Federal State

Imagine you governed a large country that expanded across an entire continent. The territory spread from the Arctic Circle in the north, Pacific islands in the west, and all the way to the Atlantic Coast in the east. This is what the President of the United States (POTUS) has control of. Yet, the POTUS cannot control this territory all by themselves. Luckily, the US is a federal state. Federal states all around the world govern with multiple levels of government, which helps the nations manage large territories. 

Federal State Federal State

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Table of contents

    Federal State: Definition

    In the US, federalism is the political process in which power is shared between different levels of government. At the national level is the federal government, which shares power with provincial or regional governments. Within these substates, power is also shared with local governments.

    Thus, there are three levels of government.

    Federalism: A compound form of governance that includes the central government, states, and municipalities having different tasks and responsibilities to share power in a complex system of checks and balances.

    Federal State Examples

    There are numerous federal states around the world, and no two states are structured the same. Two powerful examples of federal states are the US and Germany.


    Germany has sixteen partly sovereign states, known as Bundesländer in German. The federal Bundestag is a legislative body directly elected by the German people in Germany. Meanwhile, the Bundesrat is the government chamber that represents the Bundesländer. These politicians represent the interests of their state and vote accordingly.

    Federal States Germany Federal Map StudySmarterFig 1. - Federal map of Germany featuring the sixteen Bundesländer.

    The United States

    The 50 states are symbolically depicted on the country's flag in the form of stars. Each state has a governor, state capital, and its own legislative body. Thus, states have the right to make their laws in areas in which they have jurisdiction.

    At the federal level, in the Senate of the US, each state, no matter its area or population, is given equal power with two senators each. In the House of Representatives, the legislature's 435 representatives are distributed based on the state's population. For instance, the most populous state, California, has 52 representatives. Meanwhile, the least populous state, Wyoming, only has one representative.

    Federal States United States of America Federal Map StudySmarterFig. 2 - Federal map of the United States of America, featuring the 50 US states and additional territories.

    While the US may be the system of federalism that you understand the best, federalism looks different in other federal states.

    Asymmetric vs Symmetric Federalism

    Federalism involves the federal state having a division of power with substates within the federal state's territory. The most noticeable difference between different federal states is symmetric versus asymmetric federalism. What is the difference?

    Symmetric federalism: each state within the federation possesses equal power.

    The US is an example of symmetric federalism because all states, no matter the size of territory or population, possess equal power under the Constitution. Each state has two Senators at the federal level, and each state gets to make its own laws concerning the areas in which they have jurisdiction. This is not the same in asymmetric federalism.

    Asymmetric federalism: some substates in a federation possess more power than other substates, even though they have the same constitutional status.

    Canada and Russia are examples of asymmetric federalism, because substates of the federation do not possess the same powers or levels of autonomy.


    Russia is the world's largest country by territory. It is challenging to govern a country with such a vast area. Thus, Russia has 83 federal subjects. There are six different degrees of autonomy that the subjects can possess, and this differs based on the local situation. This asymmetric federal system makes it possible for ethnicities to have autonomy. For instance, federal subjects declared republics can have their own constitution and official language. This is beneficial because it grants ethnic nations freedom and autonomy in their local affairs while remaining in the greater federation.

    Federal States map of Russian federation StudySmarterFig. 3 - This Russian Federation map shows Russia's federal subjects with their degree of autonomy. In order of most common to least common, yellow (48) represents oblasts, green (24) represents republics, orange (9) represents krais, navy (4) represents autonomous okrugs, red (3) represents federal cities, and purple represents the one autonomous oblast.


    Quebec is a province within the federation of Canada that has a significant population of French speakers, while in the rest of the country, English is dominant. There have been secessionist movements within Quebec for this province to become its own nation due to its unique linguistic and ethnic identity. However, the Canadian state has accommodated Quebec into the federation as the Canadian government functions in a bilingual setting. The Canadian federal government has also granted a large degree of autonomy to Quebec that other provinces within the federal territory do not possess. For instance, three of the nine justices of the Canadian Supreme Court must come from Quebec. Additionally, Quebec can manage its own employment and immigration laws.

    Federal States Quebec Map Canada StudySmarterFig. 4 - Quebec is depicted within Canada.

    Canada is a success story of integrating a federal subject that has had secessionist movements. If Canada had had a symmetric federal system, Quebec might have seceded and become its own sovereign country to gain the autonomy that it is now granted by the federal state.


    This process in Canada is an example of devolution.

    Devolution is a political process in which subdivisions are granted autonomy and functional powers on a provincial basis.

    Devolution is often a reluctant process forced upon the central state based on demand. In the example of Canada, Quebec has special powers to keep Quebec as a part of the federal state,

    For more information, check out StudySmarter's explanation of the devolution of Canada. The explanation of Unitary States also includes more information on devolution. StudySmarter also has explanations on the devolution of Nigeria, the USSR, Sudan, Belgium, and Spain.

    Federal, State, and Shared Powers

    Some legislative duties reserved for federal governments include determining whether the country becomes involved in wars, managing the currency, implementing trade policy, issuing patents, and managing interstate highways that traverse the country.

    In the US, whatever is not legislated by the federal government is left to the states. For instance, states get to decide insurance, public health, education, banking, corporate, and criminal laws for the state's specific territory. This power has led to some very obvious and oft-discussed differences between states in the US.

    As you may be aware, the US media often discuss legal differences between states such as laws concerning policing, abortion, guns, voting, taxes, and the death penalty.

    Shared power refers to different levels of government having concurrent powers. Examples of where legal jurisdiction between the federal and state governments overlaps include education, the building of roads, and taxes.

    Different Types of Federalism

    The difference between asymmetric and symmetric federalism is fundamental. However, there are many different types of federalism in terms of political systems. Federalism is not necessarily stable, and political systems are constantly evolving.

