The United States also observes tribal sovereignty of the American Indian nations to a limited degree, as it does with the states' sovereignty. American Indians are U.S. citizens and tribal lands are subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress and the federal courts. Like the states they have a great deal of autonomy, but also like the states, tribes are not allowed to make war, engage in their own foreign relations, or print and issue currency.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States > Government and Politics > Political Divisions

Territories of the United States such as Puerto Rico do not have presidential electors, and so people in those territories cannot vote for the president.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States > Government and Politics > Political Divisions

The government of each state is structured in accordance with its individual constitution. Many of these documents are more detailed and more elaborate than their federal counterpart. The Constitution of Alabama, for example, contains 310,296 words – more than 40 times as many as the U.S. Constitution.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._state > Governments > Constitution

Based on these in Wikipedia or others that might be there somewhere, can I call the USA an asymmetric federation? The Russian federation is called asymmetric because of the power difference between the Republics, Oblasts.


2 Answers 2


The key question here is whether the Tribal nations and the territories like Puerto Rico are constituents of the USA.

In at least one understanding of the Constitution, they are not. The members of the USA are the 50 States, and each state has equal rights (equal is interpreted in different ways.) By this interpretation, it is a symmetric constitution. Puerto Rico is simply not part of the USA, and the independence of a Tribal Nation is analogous to the self-governance of a city. The fact that Baltimore can elect a mayor, but doesn't have direct representation in the Senate is analogous (in principle, but not in degree) to the rights of a Tribal Nation.

If, on the other hand you consider Puerto Rico to be part of the USA and not merely owned by the USA, then it is clearly unsymmetric, as Puerto Ricans get no formal federal representation at all, only observer status in Congress.

  • Please explain me one doubt if possible. Else I can ask that separately. -> What is the difference between "Russian Republics" and "unincorporated territories of the US"? I like your answers. Concise and to the point.
    – Gary 2
    Commented Jul 18, 2021 at 15:58
  • Puerto Rico functions more like a colony in the British Empire sense. So, like Barbados used to be owned by the UK, but not part of the UK. Whereas the Russian republics are part of Russia. But this is largely a matter of nuance, and a reasonable case can be made that Puerto Rico is part of the USA... It rather depends on what the point you want to make is.
    – James K
    Commented Jul 18, 2021 at 16:25
  • Good answer, but what about Washington DC/district of Columbia? They clearly belong to the US, but it's citizen's cannot vote for Congress en.wikipedia.org/wiki/District_of_Columbia_voting_rights Commented Jul 18, 2021 at 18:42
  • "They clearly belong to the US"... perhaps... It is easier to make the case that DC is part of the US than for Puerto Rico. However DC still doesn't get a role in deciding what is in the constitution. So by some standards it is not a member of the USA.... Again, it depends on what the point you are making is. Symmetric with exceptions/Asymmetric but with a large majority with equal status...
    – James K
    Commented Jul 18, 2021 at 19:05
  • What is "being owned by the USA" and how does it differ from "being part of the USA"? Commented Jul 18, 2021 at 20:15

Can we call the United States of America an asymmetric federation?

Likely not. A Wikipedia article describes the United States as a symmetric federation. Though it is true that some "subdivisions" of the United States may have "various degrees of autonomy", the United States is, for the most part, symmetric.

Symmetric federalism

United States

The United States is a symmetric federation, as each of the 50 states in the Union has the same standing and powers under the United States Constitution. This was affirmed in Coyle v. Smith when the U. S. Supreme Court declared a provision of the Oklahoma Enabling Act which required the State capital be located in Guthrie, Oklahoma until at least 1913, as being unconstitutional. However, the U.S. has a number of insular areas directly under the control of the U. S. federal government, with various degrees of autonomy. The District of Columbia is not an insular area, but it is also directly controlled by the federal government with limited autonomy.

One may also use the Tenth Amendment to show that symmetry was intended.

Tenth Amendment

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The meaning of "the States respectively" is that each state, individually, has the same powers available, subject to the will of its people to authorize the use of such powers.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .