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Protecting Territorial Minorities: Defensive Federalism

In this post Marc Sanjaume-Calvet (Universitat Pompeu Fabra), discusses the role of federalism as a way of protecting from the tyranny of the majority, safeguarding both against the ills of centralised power and territorial self-government. The reflections in this post stems from his recently published book, coedited with Professor Ferran Requejo (UPF), Defensive Federalism Protecting Territorial Minorities from the “Tyranny of the Majority” (2023, Routledge).

Image by George Becker from Pexels
Image by George Becker from Pexels

Defensive federalism to the rescue

In the era of democratic backsliding and globalization the federal tradition of thinking remains mostly untouched. Both in its European and Anglo-American inceptions federalism was intended to be a remedy against tyranny. Nonetheless, in its practical and theoretical evolution during the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, federalism somehow forgot about its fundamental roots. For example, in the American federalist tradition, the Jeffersonian arguments in favour of the federated states vis-à-vis the “political union”, were gradually replaced by far more centralised understandings of the federation. After 1945, centralisation trends have been evident in both uninational and plurinational federations with barely any exception. The concept of defensive federalism, proposed by the editors of this book, aims to provide a renewed analytical tool to the protection of territorial minorities from the tyranny of the majorities in its two dimensions, liberal-democratic and territorial. That is, federalism operates as a safeguard against both centralised power and territorial self-government.

Defensive federalism in practice

The book tackles the notion of defensive federalism mainly from a comparative institutional perspective. Are the classical federal institutional designs being undermined – or even disappearing – due to the centralising evolution of most federal democracies and the globalisation processes in the 21st century? Is federalism, in practice, a just and workable model for plurinational polities? These questions overfly the contributions of the authors in the volume. They analyse the main federal institutions: consociational executives, exclusive powers, self-rule and shared-rule, constitutional asymmetries, opting-in and opting-out, federal veto powers, constitutional judges and the peculiar design of the European Union.

In this variety of institutions, the contributors are asked to answer a crucial question related to defensive federalism: are the institutional and procedural rules truly effective against the “territorial dimension” of the tyranny of the majority? The set of cases are based on recent developments of several federations and regional countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain Switzerland, United States, among others.

Not very good news for territorial minorities

The comparative analysis developed by the volume allows us to answer another main inquiry: Is federalism a sound institutional system for the constitutional recognition and political accommodation of minority nations in plurinational states? Is federalism really effective protecting and developing the self-rule of national minorities? The short answer is, it depends, but no in general terms.

In most of the cases, a general erosion of self-government is observed. This erosion is hardly avoided by classic institutional settings of federalism designed to distribute power. We do not observe strong defensive capacities, for example, when observing upper chambers or watershed compartments of powers (in classical dual federalism when it has been gradually abandoned for concurrent powers). Moreover, the doctrine of federal constitutional judges tends to foster cooperation over self-rule. In contrast, constitutional and political asymmetries, along with opting-out procedures, offer an effective means to preserve self-rule and address national diversity. However, these procedures are relatively uncommon and mainly applied to specific territorial units. Notable examples include Canada’s approach to Quebec (federal judiciary, asymmetry, opting in/out, and a “federal” right of secession), Scotland (asymmetry, potential agreed secession), Belgium’s decentralization process with a diminishing importance of classical asymmetries, and the fiscal asymmetry of the Basque Country. For instance, Canada’s procedural opting-out rule enhances flexibility in the federal system and better accommodation national diversity, although it has faced criticism (akin to the West Lothian question), and some uses have been revoked by federal institutions.

Self-rule through shared-rule? A paradox

A defensive approach faces an important paradox. The analysis of federal institutions, including the peculiar case of the EU, shows that protecting self-government from the tyranny of the majority is a difficult endeavour. A more effective way to protect power, and self-rule, is ensuring access to defensive procedures of shared-rule. That is, through a veto power (or an opting-out option) a territorial self-governed unit can effectively avoid negative impacts on its governmental capacity. However, we also observe that self-ruled units are generally less interested in taking part of federal governance and some of the measures that must protect self-government (asymmetries) are generally granted to specific peculiar units in plurinational contexts (for example, the Basque Country regarding fiscal issues).

The need of defensive federalism

There are good reasons to adopt a defensive federalism approach. The virtue of defensive federalism is its versatile characterisation both as a concept, that of protecting self-government from the tyranny of the majority, and as an analytical tool. In a nutshell, old analytical glasses often blur what we aim to highlight: federalism was and should be about power. How territorial self-ruled units, specially minority nations but not only them, secure and protect their power? A realist approach to this question should be the one guiding the helm when navigating the murky waters of federal politics.  

Why we need alternative voting methods

Don’t you find it highly frustrating when you want to vote for a person or party you like but you can’t really do it because you know that the person or party has a very low chance of being elected or being part of a coalition government? You may think it’s frustrating yet unavoidable. After all, isn’t it part of what making a choice means to sacrifice some attractive options? Well, no, or so I argue in a recently published article. We have a right to voting methods that allow for a more honest and complex expression of our preferences, that do not force us to sacrifice the expression of our genuine preferences. And the good news is that appealing alternative voting methods exist.

What is next for the environmental movement in the UK?

Almost 5 years ago today, on the 31st of October 2018, Extinction Rebellion was publicly launched outside the UK Parliament. Since then, it has been one of the most influential environmental movements in the UK and in other parts of the world, instrumental in changing the public conversation and in leading to the declaration of a climate emergency by the UK parliament in 2019. Using non-violent civil disobedience and mass arrests as the main tactics, in its first few years the movement organised a number of often theatrical actions which included blocking roads and bridges, with activists gluing and locking themselves in public spaces. The question of whether public disruption was indeed the right tactic for Extinction Rebellion, and the environmental movement more broadly, has dominated conversations inside and outside the movement ever since.

