
  • Although properly speaking, Spain is a unitary state with an asymmetrical devolved government system rather than a federation.
  • A federation's historical evolution frequently involves a progressive power transfer from the constituent states to the federal government as it gains new authority, sometimes to address unforeseen situations.
  • A formal constitutional amendment may be necessary for the federal government to acquire new powers, or it may be possible for the courts to interpret the government's current constitutional authorities more broadly.
  • There is typically little to no discussion of third or subsequent-level administrative and political bodies because federations are typically organized at two levels: the national government and the regions (countries, provinces, and territories). Brazil is an outlier because the 1988 Law made the Union, the State, and the Municipalities three separate parts of the federation, creating a tripartite system. Each State is divided into municipalities (municipal), each with a mayor, a legislative council, and a degree of autonomy from both the federal and State governments.
  • The "organic law" is a "mini-constitution" that governs each town. Mexico is an intermediate example in that the federal constitution grants municipalities full autonomy, and their status as autonomous bodies ("free municipalities") is established by the federal government and unaffected by state constitutions.
  • Also, the federal constitution establishes which authorities and responsibilities exclusively belong to municipalities rather than the component states. Municipalities lack an elected legislative body, nevertheless.
  • The paradox of functioning as a union of states while yet being states (or possessing elements of statehood) in and of itself is frequently used by federations. James Madison, the creator of the U.S. Constitution, stated in Federalist Paper No. 39, for instance, "is a combination of both, and is strictly speaking neither a nation nor a federal constitution. It has a federal base, not a national one, and it draws some of its powers from federal and national sources while exercising its regular duties."
  • This is because, in the U.S., states retain all sovereign rights that they do not voluntarily cede to the federation. The United States Constitution's Tenth Amendment, which preserves all rights and authority not specifically granted to the Federal Government for the States and the people, reiterated this.


Most federal governments have built-in safeguards to defend the rights of their constituent states. A strategy known as "intrastate federalism" can be used by directly representing the constituent states' governments in national political institutions. Similar to the case in the Senate of the USA and Australia, in which each State is represented by a similar number of senators regardless of its population, a federal upper chamber may be founded on a special apportionment system.

The members of an upper house may also be chosen directly by the legislatures or governments of the member states, as was the case in the United States before 1913, or they may be elected by the state legislatures themselves, as is the case, for example, in the German Bundesrat as well as the Council of the European Union. Although states may occasionally still be promised a certain minimal number of members, the lower chamber of a federal legislature is often directly elected and apportioned in proportion to population.

Ties Between Governments

In Canada, the provinces represent local interests and directly negotiate with the federal government. Despite not being included in the constitution, the nation's de facto highest political forum is a First Ministers conference between the head of State and the province premiers.

Constitution Modification

  • The federal constitution amendment process is often special in federations. This may ensure the component states' ability to exercise self-government without their approval while still representing the State's federal structure.
  • In referendums to revise the constitutions of Australia and Switzerland, a proposal must have approval from the majority in each State or canton, in addition to the nation's electorate.
  • This latter condition is referred to as a twofold majority in Australia.
  • Moreover, several federal constitutions provide that some constitutional changes unanimously need the approval of all states or a specific state. According to the U.S. Constitution, no state may be denied equal senate representation without that State's consent.
  • A proposed amendment in Australia must have a majority vote in each State's referendum if it particularly affects one or more of those states. The provinces must all agree to any change to the Canadian Constitution which would alter the monarchy's function. According to the German Basic Law, no amendments that would eliminate the federal system are ever permitted.

More Technical Lingo

  1. The relative financial standing and financial relationships between the different government agencies in a federal system are known as fiscal federalism.
  2. Formal federalism (also known as "constitutional federalism") refers to the division of powers as laid out in a codified constitution, which might or might not reflect how the system is put into action.
  3. In the continental European tradition, the term "executive federalism" refers to how constituent units "execute" or administer laws made at the federal level. In the English-speaking tradition, it refers to the intergovernmental relationships between the executive branches of the various governments in a federal system.
  4. The word "Geschlechtschaltung" (conversion from a federal to a more or entirely unitary form of government) was taken from the Germans for switching from alternate to direct current.
  5. The historic German states were formally largely preserved throughout the Nazi period, but their constitutional rights & sovereignty were gradually eliminated and replaced by the Gau system. In a larger sense, the term "Gleichschaltung" describes political consolidation.
  6. Defederalize is withdrawing from the federal government, as in transferring authority from the national level to the states or provinces.

Europe vs The United Nations

  • In Europe, the term "federalist" describes those who want a single federal government having decentralized power at the regional, national, & international levels. The majority of European federalists favor keeping this trend going inside the E.U. While there are some instances of confederate and federal governments in medieval and early modern Europe, the current federal system emerged in post-World War II Europe, with Winston Churchill's speech at Zürich in 1946 being one of the key efforts.
  • Federalism was initially used to describe the idea of a more powerful central government in the United States. The Federalist Party favored a more powerful central government while the U.S. Constitution was written, whereas "Anti-Federalists" preferred a less powerful one. This differs considerably from how "federalism" is used now in Europe and the U.S. The difference results from "federalism's" position on the political spectrum, midway between such a confederacy as well as a unitary state. The U.S. was a loose coalition with a limited central authority under the Constitutional Articles, which the U.S. Constitution replaced.
  • European "federalism" promotes a lesser central authority than a unitary state since it has a longer history of unitary governments than North America. The word's present American use is far more similar to its European meaning. Some people have seen a much more unified state than they think the U.S. Founding Fathers intended as the federal government's authority has grown. The majority of Americans who support "federalism" politically advocate against expanding the federal government's authority, particularly over the court.
  • The U.S. Constitution's implementation of an altogether new form of government that allowed for democratic participation at two levels of government at once gave rise to the modern idea of federalism.
  • Federalism was implemented in the United States by superimposing a bicameral government over the pre-existing regional authorities of the thirteen independent Nations. This general government comprises a chamber of the presence of an applied proportional to population and a chamber of equal Government representation composed of two representatives per State (the Senate). Therefore, the two levels of government were brought into a coordinated relationship for the first time, each having a delineated sphere of powers underneath an authored constitution and a system of law.
  • Kenneth Wheare noted that the U.S.'s two tiers of government were "co-equally supreme" for 1st time.
  • In doing so, he reflected the view of James Madison, a founding father of the United States, who believed that the several States were "different and independent parts of the supremacy" regarding the federal government.
  • In Europe, individuals who support a single federal government with decentralized authority at the regional, governmental, and international levels are called "federalists."It has been argued that because it gives some groups the ability to pass laws at the subnational level, federalism and other kinds of territorial autonomy are effective ways to organize democratic structures to reduce bloodshed among various groups inside nations. Yet, other academics have argued that because federalism produces proto-states, it can split nations apart and precipitate state collapse. Others have demonstrated that federalism only polarises when it needs mechanisms that foster political party competition across regional boundaries.
  • Federalism is sometimes seen as "the best plan for integrating multiple nations, ethnic groups, or belligerent parties, who all may have reason to dread domination by an unduly powerful core" in the setting of global negotiations.
  • Nonetheless, individuals wary of federal regulations occasionally think that greater regional autonomy could result in secession or the country's breakup. For instance, suggestions for federalization in Syria have fallen flat in part due to "Syrians' fear that these frontiers may end up being identical to those that the battling groups have already carved out.

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