Sovereignty and Its Many Forms: A Deep Dive into the Concept of Political Control

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Sovereignty is the power and legal authority to govern. There are many different types of sovereignty, including real v. nominal, internal v. external, legal, political and popular, and de facto (in fact) vs. de jure (by law). The United States practices popular (people) sovereignty and federalism (state and national governments).  

I’ve Heard That Word, But What Does It Mean? 

Sovereignty is one of those fancy-sounding words that you might be familiar with but not quite understand.  Shortly before I wrote this, King Charles III had his coronation as “sovereign.”  

We also learn about how “popular sovereignty” was debated in antebellum times when the people debated how to handle slavery.  And, states and the national government are “sovereign.”  

What is Sovereignty? 

Sovereignty is the power and legal authority to govern. 

We are talking about two things here though they often are related.  The power to govern might not be obtained legally.  A rebel band might gain control and have the power to govern.  

Sovereignty usually means the government is legitimate. The Confederate States of America controlled eleven states but was not a legitimate government under the U.S. Constitution.  The Soviet Union by raw power seized control of Ukraine’s territory in violation of international law.  

In both cases, the people in control were not lawful sovereigns.  

Different Types of Sovereignty

Political scientists, those who study government, talk about different forms of sovereignty.

[1] Nominal (Titular) v. Real

Kings and queens in the past often had a lot of power.  The Lion King is a fierce and powerful ruler.  These are the real deal.  They have “real” or full authority to rule.  

Monarchs these days are more like “monarchs in name only” (MINOs?). They are symbolic holders of sovereignty in the name of the nation.  They are only nominal sovereigns.  

A nation also might nominally have power over its territory but an outside nation has true power.  A nation might be a protectorate with little power, an imperial power having real sovereignty.  

[2]  Internal/External 

The fifty states of the United States have a large amount of sovereignty over their own territory.  What happens inside (internal) is their department.  

The United States has power inside and outside (external) its borders.  External sovereignty includes the power to regulate foreign policy. It protects the nation from foreign attacks.  

Another way to say this is domestic and international sovereignty.  

[3]  Legal

Legal sovereignty is the power to pass laws.  

If the pharaoh of Egypt said “So it is written, so it is done” and their word is law, this is a form of legal sovereignty. The United States sets forth the rules of legal sovereignty in the Constitution.  A theocracy might rely on the rules found in a holy book or by divine commands.

[4]  Political/Popular 

Political sovereignty involves the authority to govern.  It also can be in the hands of a few people or special types of people such as priests or certain noble clans.  

The U.S. Constitution puts political sovereignty in the hands of “We the People.”  Citizens elect our rulers and have the power to determine who is guilty or innocent in courts of law.  

Popular sovereignty is when political control is found in the people themselves.  Some argued that the people themselves could decide what happened to slavery in the territories.  They voted for local territorial governments, who ultimately determined if slavery could survive.  

[5] De Jure/De Facto

Discrimination comes in various forms. The law often speaks of “de jure” and “de facto” discrimination. The first is discrimination which has the formal force of law.  States used to officially require blacks and whites to go to different schools.  This is “de jure.”  

Discrimination also occurs without the force of law. Society in a variety of ways treats various groups unfairly.  No laws are required.  It is discriminate “de facto” (in fact).  

Sovereignty works the same way.  Mussolini gained de facto control of Italy by marching on Rome with his supporters.  He was not the legal sovereign (de jure) until the king appointed him prime minister.  Nonetheless, Mussolini had true power.  

Types of U.S. Sovereignty

The United States has a federal type of government.  We practice federalism

The national and state governments each have a form of sovereignty.  Justice Anthony Kennedy once spoke of how the Framers of the Constitution “split the atom of sovereignty.”  

There is also a third form of sovereignty, tribal sovereignty.  The Native American tribes were originally independent nations. They are now under the control of the United States.  Nonetheless, tribes retain some of their sovereign power.  They are “tribal nations.”  

Limits of Sovereignty 

Imperialism is the ability to use power (both government and private groups such as multinational corporations) to limit the sovereignty of foreign nations.  

Sovereignty is often shared.  Federalism divides power between local and national governments.  

Nations also often form alliances, including economic confederations such as the European Union, and the United Nations.  These agreements give up some sovereignty in the process.  

Nations also might have problems retaining the power to rule because of a range of problems. Civil wars, disease and famine, and foreign invasions can all threaten sovereign power.  

We also sometimes have a call for a true world government. Are the over two hundred (depending on how you count) nations out of date?  What is the future of sovereignty?

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.