Arend Lijphart’s Understanding Of Democracy Essay

Arend Lijphart’s analysis of the different type of democracies, critiques of the US democracy, and proposed system for new democracies outlined in “Constitutional Choices for New Democracies” provides a strong framework for classifying and qualifying options within the realm of democracy. This following essay will seek to describe Lijphart’s four types of modern democracy, analyze the United States as a democracy through his understanding, and explain his proposal for the best form of democracy along with providing a subsequent critique of this notion.

The four types of modern democracy that Lijphart presents are predicated around electoral and governing systems. First, whether a nation uses a proportional (PR) or plurality (FPTP) system in elections. He notes that these election systems tend to lean towards other qualities such as plurality leading to a two-party system and a one-party government with a dominant executive, this system is the majoritarian model. A proportional system meanwhile leads to a generally multiparty system and coalition governments splitting power more equally between the executive and legislature, this is known as the consensus model. Lijphart also makes three key points about the relationship between electoral systems and parties noting that they are mutually assisting each other, promotion lies most practically in the utilization of the appropriate electoral system, and there are important differences among PR systems. He describes this difference briefly as either extreme or moderate PR, extreme having very few barriers to small parties and moderate having a considerable threshold. The second choice is between a presidential or parliamentary governing system which also affects the majoritarian or consensus models. Presidentialism has a majoritarian effect on the executive and a consensus effect on the legislature creating rough relations by separating them completely and leading to a one-party or even one-person concentration of power. From these variables, he draws his four types of Modern Democracy being Presidential/Plurality, Presidential/PR, Parliamentary/Plurality, and Parliamentary/PR systems.

Out of the four types of modern democracy, Lijphart lists the US under the Presidential/Plurality system. This form of democracy based on the conditions that Lijphart lays out is a majoritarian model of governance where power is concentrated in the hands of the ruling party. This is due to the power of the executive which being separate from the legislature and with the ability to pick a cabinet of generally like-minded individuals concentrates a great deal of power. Some advantages generally attributed to the US system are its effectiveness at accountability through the direct election of an executive as well as the capacity to govern given that in theory there is less gridlock in a US-style system. The disadvantages pointed out largely center on the executive as well where many parliamentary supporters point to the over concentration of power in the executive of the US system. The biggest argument though against US style democracies is actually representation because of the winner-take all aspects which favor the majoritarian sentiment to the suppression of minority voices. Representation not only promotes a level of democratic quality referring to norms like accountability, equality, and effectiveness, but it is also central to maintaining unity and peace in a society.

In evaluating the best type of democracy, Lijphart examines a few different benchmarks among them being democratic representation, economic equality, and macroeconomic management between three out of the four major types of democracies excluding the Latin-American less economically developed Presidential/PR systems. To examine democratic representation, Lijphart focuses on five sub-qualities including female representation, family policies, voting turnout, income shares of the top 20% of earners, and Robert Dahl’s rating of democratic quality. In these benchmarks, female representation is dramatically higher (4x) among the Parliamentary/PR then in either of the plurality-based systems, this also led to a far greater degree of family-based policies as well. Voting turnout too showed that Parliamentary/PR was again easily the strongest though in this case there was a significant difference between the Parliamentary/Plurality and the Presidential/Plurality systems as well. Income share of the top 20% of earners in describing economic equality also showed Parliamentary/PR to be the strongest though Presidential/Plurality wasn’t far behind. Finally, using Dahl’s democratic quality rating, Parliamentary/PR was again the strongest. He then lays out a sixth point of comparison being one that pluralists generally argue which is economic indicators. Examining economic growth, inflation, and unemployment rates between 1961 and 1988, he seeks to dispel the strong government-effective policy idea. It turns out that economic growth is relatively equal between the three systems with a slight favor again to Parliamentary/PR, unemployment was somewhat significantly lower in Parliamentary/PR, and inflation was lowest in Presidential/Plurality. Still, an aggregate of the three indicators prove that even one of the most touted areas of plurality-based systems cannot be proven to be true. Drawing from all of these previous indicators, Lijphart states that the Parliamentary/PR is rather invariably the best system for new democracies though he cautions the use of extreme PR instead promoting moderate PR systems.

In developing my own opinion on Lijphart’s analysis, I thoroughly agree with most of his claims and conclusions finding his data very convincing. Therefore, I do believe the US would be better off under the Parliamentary/PR system that Lijphart champions. Some of the greatest reasons supporting this are the quantitative indicators already explained in the realms of representation, power-sharing, and economic indicators. However, further examining the United States, qualitative judgements can be made in other areas. One of the biggest problems that is easily viewed with the US system and to a smaller degree the UK plurality system is that of the media. In multi-party systems, some outlets may be partisan, but given the higher number of individual actors, media tends to be less rigid or more based around ideological tenants rather than parties which I propose leads to less extremism. The US system undoubtedly has hyper partisan media even in the mainstream which in the relatively new age of mass 24-hour news cycles is becoming devastating to not only agreeance on issues, but even basic facts surrounding issues. The inclusion of multiple parties who are more representative of actual beliefs of the citizenry forces media groups even those which are more partisan to focus on more of a meritocracy type reporting to promote their own interests rather than just exclusionary demonization of the opposition party. A Parliamentary/PR system would also promote voices of the Libertarian, Green, and Socialist movements within the US which would likely force action on certain issues, while allowing for more accurate representation, and allowing for more ideological parties that are less susceptible to be hijacked by extremist causes. One possible rebuttal to this notion has long been that a two-party system stifles extremist elements, but clearly in the past few years this idea has largely been negated as dramatic shifts have greatly changed the two major parties in the US driving Republicans rightward and Democrats leftward politically. Coalition governance will also promote a level of bipartisanship that should promote more dialogue and cooperation within US politics. A more expansive party system could also break some of the hold interest groups have on established political power, again bolstering true representative democracy.

In examining the whole of Arend Lijphart’s analysis, there are four systems that new democracies may consider split along electoral (Proportional/Plurality) and governing (Parliamentary/Presidential) lines. These four models can be categorized as either consensus or majoritarian models relying with focuses on either representation or power in governance. The United States has opted for a majoritarian model using its unique Presidential/Plurality combination, but clearly lags behind in several democratic quality benchmarks like representation and voter turnout. Lijphart has proposed based on a strong preponderance of qualitative and quantitative measures that a Parliamentary/PR system is the best decision for new democracies. In my analysis of whether the United States should shift to such a system, I have most generally supported and expanded on Lijphart’s arguments concluding that the US should indeed transition to a Parliamentary/PR system.

How to cite this essay: