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AMERICAN FEDERALISM: A COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE

140419                

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This is the third in a Series on how American Politics always involves vertical interactions between several “levels”:  national, supranational, and subnational. This time we report an important recent critique of American federalism: it may work OK for the USA, but it is NOT a good model for other countries, particularly for accommodating demands of nationalities for greater autonomy.  

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140419

AMERICAN  FEDERALISM:  A  COMPARATIVE  PERSPECTIVE

Alfred Stepan, Juan J. Linz and Yogendra Yadav 2010. Crafting state-nations: India and other multinational democracies. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 336 pages. 

This Post reports some elements of an important recent book in comparative politics, about “multinational democracy” (cited above). Overall, the book is a critique of the dominance – both in actual world politics and in academic comparative politics – of the idea of the NATION-STATE: one territory, one central state, one “nationality” (politically mobilized ethnic group). 

The authors propose one alternative, the STATE-NATION, particularly one that uses a particular form of FEDERACY. Most people associate “federalism” with the USA version. In contrast, the authors argue that the USA version not only is NOT the ONLY version, but also that it is POOR version for accommodating politically mobilized nationalities (last chapter). 

This Post outlines the authors’ overall argument, concluding with their critique of American federalism (last section of the Post: “A warning”). We omit the authors’ long discussion of India (which they regard as a very successful example of a “state-nation”) and their short discussion of the Ukraine (whose current difficulties they insightfully anticipate).     

 NATION-STATE

“Nation-state” is the ideal that emerged out of Western European political history. Through centuries of  “nation-building,” countries such as England and France became examples of that ideal. Then other nationalities too each wanted their own state, particularly after World War I destroyed the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires.

After World War I, pursuing the nation-state ideal, the victorious Allies forced Germany, Austria, and Hungary to give up much territory. They redrew state boundaries to coincide with nationalities (e.g. in Poland, Czechoslavakia and among the southern Slavs). The Ottoman empire yielded modern Turkey and (eventually) the modern Arab states. 

After World War II, the eventual disintegration of the British and French empires posed new challenges to the ideal of the nation-state. European colonies did NOT correspond to indigenous nationalities, so decolonization produced mostly states without “natural” nations. Nevertheless, many former colonies aspired to become nation-states. 

Meanwhile, in academia, “nationalism” became an implicit ideal. One author famously explained how diverse nationalities could “imagine” a nation (Benedict Anderson 1983/1991 Imagined communities).  Another argued that successive different European nationalisms provided different paths to modernity and democracy (Liah Greenfeld 1992 Nationalism). 

In Crafting state-nations, Stepan, Linz and Yadav question the assumption that all “countries” tend to become, CAN become, or should WANT to become “nation-states.” For countries that are “robustly multinational,”* often that is simply impossible. There, trying to “build” a nation-state can create unnecessary disaster for the country, for the nationalities, and for individuals.  

* “Robustly multinational”:  All states contain diverse nationalities that express themselves in politics – usually in support of, not opposition to, an overall national identity. However, some states have MORE THAN ONE culturally distinctive nationality that is highly concentrated territorially, with leaders who consider themselves a nation and advance claims for independence. 

STATE-NATION 

Early in the book, the authors outline what they call “the nested policy grammar of state-nations” (17-18). By “grammar” they mean that these policies articulate with each other to facilitate a state-nation.  By“nested” they mean that each policy is more likely to work if the previous policy is already in place. The desired characteristics are [my explanations in brackets]: 

1. An asymmetrical federal state BUT NOT a symmetrical federal state or a unitary state. [“Asymmetrical” means that different subnational units can be defined and treated differently. “Symmetrical” means they must all be the same. That makes it difficult to make different accommodations for different nationalities, tailored to their needs and demands.]   

2. Individual rights AND collective recognition. [A democracy must guarantee individual rights. But that does not automatically guarantee the rights of groups, such as nationalities. A state-nation should guarantee BOTH kinds of rights – even though individualistic liberal political traditions find it hard to justify group rights.] 

