19 March 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 4: what is to be done? continued

In last Friday's post I outlined four initial characteristics of a consociational political arrangement. These are 1. Executive power-sharing or grand coalitions; 2. Balanced executive-legislative relations, semi-separation of powers; 3. Balanced bicameralism & minority representation; and 4. Multi-party system. Now we move on to numbers 5 and 8 which will fill out the principal characteristics of a political arrangement based on power-sharing among potentially antagonistic communities.

5. Multidimensional character of party system. This is very important for the maintenance of political stability in a sharply divided polity, because if every political party is economic in orientation, then the economic divisions come to be hardened, overriding every other element that might characterize a group of people. But if people see themselves as, say, working class for some purposes, francophones for other purposes, Roman Catholics for still others, then they are less likely to wall themselves off entirely from their fellow citizens with whom they might disagree in large measure. Thus a typical parliament may seat members of agrarian and labour parties (occupation), liberal and socialist parties (ideology), Catholic and secular parties (religion), and francophone and lusophone parties (language/ethnicity).

Of course, if the division in society occurs only along a single boundary line, say, ideology, it is still possible for the leaders to co-operate, as long as they can continue to command the loyalties of their respective constituencies and are willing to compromise.

6. Proportional representation. With the exception of New Zealand, English-speaking democracies elect their political leaders by means of an electoral system known as single-member-plurality (SMP), or, more popularly, first-past-the-post (FPTP). Under this system, a country is divided into so many territorial constituencies corresponding to seats in parliament. In the United States these are known as congressional districts, and in Canada they are called ridings. Each constituency elects a single member of parliament by a plurality of votes. If there are only two parties in the contest, then one is certain to receive an absolute majority of votes cast. If there are three evenly matched parties vying for a seat, it is possible that the "winning" candidate will win the seat with slightly more than a third of the popular vote. This is often the case in Canada, which, in addition to the Liberals and Conservatives, has long had a socialist grouping in the New Democratic Party. My home city of Hamilton, Ontario, with its traditional industrial base, is an NDP stronghold, despite the fact that the NDP has never formed a government at the federal level.

The current Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a minority government holding only 154 seats out of a total of 338. This is 16 seats short of a majority. In the 2019 election the Liberals received only 33.12 percent of the vote, just under one-third of the total. Nevertheless, the Liberals are governing alone, as if the vast majority of Canadians had voted in their favour. It is true, of course, that in a minority government, the other parties may decide to "pull the plug" on the Liberals before the statutory four-year life of a parliament has elapsed. Yet it is far from obvious that such an outcome is compatible with a democratic form of government. Under SMP it is not unusual to see such an extreme disparity between the proportion of seats going to a party and its actual popularity among voters.

In a sharply divided polity, SMP will likely have disastrous consequences by locking entire groups of citizens out of representation in the country's legislature time and again. Defenders of SMP typically charge those discontented with these results with being poor losers. The contest was fair, they argue, and those who lost need to let it go and move on. But in a democratic constitution there should be as many voices as possible at the table when policy is being discussed. If one of these voices represents a substantial minority of the population, then to treat it as having lost in a fair contest rather misses the point. Elections should be about just representation, and not about winning and losing. Last month I addressed this issue in more depth here: Electoral reform at last? The case for representation. I am convinced that electoral reform is imperative in both Canada and the United States. In Canada SMP exacerbates our simmering national unity issue by making the country look more divided than it actually is. In the United States the two major parties have become diseased parodies of their former selves, failing to represent adequately the interests of ordinary Americans. Adopting some form of proportional representation would open the field to other parties better able to do the job.

7. Territorial & nonterritorial federalism, decentralization. A unitary system, such as that of France and most countries in the world, would be little short of catastrophic in a sharply divided polity. This is why France experienced such extremes of political instability between 1789 and 1968. Political decentralization is better able to accommodate internal diversity by enabling subcultures within a polity to govern their own affairs with less interference from the top. Even the United Kingdom, governed directly from London from 1707 onward, has had to concede political authority to the component parts of the kingdom by devolving power to a revived Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly, and a Northern Ireland Assembly. This is not full federalism as we know it in the US and Canada, because the UK lacks a constitutional document providing for it. Also England lacks its own parliamentary assembly, raising the knotty West Lothian question. Yet this development does entail a belated recognition that a unitary government may be inadequate for governing a polity embodying a high level of internal diversity.

If a polity is divided along nonterritorial lines, measures may be adopted that grant certain communal institutions authority over, say, education within a particular community. Territorially separated communities can be easily accommodated via a federal division of powers. Other measures may be needed when the communities inhabit the same regions. Yet even here a federal division of powers enables experimentation on the local level. Not surprisingly, federal systems are found in the world's largest countries as measured by area. To the two North American polities we can add India, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and (on paper) Russia, all of which have high degrees of diversity within their vast territories. Remarkably, however, those countries that have been classic examples of consociationalism are typically quite small and have few foreign policy responsibilities that might call for a highly centralized government capable of acting quickly. In future posts we will explore the stories of these countries.

8. Minority veto. This has often been the hardest sell among the characteristics of a consociational polity. After all, democracy is typically thought to imply majority rule. Yet, as I noted in an earlier instalment in this series,

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.

If a polity contains only two potentially antagonistic communities, and if one is clearly in the majority, granting a veto to the minority community carries the risk of the latter being perceived as a constant irritant, obstructing the business of government in the face of the wishes of most citizens. This is what happened in my father's native island of Cyprus between independence in 1960 and 1963, when intercommunal unrest produced a decades-long stalemate between the majority Greek and minority Turkish communities.

The history of the United Province of Canada between 1841 and 1867 further illustrates this problem. Although Canada East (later Québec) had a greater population than Canada West (later Ontario) in 1841, the new arrangement granted each section the same number of seats in the Legislative Assembly, or sectional equality. But when it had become clear that Canada West had become more populous a decade later, English-speaking political leaders from Canada West began arguing for rep by pop, or representation by population, which would lead to majority rule and less influence from largely French-speaking Canada East. The issue was settled only at Confederation in 1867, when the United Province was once again split in two along the Ottawa River. Nevertheless, after a century and a half, the issue of a Québec veto remains one of the unresolved issues in Canada's constitutional history.

If a polity contains three or more such communities, none of which forms a majority, the need for co-operation and power-sharing becomes that much more evident. In such cases a consociational arrangement has a better chance of success.

When these eight characteristics are combined, we have a political system enabling members of sharply divided communities to coexist as their leaders collaborate for common purposes. In future posts we will take a look at the stories of individual countries that have become examples of consociationalism in action.

Next: the Netherlands.

Previous: Dampening the culture wars, 3: what is to be done?

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