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Types of Constitutional Government

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  • 0:01 A Transition in Government
  • 0:42 Constitutional Governments
  • 1:48 Unitary Style
  • 3:15 Federal Style
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Learn about constitutional governments through the eyes of a citizen of a fictional country undergoing change. Gain insight into what each of these styles means as you weigh the benefits of unitary and federal types.

A Transition in Government

Imagine that a country is undergoing a transition in their style of government. Higgins is a citizen of this fictional country and is acting as a representative at a national forum to discuss these changes. He's trying to speak up for the interests of the area where he lives. Others have different ideas about what should happen next, and the conversations are getting heated.

This lesson looks at types of constitutional governments and the way power is distributed in each type. You'll learn about unitary and federal styles and how decisions are made through each system.

Constitutional Governments

Just about everyone in the country agrees on one thing: they need to determine the limits to the legal power of the government and document this. Abuses by past government leaders have made this a priority. Higgins has witnessed first-hand how leaders with too much power concentrated in their hands made choices not in the interest of the people, such as when their previous leader controlled what the news media was allowed to say about government policies.

Governments that establish documented rules or principles about the legal limits of the government are known as constitutional governments. These norms help determine how power will be distributed in the nation and who gets to make what decisions. You can remember this term by thinking of how a constitution typically serves as a guiding document for nations with this form of government.

Higgins and the others at the national forum all agree on this form of government. What they need to determine next is whether the government will be more unitary or more federal.

Unitary Style

One style of constitutional government that the nation will consider is a unitary approach. This type of government concentrates more power at a national level. For instance, governments that are unitary systems will generally determine most laws and policies so that they apply to all regions of the nation, rather than having each region set their own laws. Local governments typically carry out the decisions made at the national level.

Higgins argues for moving away from a unitary style of government. He has a strong desire to see individual regions govern themselves to a larger degree. For instance, Higgins wants to make sure that a problem of pollution in his region is addressed. Some regions don't have this problem, so he's concerned this issue will see little progress at a national level using a unitary approach.

Others disagree with Higgins and want a unitary style of government. They work to convince him that a more unitary style will have benefits, such as making it clear what is expected of individual regions and ensuring a level of uniformity across the country. They say that this uniformity will help improve pollution everywhere, including his region, and this will help the government run more efficiently. Countries with a unitary style include France and Norway, for instance.

Federal Style

In a government that is more federal in style, as Higgins wants, power is less concentrated at the national level. This involves a balance between decision-making at a regional level and at a national level. Regional governments will make key decisions, not just carry out the decisions of the national government. These regional and local areas may be called states, regions, communities, provinces, or may have other names, depending on the particular nation. The United States is an example of a more federal style of government, with states making key decisions on issues that affect their region.

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