3. A parliamentary INSTEAD OF a presidential or semi-presidential system. [A parliamentary system provides more ways in which nationalities can be represented in government, at the same time.  Presidential or semi-presidential systems tend to install one group at a time, which can make a winning nationality overbearing and make losing nationalities insecure and fearful.] 

4. Polity-wide AND “centric-regional” parties and careers. [There should be political parties and political careers at BOTH the national and subnational levels. However, regional parties and careers should be oriented toward participation in the central government, not toward extreme regional autonomy or political secession.]     

5. Politically integrated BUT NOT culturally assimilated populations. [All nationalities should be integrated into the national political system, with equal rights and respect. However, such political integration should NOT require cultural assimilation – giving up nationalities’ own old culture, to be replaced by a new national culture.]       

6. Cultural nationalists VERSUS secessionist nationalists. [In a state-nation, it is OK for nationalities to remain proud of their cultural identity. What is NOT OK is for them to advocate secession from the state-nation in order to set up a separate independent nation-state that exclusively expresses that cultural identity.] 

7. A pattern of multiple BUT complementary identities. [In a state-nation, individuals may have many different identities, but these need not conflict, creating personal “identity crises” or group ethnic politics. Different identities can be appropriate to different circumstances. Thus they can complement each other, adding up to a “multinational” country as a whole.]   

THE  PROBLEM:  UNITARY  STATE,  LOCALIZED  MINORITY 

Later the authors further define the problem they are trying to solve: the incompatibility of a unitary state with a culturally distinctive, territorially concentrated minority.  Each of the characteristics listed below create and aggravate that problem. These characteristics are self-explanatory, so I don’t add comments (except the labels Security, Economy, Identity).   

1. Physical separation or great distance of the minority from the unitary state. [Security]

2. Linguistic or religious difference. [Identity]

3. A previous, self-governing tradition that the minority wants to restore or expand. [Security]

4. A geopolitical or cultural sense that the minority was, and should be, part of a neighboring state with which it identifies. [Security, Identity]

5. A radically different economy that the minority believes needs special laws to help preserve its own livelihood and way of life. [Economy]

6 A history of warfare with, or coercive repression by, the unitary state within which the minority is located. [Security]

A  SOLUTION:  FEDERACY 

As noted, the authors want to find a DEMOCRATIC solution to the problem of how a UNITARY STATE can accommodate a MINORITY NATIONALITY that wants more autonomy:  cultural, economic, or – particularly – political. They propose that the unitary state should add a FEDERACY – a sort of “partial state within the unitary state.” 

The authors present Federacy as an “ideal type”:  a list of desirable characteristics that define what, ideally, a Federacy would include. Of course, in particular actual situations, it might or might not be possible to implement all of these characteristic, or to implement all of them fully. The authors begin with a DEFINITION: [italics and dashes added] 

A FEDERACY is a political-administrative unit in an independent unitary state with exclusive power in certain areas, including some legislative power – constitutionally or quasi-constitutionally embedded, that cannot be changed unilaterally –  and whose inhabitants have full citizenship rights in the otherwise unitary state.  (204) 

The authors then outline a Federacy’s five DEFINING  CHARACTERISTICS (D), then add two FACILITATING  CHARACTERISTICS (F, 204-207).  Note the “state within a state” aspect: The national state has to be willing to cooperate and negotiate with the subnational Federacy as though it were independent.  Supranational involvement can also be helpful.  

D1. Federal-like division of functions between state and federacy.

D2. Quasi-constitutionally embedded political autonomy of the federacy.

D3. Existence of dispute resolution procedures.

D4. Reciprocal representation between the unitary state and the federacy.

D5. The federacy is part of an internationally recognized independent state.

F1. Role of international guarantors in the founding of the federacy.

F2. Role of the federacy in international treaties signed by the center. 

