By Kendra Battin Savage
The Federalism Index is excited to announce the release of a new resource for students, teachers, and researchers. Our newest dashboard focuses on comparative federalism; that is, how federalism has shaped—and been shaped by - different nations around the world; and how federalism promotes cooperation within and between these states.
Explore the dashboard here: https://www.federalismindex.org/federalism-organizations
Federal systems vary widely in their application, nature, scope, and character. While only four nations adopted a federal system during the 19th century, the 20th century saw a dramatic shift, with 22 nations adopting new or modifying existing federal constitutions. Today nearly 2 billion people, or 40% of the global population, including more than 25 countries and 480 federated states or sub-national entities, participate in some form of federalism.
Why do scholars, researchers, legislators, and ordinary citizens care about federalism? In short, federalism is a unique solution to the problem of power-sharing. Countries that adopt a federal system do so because federalism “places a premium on negotiation and bargaining"(1).
As noted scholar Francesco Palermo puts it,
Federalism is at the heart of one of the most pressing challenges in the history of mankind: how to order public life and how to limit, organize, and regulate power in a way that guarantees freedom and efficiency, unity and plurality, autonomy and coordination.
(For an elaboration on federalism we invite you to watch our federalism lecture series at https://www.federalismindex.org/cle-videos).
What makes a country federal?
There is no cookie-cutter formula for how federalism should look across the world. As Justice Potter Stewart noted in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), “I know it when I see it.”
The term "federalism" is also by its nature ambiguous. As Daniel J. Elazar explains,
The very terminology of federalism is characterized by a revealing ambiguity. The verb “federalize” is used to describe the unification of separate states into a federal polity and also the permanent diffusion of authority and power within a nation between general and constituent governments. In this ambiguity lies the essence of the federal principle: the perpetuation of both union and noncentralization. Federalism is more than simply a structural arrangement; it is a special mode of political and social behavior as well, involving a commitment to partnership and to active cooperation on the part of individuals and institutions that at the same time take pride in preserving their own respective integrities.
However, there are several characteristics that qualify a system to be called ‘federal.’
The first and primary characteristic is that all federal systems have at least two levels of government—a general government with authority over the whole country and one or more other levels or subdivisions (state, region, province, etc.) which exercise control over defined geographical areas, policy areas, or legislation. The specific division of powers and responsibilities among these levels “varies greatly between federations depending on their needs and circumstances.”(2)
The second major characteristic of federal systems is the existence of a mechanism by which lower political subdivisions are included in decision-making procedures at the general level. This normally takes the form of an upper legislative body such as the U.S. Senate, or Germany’s Bundesrat.
The third, and possibly most disputed, characteristic of federal systems is that the rights, responsibilities, and powers of the different levels of government are constitutionally protected from being changed without a super-majority of the states, provinces, districts, or subunits. Constitutional guarantees help secure the rights of the various levels of government from being unilaterally stripped away by the other.
Federalism Around the World
To help us better understand the enormous topic of comparative federalism, we have created four interactive maps that highlight different ways to better understand comparative federalism. These interactive databases provide users with an accessible visualization of the evolution of federalism around the world. Users will also find an overview, with links, to current federalism committees in each of the 50 states. Where possible, maps include external links to academic sources and further reading.
A free download of Daniel J. Elazar's Federalism: An Overview is available here: https://federalism.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Elazar-Federalism-An-Overview.pdf
The Center for the Study of Federalism is the world's leading source for nonpartisan, interdisciplinary research on federal theories, principles, and institutions.
Elazar, Daniel J. Federalism: An Overview. HSRC Publishers, 1995.
Elazar, Daniel J. Exploring Federalism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.
“What is Federalism?” International IDEA online. August 27, 2020. https://www.idea.int/news-media/media/what-federalism
Huelin, Thomas O., and Fenna, Alan. Comparative Federalism: A Systematic Inquiry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.
Daniel J. Elazar, Exploring Federalism (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991), 83.
“What is Federalism?” International IDEA online, August 27, 2020, https://www.idea.int/news-media/media/what-federalism