Document Type


Publication Date



In Copyright


With an epidemic of democratic backsliding now afflicting many of the world’s democracies, including the United States, some scholars have suggested that federalism might serve as a useful defense for liberal democracy by impeding the ability of an authoritarian central government to stamp it out at the subnational level. In this Essay, I dispute that contention. An examination of both federal theory on one hand and the behavior and tactics of central control employed by ancient and early modern empires on the other leads to the conclusion that the protective value of federalism against the effects of national authoritarianism is indeterminate and depends upon a host of contingencies. These include the particular structure of the federal state in question; the specific pathways of influence available to subnational units to protect their autonomy in any given federal structure; and the goals, motivations, and determination of governments and populations at both levels.

However, a few considerations suggest that the outcome in any particular case, though contingent on many details, might nonetheless be subject to certain general tendencies, and these tendencies by and large favor an eventual strangling of subnational liberal democracy. First, autocratic tolerance for the exercise of subnational autonomy generally extends only to matters of indifference to the central state, and in today’s world there may well be few matters as to which an authoritarian central government is truly indifferent. Second, the tendency in all autocracies, as they become better established, has been continually to tighten social and political controls, making successful opposition to the regime increasingly unlikely as time passes. Third, the tactics of subnational influence and self-defense that are most likely to be successful in a centrally authoritarian federation tend to be self-defeating because they require behavior that is largely incompatible with the very liberal democracy it would aim to preserve. Thus, the survival of subnational liberal democracy in a centrally authoritarian federation, although not theoretically impossible, would require an extremely fortunate confluence of highly favorable and unlikely contingencies.

Publication Title

Wisconsin Law Review

First Page


Last Page


Required Text

Copyright 2021 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System; Reprinted by permission of the Wisconsin Law Review.