Arend Lijphart – Patterns of Democracy

The traditional definition of democracy emphasizes the principle of majority rule and the institution of elections. This is where the genesis of the “tyranny of the majority” claim emerges. Typically, political theorists have required the marriage of liberalism and democracy to establish limitations on majority rule. This approach assumes there is a conflict between traditional liberal values and democratic governance. It is this line of thought which has given credibility to Orbán’s vision of the illiberal democracy. Indeed, the imagined dichotomy allows him to claim his efforts strengthen Hungarian democracy.

Robert Dahl did not believe liberalism and democracy were entirely distinct. His notion of polyarchy gives a significant emphasis to liberal values like freedom of speech and association. Yet he believed majority rule was an important component to establish political equality. Lijphart upturned these concepts which largely originated within the Anglo-American tradition. Rather he emphasizes the cooperation of different political interests. This cooperative form of governance makes intuitive sense because it matches our common belief in a “government by the people.” Indeed, majoritarian governance undermines this principle because political majorities control the government while it excludes the opposition.

The majoritarian vision of government emphasizes a competitive political environment. But it depends on balanced political parties which transfer governance from election to election. Lijphart offers a new vision of democracy where different political interests can share political power over long periods of time without political dissatisfaction. The key difference between the two forms of government is its method of elections. Consensual governance relies on proportional representation whereas a majoritarian or Westminster model relies on a first past the post form of elections. But Lijphart extends his analysis of democracies across multiple dimensions. The American political system has several dimensions which are consensual such as its tradition of decentralization and federal form of government. Moreover, it has a long tradition of judicial review and an independent central bank, although its form of judicial review emphasizes elements of majoritarianism in its application.

There is an inverse relationship between corporatism and the number of political parties which is puzzling. It seems the decentralization of political power into distinct units gives rise to a centralization in political and social decisions. In contrast, a pluralistic society limits the number of relevant political parties but offers a decentralized approach to the communication of different social and political interests. Lijphart does not seem to appreciate the many internal compromises made within a two-party system. The two parties may rarely compromise but the parties are themselves a composite of different interests and social demands. Perhaps it is the relative weakness of many of these groups within a pluralist society which leads to their consolidation into larger political parties which are better able to represent their demands.

Of course, the consensual democracies of Europe have suffered the same populist challenges of the majoritarian democracies of the United States and the United Kingdom. Yet they may have some institutional advantages which majoritarian systems lack. Ironically, consensual democracies have relied on their ability to exclude populist parties from governing coalitions. In the final analysis consensual governance does not eliminate majoritarian exclusion but relies on it as a tool to keep out anti-system parties.

Lijphart may overemphasize political institutions. Indeed, he implies political culture is determined by its political institutions. Of course, Tocqueville also believed differences in political institutions led to distinctions in their political cultures. But it was the introduction of a democratic form of governance which transformed American political culture. This was such an enormous difference Tocqueville felt the change was evident. Lijphart implies the subtle differences in the democratic model contribute to variations in political culture as well. The Westminster model contributes to a competitive political environment while the consensual model leads to a cooperative one. The rise of populism will test the resiliency of the consensual model. In the end, it may find it is simply a captive of the political behavior of its participants.

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