20 April 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 11: Concluding remarks

My motive in writing this series has been to explore the ways in which people in leadership, representing diverse and potentially antagonistic communities, have undertaken to co-operate for political purposes. In the 1960s and '70s such arrangements were grouped together under the general rubric of consociationalism, a term borrowed from the writings of 16th-century political philosopher Johannes Althusius, whose Politics represents a minority pluralist stream in the modern age, otherwise dominated by a monistic emphasis on undisputed sovereignty. We noted at the outset that Sir Bernard Crick famously defined politics as the peaceful conciliation of diversity within a given unit of rule. All politics presupposes diversity in some measure: a diversity of political philosophies, a diversity of prudential judgements on practical policy issues, a diversity of legitimate interests, and so forth. But sometimes this diversity is of such an extreme nature that it threatens the ability of the system to accommodate it within a single framework. This is where a consociational arrangement can play a significant role.

What does it do? It allows leaders of potentially antagonistic communities to come together, to sit down at the same table, to discuss their differences, and to work out practical ways to co-operate for the common benefit. This requires considerable patience and a willingness to tolerate the objections of potential opponents who might otherwise feel marginalized in an ostensibly more efficient legislative process, such as found in a Westminster system, based on majority rule. It also requires that the leaders of a community retain the confidence of the led as they engage with their potential opponents. If they lose the grassroots while co-operating with the leaders of other communities, then all bets are off. Power-sharing will not work in such an environment.

The attention given to consociational arrangements waned after the 1970s, and some believed it to be undemocratic. Why? Because it focussed too heavily on élites and not enough on the ordinary people within the communities themselves. Élite accommodation is one of the terms used to describe a consociational arrangement, apparently underscoring the gap between leaders and led. "Quiet down and listen to your leaders. Go about your business and leave politics to your betters." After the turbulent 1960s, many citizens of western countries began to push for a more participatory form of democracy that would empower the grassroots over their leaders. This was behind the efforts to democratize the candidate-selection process within the two American political parties, sparked by the troubles in the Democratic Party in 1968. In Canada the élite accommodation that produced the failed Meech Lake Accord in 1987 was replaced by the (equally failed) popular referendum on the Charlottetown Accord five years later.

Yet virtually every student of political science knows that some people will take more interest than others in the political life of their country, region, or local community. Some will take the time to become educated on the political system, policy processes, and legal frameworks for purposes of governing. During my three decades of teaching at the undergraduate level, I found that political science students were among the more visible on campus, entering student government, writing for the campus newspaper, and taking on various leadership roles both in and outside the university. The notion that politics should be a grassroots pursuit has a certain allure for those enamoured of the direct democracy of classical Athens, of Swiss cantons, or of the New England town meetings. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was an enthusiast for a kind of local politics in which citizens would come together, acting and speaking in the company of their fellow citizens, creating and maintaining public spaces in which there would be neither ruling nor being ruled. Nevertheless, even Arendt herself recognized that not everyone would gravitate to these spaces and that a self-selected leadership class would inevitably emerge.

In fact, efforts to democratize further political parties and political systems has effectively produced leaders insufficiently accountable to their peers. Much damage has been done by napoleonic figures claiming support of "the people" against other office-holders better able to check their pretensions. The classic western political philosophers, ranging from Aristotle and Polybius to Thomas Aquinas and even the American founders, properly saw that the more durable constitution would combine the best features of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Yves R. Simon believed that a democracy needs nondemocratic elements if it is to flourish. I agree. Consociational arrangements then are not undemocratic at all. They are simply based on the reality that political life, like virtually any area of life, presupposes a division of labour between those schooled in its ways and those who are not.

One factor that we have noted repeatedly in this series is that consociational arrangements tend to be temporary, lasting for a time, only to be replaced by something else--either a return to majoritary rule or, worse, civil war. The former is likely to occur when the reasons for the divisions among communities lose their salience. In the Netherlands, the religious cleavage broke down during the 1960s as a new wave of secularization emptied the churches on both the Catholic and Protestant sides. Yet the multiparty nature of Dutch democracy continues, with parties forming coalition governments as they did during the classic era of consociationalism between 1917 and 1967. In Belgium the lines of cleavage shifted from religious/ideological to linguistic. Efforts to bridge the gap at the leadership level continue to this day, with the ever-present possibility of a territorial breakup. In Lebanon a too rigid regime of power-sharing across confessional lines could not prevent the outbreak of civil war in 1975. And in Cyprus, power-sharing seemed to the majority Greek population an irritant meant by outsiders to thwart their national aspirations.

Nevertheless, this temporary character means that, at their best, consociational arrangements are flexible enough to accommodate changed circumstances on the ground. Most countries have enough internal diversity to warrant something other than continual majority or plurality rule. I have often thought that subSaharan African and Middle Eastern countries, existing within artificial boundaries created by Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, would be prime candidates for a political arrangement based on power-sharing across cultural, linguistic, and religious lines. Yet the early leaders of the newly independent African states were typically educated in European and North American universities, where the legacies of Hobbes and Rousseau would greatly overshadow those of Althusius and even Montesquieu, not to mention Groen van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper, with their pluralistic understanding of the nature of society.

I am also persuaded that both Canada and the United States could stand to modify their own political systems in a consociational direction, which would help to empower those groups believing themselves to be at a disadvantage in our current majoritarian systems. The Capitol Hill uprising in Washington in January has shown once again that divisions in the US run deep and are becoming dangerous. It is tempting to go back to business as usual once such an event has passed, but those who care about the health of the larger polity need to consider reforms that would move towards better representation in the corridors of power and not produce winners and losers. 

I believe that the best way to move towards this is to adopt some form of proportional representation (PR) for congressional elections. PR comes in many varieties. A straight party-list system such as that used in the Netherlands would be most inappropriate for a subcontinental-size federal system. A mixed-member-proportional system (or additional member system, as it is sometimes called) would be more appropriate. Some have favoured the single transferable vote as an option, although I personally think it demands more of voters than most are able or willing to give, but that's a topic for another day. PR will not solve the problems of a divided polity. It is only a beginning. But it does help to create the space in which more voices can be heard and to dampen the bipolar character of political life.

My hope is that this series will have prompted readers to consider practical ways to lessen the political tensions in their own countries and to try to bridge the chasms separating different subcultures at the leadership level. It can be done, and it has been done in many places. Let's look to the future with a fresh perspective and a firm resolve not to be satisfied with current practices that exacerbate existing divisions. There are better ways.

This entire series can be accessed by beginning here.

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