Arend Lijpharts Democracies Essay Research Paper An

Arend Lijpharts Democracies Essay, Research Paper

An Analysis of Lijphart s Democracies

A government by the people or, democracy, is an ideal rather than a precise form of governmental procedures and goals. Arend Lijphart s Democracies is a comparison of the two basic models of democracy: majoritarian (or Westminster) and consensus. Each of these models use a different approach at how to best represent the people. Is it more democratic to delegate policy-making power to the majority only or is it better to include minorities, as well?

The majoritarian model holds that majority rule comes closer to the democratic ideal than a government responsive to a minority. On the other hand, the consensus model contends that majority rule and the government vs. opposition pattern of government may be undemocratic because it is exclusionary.

In any case, most political scientists have favored stability over other political objectives in a democracy, and the majoritarian is generally considered the more stable approach.

The first half of this analysis will differentiate between the ideal-typical majoritarian and consensus models in detail, while the second half will offer reasons why the majoritarian model should not necessarily be encouraged in all of the world s advanced industrial democracies, given that stability is the primary objective.

The Majoritarian Model

Lipjhart states, “an ideal democratic government would be one whose actions were always in perfect correspondence with the preferences of all its citizens.” (Lijphart, 1). Such an ideal is, of course, impossible, but it can serve as an ideal to which democratic regimes should aspire.

The majoritarian model responds to this ideal by simply granting power to the majority. The British version of this model is both the original and best-known example of this model. Lijphart lists the following nine elements of majoritarianism:

1. Concentration of executive power: one party and bare majority cabinets

This provides a ruling cabinet consisting of majority party parliamentary members. Thus, minority parties are not included and take on the role of opposition parties.

2. Fusion of power and cabinet dominance

In order to rule, the cabinet is dependent on the confidence of parliament since its members can be removed by a legislative vote of no confidence. However, this rarely occurs in a country with a two-party system since the majority party in parliament would have to vote out its own leaders.

3. Asymmetric bicameralism

This can loosely be interpreted as near unicameralism. In the British case, this is seen by the clear dominance of the House of Commons over the House of Lords.

4. Two-party system

5. One-dimensional party system

Socioeconomic policy disagreement is the most typical dimension dividing policy-makers. This is not usually considered destabilizing, being an issue that does not endanger the hegemony of the two parties.

6. Plurality system of elections

The single-member district electoral system is used, where the candidate with the majority vote or, if there is no majority, with the largest minority wins.

7. Unitary and centralized government

Local governments exist and perform important functions but they are subservient to the state and their powers are not constitutionally guaranteed.

8. Unwritten constitution and parliamentary sovereignty

The composition and powers of a government and its citizens rights are defined by basic laws, customs, and conventions rather than a written constitution.

9. Exclusionary representative democracy

This does not allow for direct democracy through referendums.

The Consensus Model

According to Lijphart, the consensus model responds to the democratic ideal with “rules and institutions aiming at broad participation in government and broad agreement on the policies that the government should pursue.” (Lijphart, 5). It holds that all people who are affected by a decision should have the chance to participate in making that decision, either directly or through representatives.

Lijphart lists the following eight elements of the consensus model:

1. Executive power-sharing: grand coalitions

This allows all important parties to share executive power in a broad coalition.

2. Separation of powers, formal and informal

This prevents the need of a vote of no confidence.

3. Balanced bicameralism and minority representation

4. Multiparty system

This usually results in no single party winning a majority vote.

5. Multidimensional party system

6. Proportional representation

Parliamentary seats are divided among the parties in proportion to the votes they receive.

7. Territorial and nonterritiorial federalism and decentralization

This gives autonomy to different groups in a society.

8. Written constitution and minority veto

Why majoritarianism is not always stabilizing

The majoritarian model is usually attributed with avoiding political gridlock, discouraging splinter parties, being less issue-contentious, and having a centralized power structure. Each of these factors has helped provide stability in several advanced industrial countries such as Great Britain and Australia.

Still, there are a number of factors to be taken into account in determining which model is most appropriate for a particular country. This section will analyze these factors in detail, but a general guideline is that a majoritarian model is favorable in homogeneous societies and, conversely, a consensus model is better for heterogeneous societies. Some of the elements Lijphart provides for both models will be examined to illustrate this point.

* Concentrated executive power (M) vs. power sharing (C)

While concentrated power prevents political gridlock and allows voters to attribute responsibility to a particular party, creating an opposition party can be harmful if the parties are very antagonistic.

An example is Austria s First Republic (1918-33), in which the two major communities in the Austrian plural society were the Catholics and the Socialists, and the two large parties that represented them. With the Socialists excluded from the government from 1920 on, the already existent mutual suspicion and hostility was fueled, leading to civil war and the establishment of a fascist regime.

Clearly, the stability of the government may have been improved if power sharing had been utilized.

* Cabinet dominance (M) vs. separation of power (C)

Cabinet dominance neutralizes executive-legislative gridlock that often limits the efficiency of a government and can threaten its stability. But cabinets are frequently overthrown in countries with mulitparty parliaments without a firm majority coalition. Thus, if a multiparty system is already institutionalized, it will not be useful to utilized majoritarian cabinet dominance.

Potentially, the overthrown cabinet can be extremely destabilizing. Weimar Germany in the late 1920s had at least seven significant parties ranging from communists to monarchist conservatives. Naturally, none of these parties came near to securing a majority and coalitions formed cabinets.

Little could be accomplished with majority coalitions containing parties from both the left and the right, for their policy differences were too far apart. This led, of course, to the rise of the Nazis and the abolishment of the democratic regime. Thus, in heterogeneous societies, it is essential that many voices are included in government.

* Two-party system (M) vs. multiparty system (C)

The two-party system is regarded as stable and effective because it fosters a majority ruling party that will be supported by parliament. The problem with this logic is the assumption that there is only one significant issue dimension in the political system. If there are several dimensions, the two parties would likely be unstable themselves, because a wide variety of people would be represented under one party. Unstable parties are clearly a threat to a stable democracy.

For example, Switzerland is a democracy that had benefited from a multiparty system. Switzerland is a plural society that is divided among several lines of cleavage including religious, socioeconomic, and language. This illustrates how different members of a society will have different concerns that can not be covered by one-dimensional parties.

* Plurality system of elections vs. proportional representation

The benefit of a PR system is that it is inclusionary by nature. In contrast, a two-party system may foster a significant third party to attempt overthrowing the regime, because it cannot attain influence in government. Therefore, in plural societies it would be hazardous to prevent the representation of minorities, especially if they had been represented previously.


Lipjhart shows that a majoritarian model of democracy is stable in homogeneous countries. By simply allocating full power to the majority party, destructive competition is prevented. But in plural societies, the majoritarian model has flaws that will result in antagonistic parties that have a largely skewed representation of the society.

Societies that are divided along religious, ideological, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, or racial lines form what he calls “separate subsocieties,” with their own political parties, interest groups, and media of communication. (Lijphart, 22). These divergent views will not likely be fairly represented under a simple majoritarian system of government.


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