[In order to further clarify exactly what they do and don’t mean by “federacy,” the authors then discuss “federacy’s conceptual distinctiveness from ‘unitary states,’ ‘asymmetrical federations.’ ‘Confederations,’ and ‘associated states’ ”  (207-210).  This Post can’t summarize that interesting analysis; please read the book!]  

A  WARNING:  DON’T  COPY  AMERICAN  FEDERALISM! 

Stepan, Linz and Yadav want to warn other countries NOT to copy USA federalism. Again, not only is the USA version not the ONLY possible version of federalism, but also it is a very POOR version for accommodating minority nationalities. (Chapter Eight: “The US federal model and multinational societies: Some problems for democratic theory and practice,” 257-275.) 

The authors list “seven key features of US federalism in comparative  perspective” (259-262). Overall, one upshot is too much power concentrated in particular national institutions that can VETO proposals to change from the status quo (favoring the majority nationality) to new arrangements (accommodating minority nationalities). 

1. The upper chamber is extremely malapportioned. [Different states’ senators can represent very different numbers of citizens, violating the democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” The 1787 Constitution specifies that this undemocratic provision CANNOT be changed. Robust minority nationalities will resent such an arrangement, when it disadvantages them.] 

2. The upper chamber has major and unique constitutional powers. [The undemocratically-elected Senate can veto ANY legislation (Article 1, Section 7). It – NOT the very well apportioned House –  can veto important presidential nominations and international treaties. Moreover, the Senate alone tries impeachment of the president. Again, great power without true democratic accountability.] 

3. US federalism is symmetrical, not asymmetrical. [Again, all USA states have the same political rights and obligations and must be treated exactly the same. Again, on particular matters, this prevents national leaders from making different accommodations on particular matters to different nationalities in different states.] 

4. “Residual powers” go NOT to the Union but instead to the individual states. [The 1787 Constitution says that any powers that it does not explicitly grant to the national government should remain entirely with the states. This limits the national government’s authority to accommodate the demands of nationalities, and allows state governments to ignore such demands with impunity.] 

5. Senate and states must both vote approvals of any amendment by supermajority. [This makes it difficult to change the old Constitution. In the USA, the result has been adaptation through “extra-constitutional” processes and institutions. But that requires national consensus so, elsewhere, might not work for accommodating the political demands of robust nationalities.] 

6. A supreme court with strong and extensive judicial review capacity. [Rather undemocratically, the Supreme Court can declare unconstitutional even legislation approved by both congress and president. Again the problem is too much power given to a national institution that is not accountable to the public, including to minority nationalities.]  

7. The USA president is a directly elected, “unsharable” executive with a fixed term and strong veto powers. [Again a national institution with strong powers, not accountable to the public, except once every four years. There is only one president, so executive powers cannot be shared among several nationalities.]  

Finally, the authors spell out “the implications of these seven features for democracy in a robust multinational society” (262-275). Overall – at least in robustly multinational societies – these features are NOT conducive to goals of “democracy, reasonably inclusive social welfare policies, and relative political tranquility” (257).  Problems include: 

1. The inability to use “asymmetrical” federal formulas. [One cannot treat different states differently, in order to accommodate the different demands of different nationalities. This is done by ALL democratic polities that are robustly multinational:  Spain, Belgium, Canada, and India.] 

2. The weakness of coalitional incentives in the US presidential system. [The US presidency cannot be shared between nationalities, exacerbating conflict between them. In contrast, a parliamentary system can enable a minority nationality to participate in national coalition governments.] 

3. The potentially severe political problem of every full federal unit having the same number of seats (regardless of population) in the upper chamber. [Different nationalities could receive drastically and unfairly different representation, inhibiting transition to democracy.]

4. A high number of electorally based veto players and their constraining impact on inequality-reducing legislation. [There are lots of institutional positions whose incumbents can say “no!” to proposals to reduce inequalities – political, economic, or cultural – between nationalities.]

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