Intellectually Humble Free Speech Law

Scholars familiar with the philosophical arguments in favor of robust free speech protections commonly identify three kinds of arguments given in favor of such protections:

1. Free speech helps us discover truth,
2. Free speech is required for democratic self-governance,
3. Free speech is an important part of autonomy.

Contemporary social and political circumstances—including the persistent spread of viral misinformation via social media—have called these traditional arguments into question.

Can we really claim that free speech helps us discover truth when the data suggest that falsehoods travel, on average, much faster and farther than truthful corrections? Does free speech, on balance, help preserve democracy when the integrity of elections is being undermined by orchestrated viral disinformation campaigns?

Such questions prompted by social, political, and material reality ought to be taken seriously. Taking such questions seriously may require us to reconsider what kinds of arguments best ground free speech rights. This may, in turn, require us to reconsider what good free speech law and policy should look like.

Why policymakers should care about post-truth

Post-truth is often viewed as a threat to public affairs such as vaccination policy, climate change denialism, or the erosion of public discourse. Yet combating post-truth is rarely viewed as a priority for policymakers, and the preferred ways of combating it usually take the form of localised epistemic interventions such as fact-checking websites or information campaigns.

How Should We Understand NIMBYism?

In this post, Travis Quigley (U. Arizona) discusses his article recently published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy  about the issues at stake and justifications for and against restrictive zoning policies.


You might think that zoning policy should be politically boring. Instead, there is a high-stakes and high-intensity debate between defenders of restrictive zoning regulations, which currently set aside huge swaths of land for single-family houses, and those who wish to abolish most such restrictions. Defenders of restrictive zoning often are called NIMBYs, for Not In My Backyard; reformers are then called YIMBYs, for Yes In My Backyard. As such things go, each term can be an insult or a point of pride, depending on who’s speaking. In the housing context, the rationale of increasing supply to decrease prices is pitted against neighborhood preservation; the climate context pits ecological conservation against large-scale climate change mitigation projects. The two issues intersect: new, dense housing is far more energy efficient. I focus especially on residential zoning here.   

Taking political education out of families

Political education can be defined as the process by which people come to form political judgments – how they evaluate different political parties and issues of public policy, basically. The primary context of political education is the family. It is in this environment that people are first exposed to political judgments and inculcated with political values. It should come as no surprise that, as a result, many (if not most) people remain faithful to their parents’ political orientations, as research in political sociology often reports. Fortunately, though, political education is not reducible to family transmission. As they grow up, kids become more and more exposed to different political views, be it in school or within their social network, and they can be influenced by all sorts of people and events in this process. It remains true, however, that in the absence of a strong countervailing educational process, families are the main driver of political education in most if not all countries. Should we be happy with this situation?

Slow boring or endless weeding? Metaphors for politics

It’s easy to get sick of politics. So much wasted effort. So many stillborn schemes and plans that go nowhere. So much running to stand still. But if you’re running to stay in place on a treadmill, and you stop running, you go backwards. And the same is true in politics. Seemingly wasted effort is often not really waste, because without it your political opponents would have gained (even more) ground. Of course, some forms of activism are more effective than others, and some may even be counter-productive. But the mere fact you have not achieved anything concrete does not mean you’ve been ineffective: your achievement may instead have been to hinder your opponents.

One of the most celebrated political metaphors comes from Max Weber:

Max Weber

Visions of desirable futures for Iran after the Mahsa revolution

This post is part of a series entitled: “The Mahsa revolution: a political philosophy and futures studies perspective”

The goal of this series is to offer readers reflections on the on-going grassroots, women-led revolutionary movement in Iran, to be continued until its completion or the mutual exhaustion of readers and author. I will analyze, for non-Persian speakers, debates and initiatives regarding the future of Iran from a philosophical and futures studies perspective. Every revolutionary moment unlocks the space of the politically and socially conceivable and enables the hopeless to exercise their rusted capacity for imagining better futures. It also reveals normative disagreements on desirable futures, inclusion and exclusion from those futures, and strategies suitable for realizing them. Although I am not an Iranologist, my hope is to give readers a candid glimpse of the burgeoning forward-looking democratic life of Iranians in Iran and the diaspora. 

(Image: Touraj Saberivand)

Introduction to “Visions of desirable futures for Iran after the Mahsa revolution

What visions of a post-Islamist future Iran animate the Mahsa revolution? Its slogans are clear: secularism, gender equality, and democracy. Aren’t these aspirations dull compared to the anti-imperialistic and Islamist ideologies of the 1979 revolution? Four decades of life under totalitarianism have immunized Iranians against radical ideologies. Yet Iranians have aspirations that deserve to be heard and engaged with. Based on what I have informally gathered from discussions on social media, independent Iranian news outlets, countless videos of Gen Z demonstrators who elaborate on their anger and desires, I see four frequent visions of the future of Iran. 

Confucius’s Mistake, and Plato’s

This year I decided to put some Chinese philosophy on our curriculum, and I’ve been enjoying getting to know that tradition. But there’s something frustrating about classical Chinese political philosophy. It’s the same thing I find so irritating about Plato.

The wisest should rule. This is the core of Plato’s political philosophy. It’s an idea shared by Confucius and indeed most of the classical Chinese tradition. But I think it’s largely meaningless.

The ancient philosophical beard: who wore it better?

Plato presents rule by the wise as the answer to a question of constitutional theory. Who should rule? Ancient Greek thought gives a menu of options such as:

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