Regionalism in Politics: History & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

On what scale should we understand politics? Do political decisions happen at the national level, or the global? How about the regional? In this lesson, we'll look at regionalism and see what this concept means in the world today.


Imagine if an elephant walked into the room. It's definitely something you'd notice, but also something that people could describe in a number of ways. Some might see it as a monster or a threat, while others might think it's the greatest thing ever. It would ultimately mean something different to everyone, and that would influence the way each person understood it.

Politics can sometimes feel the same way. Political trends often appear that are too substantial to ignore, but everybody feels differently about them. To some people these changes are great, and to other people these changes are a threat. Furthermore, how everyone feels will define the way they interpret the political changes. One important example of this phenomenon is regionalism, a broad term referring to political trends centered around regions, or groupings of people unified around some common trait. Regionalism is a clearly identifiable political trend and one we can't ignore, but everyone interprets it a bit differently. So, maybe it's time for us to address the elephant in the geopolitical room.

Defining Regions

The first step to understanding regionalism is to start examining regions themselves. What is a region, and how do we identify them? Regions can exist on a variety of scales, from the local to international. Let's start on the smaller end.

Within national politics, regionalism examines the way that political decisions center around people within specific parts of the nation. One of the clearest examples in the United States is the traditional division between the North, the South, and the West. Each of these regions has its own political history and identity, and in most American presidential elections you can see a clear division. Sometimes it's extreme and very obvious, like in 1861 when Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans represented two different American nations in the Civil War. Other times the division is not so clear, but there is a longstanding trend in American politics where people within a region tend to express similar political ideologies, which are distinct from other regions.

American politics often has regional characteristics

Regionalism can also be understood in international terms. On the world stage, many countries consolidate into rough geopolitical regions of their own. Each country maintains their own sovereignty, but through common goals, political actions, and/or alliances these countries form a clear and distinct region. This trend really started emerging as a conscious priority in global politics during the Cold War. Many smaller countries feared being swept up in the battle between Western capitalism and Soviet communism, so they banded together for strength and emphasized their regional sovereignty.

This trend has continued beyond the Cold War as well. In looking at global politics, we talk a lot about globalization and the integration of global economic networks. However, regionalism has been a salient feature of modern global politics as well. From the mid-twentieth century into the early 2000s, North African and West Asian nations formed the Arab League and several African nations unified into the African Union; meanwhile North American nations signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, and European nations organized around a shared economic standard, which took on political dimensions when they formed the European Union.

Types of Regions

The international regions we've seen so far are all continental or sub-continental regions, organized primarily around economic and political exchange. These are just a few ways for countries to seek strength and stability through regional organization within increasingly global markets. There are, of course, other ways to define regions as well.

The European Union is just one international region that has become more politically defined since the year 2000

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