    In the US, for instance, conservatives may lament that the federal government has become too large, too meddling, and too expensive. Meanwhile, liberals prefer a strong and expanded federal state that offers protection to its citizens.

    The system is constantly updated to adapt to new challenges.

    Let's discuss a few of the different types:

    Cooperative Federalism

    Cooperative federalism describes the different levels of government working together to solve common problems. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic required a response from each level of government in the US. Rules for quarantining, testing, and vaccination differed at the state level. Rules for masking differed by municipality. But it was the federal government's job to institute national policies such as rules for travelers into the country, as well as distributing vaccines.

    Competitive Federalism

    Competitive federalism involves competition between different governments, especially in areas in which jurisdiction overlaps, to advocate for better economic interests. This was popular under the US Nixon administration as states competed for federal funds. In the US, with each state having its economic priorities and activities, it can be difficult for the federal government to create a common economic or welfare plan.

    Dual Federalism

    Federalism in the US has evolved as the country has grown in population and territory since the nation's inception in 1776. Dual federalism is an outdated practice, but it was the foundation for US democracy. This type of federalism sees separate but equally powerful governments balance each other out. This made more sense as a system when there were fewer states, and also there was less communication across the entire nation. However, distance is no longer as big of a barrier to governance or communication in the modern age.

    Fiscal Federalism

    Fiscal federalism describes the federal government distributing money to states with specific requirements for how the money is to be used. The federal government is the wealthiest political entity, as it collects taxes from across the entire territory. States also raise their own taxes, but the federal government can allocate its funds to states for specific projects or legislation as it sees fit. For instance, states were granted various quantities of relief during the COVID-19 pandemic based on need.

    Judicial Federalism

    With Judicial federalism, the Supreme Court decides whether the federal government or state governments have authority over certain legal matters. This has led to historic moments when the Supreme Court has granted or denied states certain rights.

    In 2015, the Supreme Court defined gay marriage as being constitutional across the entire nation. Before this ruling, gay marriage was only legal in states that protected this right in their state laws.

    Federal States Supreme Court of the United States Gay Marriage Decision StudySmarterFig. 5 - Celebration outside the Supreme Court of the United States on June 26, 2015, after gay marriage was deemed a constitutional right across the nation.

    Unitary State vs Federal State

    While federal states share power across multiple levels of government to make government more effective, unitary states do not divide power across multiple levels. Instead, unitary states have almost all the state's power residing in a centralized government that has supreme authority. Most states around the world are unitary states.

    Examples of unitary states include Japan, France, the United Kingdom, China, and Israel.

    For more information about unitary states, especially the United Kingdom, China, and France, check out StudySmarter's explanation of Unitary States.

    Federal States Map of Unitary and Federal States StudySmarterFig. 6 - Map of Federal versus Unitary states around the world. Federal states are depicted in green and unitary states are depicted in blue.

    Federal State Characteristics

    Each federal government differs in terms of how it functions. However, a key characteristic of all federal states is the division of power across different levels of government. Each level of government has certain powers reserved for this level.

    Mayors, governors, and presidents have common responsibilities such as solving crises, having the best interests of their constituents in mind, and caring about tax policy. However, their scope differs immensely. For instance, a president is concerned with the entire nation, a governor is concerned with an entire state, and a mayor is concerned with just their town.

    Yet, local governance can look different in each state and can be complex. Some local governments are managed by an elected governing board. For example, in Pennsylvania, county, townships, and borough boards of supervisors and boards of aldermen are powerful, while mayors often have limited power.

    Federal State - Key takeaways

    • Federalism is the political process where power is shared between different levels of government. Federal states often have at least three levels of government: the national federal government, provincial substate governments, and lastly, municipal governments.

    • Asymmetric federalism refers to substates having different degrees of autonomy. Symmetric federalism refers to each substate having equal powers.

    • There are different types of federalism in terms of functionality.

    • Mayors, governors, and presidents may have shared responsibilities, but the scope of their work differs.


    1. Fig. 1 Federal Map of Germany (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_germany_with_coats-of-arms.png) by Georg Slickers licensed by CC-BY-SA 2.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 2 Federal Map of the USA (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_USA_with_state_and_territory_names_2.png) by LumaP15 licensed by CC-BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    3. Fig. 3 Map of Federal Subjects of Russia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_federal_subjects_of_Russia_(2014).svg) by Roman Poulvas licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    4. Fig. 4 Quebec in Canada Map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Quebec_in_Canada_2.svg) by MapGrid licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    5. Fig. 5 SCOTUS Marriage Equality 2015 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SCOTUS_Marriage_Equality_2015_58151_(18580433973).jpg) by Ted Eytan (https://www.flickr.com/people/22526649@N03) licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
    6. Fig. 6 Map of Unitary and Federal States (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_unitary_and_federal_states.svg) by Lokal_Profil (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Lokal_Profil) licensed by CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Federal State

    What is a federal state?

    A federal state is a state that has a division of power between different levels of government. 

    What is an example of a federal state? 

    An example of a federal state is the United States of America. There is the federal government located in Washington, DC followed by the 50 states each having their own government. 

    Is the US a federal state? 

    Yes, the USA is a federal state with the federal government located in the capital city of Washington, DC.

    What are the types of federal states? 

    There are many different types of federal states in terms of functionality. However, the most obvious difference in federal states is asymmetric versus symmetric federal states. In asymmetric federal states, the substates are not equal in terms of the power they are granted. Meanwhile, in symmetric federal states, each substate has an equal level of power. 

    How do federal, state, and local governments work together? 

    Federal, state, and local governments work together on shared issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. This challenge required a response from all levels of government as it was not located in just one city.

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