09 March 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 2: the features of power-sharing

The late British political scientist Sir Bernard Crick (1929-2008) famously wrote that politics is all about the peaceful conciliation of diversity in a particular unit of rule. "Politics arises from accepting the fact of the simultaneous existence of different groups, hence different interests and different traditions, within a territorial unit under a common rule." It represents "at least some tolerance of differing truths, some recognition that government is possible, indeed best conducted, amid the open canvassing of rival interests." Totalitarian regimes pretend that a single interest characterizes entire societies and treats those failing to conform to it as enemies of the state. But ordinary politics presupposes diversity and formulates ways to address it rather than to suppress it.

Every polity contains this diversity, but some polities are characterized by divisions that threaten to shatter their continued unity. These divisions take the shape of more or less permanent groupings which do not get along easily and stake mutually incompatible claims to the whole that could lead to warfare. These groupings exist as more or less self-contained communities bound together by common culture or ethnicity, shared religious faith, or common ideological commitments. Each claims to follow ways that are not easily harmonized with those following different ways. Under such conditions, Crick's conciliation of diversity becomes more difficult, and political leaders are faced with the need to formulate modi vivendi that stretch their creative capacities. The conditions that produce such divided polities vary considerably. Historical developments bring different communities together against their will, perhaps through imperial conquest or annexation, or through geographic and climatic circumstances that lead to different peoples moving into the same region. Colonization or immigration can produce similar conditions, especially where one group fails to assimilate into the other, holding tightly onto its distinctive traditions. Aboriginal groups may hold out in the face of a larger dominating culture. The Sami in northern Scandinavia, the Yakut in Russia, the Dene in Canada, and the aboriginal Malay population in Taiwan are examples of this phenomenon.

How then is it possible for such differing groups to co-exist in the same polity? This is where consociationalism enters the picture. For the most part, consociational arrangements have evolved under the auspices of leaders committed to peaceful co-existence despite the considerable differences separating the groups they represent. Specific political arrangements differ according to local circumstances, but there are some commonalities which we will explore here. There are four basic patterns which can be expanded into eight specific characteristics. Here are the four:

1. Élite accommodation, which has leaders of the respective groups co-operating for political purposes and agreeing to share power. This, of course, requires that group leaders are able to maintain the support of their respective constituencies even as they reach out to leaders of other groups. If they cannot, then consociational arrangements become impossible. For example, when in Northern Ireland Protestant leaders would reach out to leaders of the Catholic community, many of their Protestant constituents would view this as collaboration with apostasy. In the Netherlands, by contrast, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) successfully formed coalition governments with the Roman Catholic State Party while strengthening his ties with his Reformed support base.

Nowadays, of course, the very word élite arouses suspicions in some people, as it sounds anti-democratic. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which all politics is élite-driven. We do not gather as direct-democratic assemblies as did the citizens of Athens 2,500 years ago. Rather we elect representatives who govern on our behalf, and we expect them to act in our interests for the sake of doing public justice to the communities and individuals within their jurisdiction. Even the emphasis on mass participatory democracy that exploded in the 1960s has not eliminated the distinction between leaders and leda distinction intrinsic to political life everywhere.

2. Mutual veto or concurrent majority, which mitigates majority rule. Past political philosophers, including Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, feared that majority rule could turn into majority tyranny. This possibility is especially dangerous in a sharply divided polity where one or more groups find themselves permanently on the losing end of political decisions. Many countries' constitutional documents protect their provisions with qualified majority requirements. For example, amending the US Constitution requires the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress, plus three-quarters of the state legislatures. Why such a high hurdle? Because a constitutional document is supposed to be a consensus document commanding the support of as high a proportion of the citizenry as possible. No simple majority should be able to alter such a document and damage this consensus.

In a sharply divided polity, even ordinary political issues can be divisive, requiring the assent of more than a simple majority. Two-chamber parliaments are already a means of ensuring a wide support for political change. The US Senate represents the one-hundred states equally, effectively overrepresenting such small states as Wyoming, Alaska, and Rhode Island. Canada's Constitution Act, 1867, provides for the overrepresentation of Prince Edward Island, whose small population would otherwise not warrant the four members of parliament it is assigned. Unfortunately, Canada's constitution is largely based on majoritarian principles with a federally appointed Senate inadequately able to represent the interests of the provinces and territories in Ottawa.

3. Proportionality in representation, which entails that the different groups in society be represented in parliament according to their proportion of the population at large. If 41 percent of the population is French-speaking, 35 percent German-speaking, and 24 percent Mongolian-speaking, then the seats in parliament, or perhaps the lower chamber of parliament in a bicameral system, should be allocated to representatives of each of the three communities in similar percentages. This means that elections ought to be based, not on winning and losing, but on fair representation of the various parties relative to their support in the electorate.

4. Segmental autonomy, which means that each community in a sharply divided polity should be allowed the maximum amount of internal autonomy compatible with living under a common political framework. This requires each group to relinquish its hegemonic pretensions—to give up its efforts to wield power over the entire polity based on principles unique to the group. Federalism is one way of implementing this on a geographic basis. The constitutional document reserves certain powers for the states or provinces in which the federal government refrains from interfering. For example, section 93 of Canada's Constitution Act, 1867, allocates authority over education to the provinces. While the US Constitution does not explicitly grant powers to the states, the 9th and 10th amendments reserve all powers not explicitly granted to the Congress of the United States in Article 1, Section 8, to the states or to the people. Both mechanisms were intended to persuade the several states and provinces to come onside of the new federal union by allowing them to retain much of the power they possessed before.

What relevance does all this have for the culture wars in North America? In the United States in particular, the electorate is sharply divided into what have come to be called Red America and Blue America. Red America typically votes for the Republican Party and is based primarily in rural communities and small towns, covering the vast majority of the country's geography. Blue America votes Democratic and is based in the large urban and metropolitan areas in the northeast, midwest, and west coast. The two subcultures have become increasingly antagonistic in recent decades, and the events of 6 January in Washington, DC, are indicative of this yawning divide. Clearly current conditions call for fundamental reforms that would lessen this animosity by allowing each community to live according to its own principles and providing for sharing power at the highest levels. The current standoff, coupled with the high-stakes risks associated with winning and losing, requires tweaking the system to include more consociational measures. We shall explore these in our next post.

Next: what is to be done?

Previous: How to get along while agreeing to disagree

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