The Puzzling Success of 'Federal Democracy'

31 Pages Posted: 29 Nov 2017

Date Written: November 21, 2017


Most of the world’s free population lives in states that are “federal democracies.” Such states select leaders and steer policy decisions through elections, but also divide power among two levels of government that enjoy some degree of mutual autonomy. Yet it is by no means obvious why this hybrid form of government organization should thrive. Federalism and democracy arose from different historical roots, rest on fundamentally distinct conceptions of politics, and proceed by very different and largely incompatible methods, which often causes them to become operationally entangled in ways that impair the efficacy of both systems.

A theoretical account of federal democracy may be constructed that explains its success as resulting from its incorporation, in a pragmatically useful format, of two very different mechanisms of social and political dispute resolution that are activated on different occasions, and in response to different kinds of problems. On this account, the success of federal democracy rests primarily on its ability successfully to assign issues for resolution to the forum – democracy or federalism – for which they are best suited. In practice, however, evolving political and social circumstances may change which forum is best suited to resolution of any particular issue. Federal democracies, however, have not in general devised any particularly effective or systematic method for adjusting the assignment of issues from one forum to another. As a result, mismatches between issues and the forums to which they are assigned are typically resolved in the crucible of constitutional politics, an environment that is not necessarily conducive to sound and lasting solutions to problems implicating the long-term stability of the state. An account of federal democracy as a dual system therefore does not solve the puzzle of its success but at best allows the question to be recharacterized as a better-known, longstanding puzzle about how federal states survive at all for any length of time.

Keywords: federalism, constitutional design, democracy

Suggested Citation

Gardner, James A., The Puzzling Success of 'Federal Democracy' (November 21, 2017). CITC Conference Volume, November 2017; University at Buffalo School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2017-011. Available at SSRN:

James A. Gardner (Contact Author)

University at Buffalo Law School ( email )

Room 514, O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States
716-645-3607 (Phone)
716-645-2064 (Fax)


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