Interview with Arend Lijphart


In “The Contemporary Democracies” we can find two models of democracy clearly identified: majoritarian democracy and consensus democracy. In consensual democracies, legislative decisions are taken by consensus. Understanding that this model is probably better than a majoritarian democracy, which country size is required to be realizable and how it would be implemented?

I look at the relationship between country size (that is, population size) on p. 248 of the original English-language of my Patterns of Democracy (2nd ed., 2012).  I find that population size is significantly related to the second (federal-unitary) dimension of the contrast between majoritarian and consensus democracy.  That is, the larger countries are more likely to have the five “federal” characteristics than small countries.  There does not seem to be a connection between size and the first dimension, which includes the characteristic of consensual decision-making that you mention.  For instance, on the conceptual map of democracy (p. 244), both India (with a population that is larger than that of the other 35 countries combined) and small Iceland and Luxembourg are on the left (consensual) side of the map.  I also find that democracies are generally conservative with regard to their political institutions; that is, they are likely to remain in the same consensus-majoritarian position over a long time.  Changing basic institutions is very difficult, although not impossible, as shown in the case of New Zealand in the 1990s (pp. 24-26), but here it happened as a result of unusual circumstances.

Is the Internet a potential tool to increase this consensus in future democracies?

I am not sure what the impact of the internet will be on the possibility of institutional changes.  Perhaps you should ask me again in about five years, when we are likely to know more!

In many countries, for example in the UK, until 2015, with the Tories and Liberal Democrats goverment’s coalition, in public opinion there is still the idea that government coalitions are weaker and have more troubles. However, in “Patterns of Democracy” you indicate that coalitions are good as single-party government in stimulating growth. Why do you think that exists a “bad” perception about coalitions and electoral pacts in many democracies? Which aspects both democracies differ?

It is not only in public opinion that the notion still exists that single-party governments are more effective governments because they are unified and can make decisions more quickly.  Some of the older, classical political scientists also were of this opinion, like Lawrence Lowell’s statements, that this an established fact.  He calls it an “axiom” that is so obvious that it does not have to be proven.  However, there are some strong counter-arguments. Therefore, Lowell was wrong about not needing to prove his proposition.  I test it on, and find that, in fact, Lowell was quite wrong! Still, in the popular mind, Lowell’s idea still seems logical. Perhaps more people should read my book!

On previous works you didn’t indicate what democracy was better, because in your opinion each society was different. Majoritarian democracy was more typical of homogeneous societies and consensual in pluralistics. In “Patterns of Democracy” we observe changes between the initial formulation. We could consider that this text stablish that consensual democracy is more convenient than the majority not only for plural societies, but for all society. Can you tell us why do you consider this?

I have changed my mind during the years that I have done research and writing on this issue.  In my earlier writings, I focused on deeply divided societies and argued that these societies needed consensus government — and even the stronger kind of consensus government which I called “consociational” democracy, with even stronger minority rights and the need for not only coalitions governments but large and inclusive coalitions.  Majoritarian government, I argued, was a luxury that divided societies could not afford.  In many ways, that is still my opinion.  However, I would now state it somewhat differently.  I would say that majoritarian government is a luxury that homogeneous societies can afford, although for them, too, consensus would work even better.  This is not a conclusion that I had expected to reach when I started my work analyzing the effects of majoritarian vs. consensus democracy.  I was expecting (perhaps still influenced too much by Lowell’s kind of reasoning) that majoritarian government might be slightly better at effective decision-making than consensus government.  But my empirical tests clearly show that this is not the case.  

Currently there are cases where public opinion’s high polarization around a particular issue is testing institutions’ stability. Nowadays, from your perspective, which is the main instrument or mechanism that can generate consensus and institutional stability in these situations?

When there is a high degree of polarization, there is a strong and growing need for consensus.  It is up to the political leaders to realize this and to get together to forge as much consensus as possible.

“The debate is no longer in parliament, now it’s in the squares”, are you agree? In your opinion, during the next years, which will be the most important public debate space?

That statement is probably an exaggeration, but it is clearly true that the failure of political leadership to reach compromises that are acceptable to large segments of the population will tend to move the debate to the “squares.”

These changes that we are facing, how do you think that would be translated at global governance context?

I am not sure what you mean by global governance, but one development at the supranational level is in the EU which I describe as an example of consensus government.  In spite of consensual decision-making structures, the EU has recently not been very good at making truly consensual decisions, in particular with regard to the demands of “austerity” imposed on its poorer members and the EU’s lack of a generous spirit.

Interview coordinated by Mireia Castelló and Xavier Peytibi.

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