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Lijphart: Democracy in plural societies

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Lijphart. 1977. Democracy in plural societies: A comparative exploration. New Haven: Yale University Press.

In Brief

Lijphart presents his arguments in favor of "consociational" democracy. The arguments in this book are somewhat dated; see Lijphart's updated version of these argument in his later book, Patterns of Democracy (1999).

Chapter 1

There are two main aspects of consociationalism: (1) a plural society with segmental cleavages and (2) the segmental elites cooperate through consociational structures.

Lipset and others argued that democracy requires cross-cutting (as opposed to segmental) cleavages. Lijphart seeks to develop a model of democracy that will work even in the absence of such cleavages--when there are segmental cleavages like ethnic, religious, or linguistic divides (p 11).

He reviews several other common ideas in the literature--such as the argument that a two-party system promotes development of cross-cutting cleavages, or that deeply divided societies cannot have democracy, etc.--and shows that these arguments aren't true even in Europe (where we would most expect them to be true), especially in Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands. These small, deeply divided countries have instead embraced what Lijphart calls "consociational democracy."

Chapter 2: Four Main Characteristics of Consociational Democracy

  1. First and most important: A grand coalition. We might expect parliamentary parties to form a "minimum winning coalition" (MWC)--that is, a coalition just large enough to control a majority of parliamentary seats. (Presumably, this would enable the coalition to implement policy without sacrificing too many goals.) But in consociational democracy, we expect quite the opposite: A "grand coalition." With a grand coalition, the cabinet includes extra parties so that it can represent the views of a broader chunk of the public. This tendency can be either formally prescribed (Switzerland's "Magic formula") or informally adhered to (Austria, others).
  2. Mutual veto. All groups have the ability to apply brakes to a decision process. Any one minority can essentially veto a policy change. This "mutual veto" could lead to policy immobility, but Lijphart thinks that it won't, because each party will want to preserve the system's stability (because it promotes intergroup peace), so they will make concessions occasionally to prevent constitutional change or war.
  3. Proportionality. The idea is to move decision making as far up (i.e. away from the citizens) as possible. So the parliament proportionally reflects the population, the cabinet proportionally reflects the cabinet. Only at the highest elite level does decision-making take place, often in secret negotiations--because it is at this level that elites can recognize the need to work across their cleavages and make good decisions. Compromises happen when elites (i.e. cabinet members) bargain behind closed door; conflict happens when members of parliament openly pander to their supporters. Avoid conflict by letting elites make the decisions.
  4. Segmental autonomy and federalism. Minorities rule themselves--territorially (i.e. federally) if such an arrangement physically works. He doesn't say it, but this would be a necessary condition for the mutual veto to work without resulting in deadlock.

Lijphart goes on to discuss another solution (besides consociationalism) for countries with deep segmental cleavages: Partition (like Czechoslovakia's "velvet divorce"). Partition isn't a bad thing--sometimes it is the only way to avert bloodshed. Lijphart says that there are three ways to solve the political problems of a divided society without destroying democracy. The first is assimilation--which is likely to happen if one large group forms the majority in a majoritarian (e.g. Westminster/British) system. The second is consociational democracy. The third, if the first two don't work favorably, is partition into homogeneous states. The problem is that people aren't usually neatly divided into two distinct regions, making partition difficult (consider the former Yugoslavia, particularly Bosnia-Herzegovina).

Critics have noted several possible disadvantages to Lijphart's ideas, most of which complain that consociationalism is not fully democratic. For example, there is a small, weak opposition, so it is hard to vote against the government without voting against the system. Lijphart counters by pointing out that (in Horowitz's later terms) winning the election in a deeply divided society is more like just winning a census. So if there were a strong opposition, it would have no real chance of alternating in power, because its size would be limited by the size of its ethnic group. So it is better to include the opposition in a Grand Coalition since, otherwise, power would not alternate and the strong opposition would simply be alienated. Also, critics complain that Lijphart's solution can't bring stability, only deadlock and immobilism. He concedes that policies may take longer to pass, but that policies are also less likely to be repealed in four years.

Chapter 7: A Normative Argument for Democracy and Consociationalism

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Lijphart, Arend (author)Comparative PoliticsConsociationalismDivided SocietiesPluralismDemocracyDemocracy and Society

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