In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Comparative Politics of Federalism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sets
  • Journals
  • Country Reports and Other Qualitative Data
  • Definitions of Federalism

Political Science Comparative Politics of Federalism
Jenna Bednar, Srinivas Parinandi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0104


Federalism is a system of government that sits uneasily between a unitary government with administrative decentralization and a confederacy composed of independent states that choose to coordinate their activity in some realms, such as defense or trade. The comparative study of federations is broad, ranging from internal fiscal arrangements to economic performance to political representation and identity. Uniting these diverse fields is a common interest in federalism as a system of government, adopted for a purpose, and failing or meeting aspirations. Federal systems vary widely in construction, in purpose, and in practice. The system effects are complex and often unexpected. Hence, adopting the federal form is an important constitutional decision with significant—and sometimes surprising—consequences. In this article, we concentrate on two aspects of the literature on comparative federalism: the postulated benefits of federalism and theories to explain its inconsistent performance.

General Overviews

As a field, political science has been working on (and arguing about) an understanding of what federalism might achieve and under what conditions it might be successful since Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and especially James Madison wrote under the pseudonym Publius (Publius 1787–1788). Political scientists and those in closely related disciplines, particularly economics and law, continue to search for an understanding of optimal constitutional design and the dynamics of federal systems in practice. The study of federalism is both normative and positive, often within the same work. Positive analyses characterize the federal system, make predictions about what the system might achieve, formulate hypotheses about what causes a federal system to perform well or poorly, and measure empirical outcomes (e.g., Wheare 1946; Riker 1964; Filippov, et al. 2004; Ostrom 2008; Bednar 2009). Positive political theory also captures the effect of federalism on other political or economic activities, such as the production of policy, the extent of citizens’ political participation, or the shape of the party system. The study of federalism is also normative: as seen in Ostrom 2008, Elazar 1987, and Burgess 2006, the theories characterize the relationship between the people and their government, and the way that federalism builds and accommodates diverse values and identities. Hueglin and Fenna 2006 and Elazar 1987 capture well the philosophy of thought that underpins the concept of federalism. This article focuses primarily on the positive literature.

  • Bednar, Jenna. The Robust Federation: Principles of Design. Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    A general theory of federalism that is based on the incentives that the federal structure creates for the component parts. Defiance of constitutional boundaries is to be expected, and no single institutional safeguard is sufficient to ensure compliance. A system of redundant and complementary safeguards is necessary for a federation that is robust and adaptive.

  • Burgess, Michael. Comparative Federalism: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    Burgess’s text treats federalism and federations broadly, from intellectual and empirical origins, to close studies of several federations in operation, to analysis of federal-system failure and success. Rather than accept a single, general theory of federalism’s origins, Burgess proposes a theory of circumstantial causation of federations that embraces a wide variety of internal and external factors. Federations are diverse in form, purpose, and practice.

  • Elazar, Daniel J. Exploring Federalism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.

    Elazar provides a comprehensive account of the origins of federalism and describes different structural forms of federalism; this comparative work describes how federalism satisfies diverse populations. Elazar emphasizes that the essence of federalism is not the formal structure but the relationships between the units.

  • Filippov, Mikhail, Peter C. Ordeshook, and Olga Shvetsova. Designing Federalism: A Theory of Self-Sustainable Federal Institutions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511610875

    This book links the rise of federally integrated political parties to increased opportunities for good policymaking. When parties are not integrated across subnational and national levels of government, policymaking can be myopic and beholden to constituency desires. When parties are integrated across subnational and national levels, however, politicians are motivated partly by party constraints and push for less-myopic policymaking.

  • Hueglin, Thomas O., and Alan Fenna. Comparative Federalism: A Systematic Inquiry. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2006.

    Hueglin and Fenna draw upon differences in constitutional traditions and institutional design to identify four main models of federalism, as practiced in the United States, Canada, Germany, and the European Union. They highlight the importance of judicial review in stabilizing and changing the federal system.

  • Ostrom, Vincent. The Political Theory of a Compound Republic: Designing the American Experiment. 3d ed. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008.

    Ostrom applies his influential theory of polycentric governance—where decision-making authority is dispersed among actors and agencies, and democracy emerges from the bottom up—to the American federal system. Ostrom presents the federal principle of overlapping, polycentric decision points as prior and necessary for democracy to thrive.

  • Publius. The Federalist Papers. 1787–1788.

    James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay make the case for replacing the early US Articles of Confederation government with a federal model. The authors construct the basic intellectual framework of federalism. Accessible online via the US Library of Congress website.

  • Riker, William H. Federalism: Origin, Operation, and Significance. Basic Studies in Politics. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964.

    Riker hypothesizes that federalism emerges due to military necessity or expansionist drive. He categorizes countries by type of federal government. The party system and citizen loyalty maintain the distribution of authority between levels of government. Riker concludes with a condemnation of federalism because it enables racist political enclaves to persist.

  • Wheare, K. C. Federal Government. London: Oxford University Press, 1946.

    A classic study of federalism, updated regularly throughout the 1900s, Wheare describes the “federal principle” of divided government, where authority is distributed between two levels of government.

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