‘Peacefully polarized’ Interview with Arend Lijphart (part 1)

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Arend Lijphart (visiting the Netherlands in 2016)

Arend Lijphart (1936) is one of the most cited and most influential political scientists in the world. He grew up in the Netherlands, and after his high school exams he went to the United States to go to college, which was not common in the 1950s. In 1968 he returned to the Netherlands where he worked at Leiden University. In 1978 he came back to the United States, and since then he has lived and worked in California, now as research professor emeritus in political science.

He wrote books about Dutch politics with its typical ‘verzuiling’ (‘pillarization’), which provided the foundation of his theory of ‘consociational democracy’, also known as ‘pacification democracy’. His work has been important, not just in the academic world (i.e. in the field sof social sciences, as well as history) but also in the political practice of deeply divided countries. He regularly advised various parties in divided societies, such as in Northern Ireland and South Africa.

Around 20 years ago, I met him for the first time, when he received an honorary doctorate at Leiden University. We started talking about his work and my own research interests. He had read my article on waves of democratization, and wanted to serve as external examiner in my PhD committee later that year. Since then we have kept in touch, communicating about politics, mainly about democracy and freedom. Never about religion. Never. Until I informed him about my book ‘Apostelkind‘: he congratulated me, while the rest of his answer took me by surprise. He wrote: ‘I experienced something similar in my youth. I grew up as a Christian Scientist in the Netherlands, and I also attended a Christian Science college when I moved to the United States. However, I have not been a Christian Scientist anymore for quite some time!’

This message came out of the blue for me: I had heard of the Christian Scientists, but I was surprised that Arend Lijphart had been a member of this group. ‘Just like you and Martin, I got out with my wife around the age of 25.’ Never had anyone asked him about his own background, let alone about this relatively unknown religious group and their ideas. Strange actually, because religion certainly does play a role in his academic work.

That’s why it’s time to ask some further questions! Today about American politics, Dutch pillarization and divided societies. Reactions are welcome under the original version of the interview, which is in Dutch, click here. Next week: about religion and the Christian Scientists.

Let’s first talk about the American elections. Relieved?

“Yes, I am relieved, but at the same time I am disappointed because Joe Biden won a substantial though not overwhelming victory. And it is also a pity that the Democrats have not done well in the elections of the Senate and the House of Representatives. But well, you can’t have everything…”

And there is already a lot of polarization in America…

“Joe Biden will have to bring everything together. Progressive America can be found in the urban areas and coastal cities. The republicans rely on support from the people living in the suburbs and the countryside, supporting traditional values ​​such as family and pro-life and God. Both groups feel threatened by the other. There is a lot of polarization. The progressive and conservative Americans are increasingly living in their own parallel worlds.”

Separate worlds in one country: it can be dangerous.

“Yes, I’ve written about the risks. It can be dangerous, especially if leaders don’t seek consensus. On the other hand, polarization in society does not automatically mean political conflict. A divided society can be held together and it does not necessarily lead to instability.”

Like in the Netherlands, which was a stable democracy with strong societal divisions?

“In this respect, we can learn a lot from Dutch history. Until the 1970s, the country was divided into different groups. We called them ‘zuilen’, which can be translated as ‘pillars’. Catholics voted for KVP which was the catholic political party, read the catholic newspapers, listened to the catholic radio programmes, sent their children to a Catholic school, played football at the Catholic football club, and bought bread from the Catholic bakery. The same was true of the Protestants, Liberals and Social Democrats. The society was ‘pillarized’. The pillars lived next to each other, not mixed with each other. People from one pillar did not come into contact with people from the other pillar. You married within your pillar, because as the Dutch saying goes: ‘When two faiths share a pillow, the devil sleeps between them’. The Netherlands consisted of separate worlds: a divided society. ”

No civil war, despite the clear cleavages in Dutch society…

“It is interesting. While studying in the United States, I started to think about it in the 1950s and 1960s. According to American political scientists at the time, it was very unlikely that societial divisions would lead to a stable functioning democracy. At Yale University, my supervisor was Gabriel Almond. He investigated how democracies like those in Germany could have derailed during the Weimar era. He argued that a homogeneous population is needed to build a stable democratic political system. Ethnic or religious differences should not be too big in a country. But this statement cannot be supported in the Dutch case, because this country had remained stable, despite its pillars with the sharp religious contrasts. There were no severe conflicts, let alone civil war. How to explain this peace against all odds? I wanted to explore this puzzle.”

Settling disputes?

“It was necessary. The contradictions were great and, the gap couldn’t be bridged easily because of the religious nature of the cleavages. The masses remained within their pillars, but the leaders of the pillars spoke to each other and made compromises. There was pacification because none of the pillars could ever achieve a majority. In order to gain political power the political leaders of the pillars had to work together. The behavior of political leaders is therefore also crucial: if they cooperate, it can prevent conflicts and even civil wars. And later I also discovered that certain institutions work better in divided societies: rather an electoral system with proportional representation than an electoral system with districts where only the winner ends up in parliament. Rather a multi-party system in which minorities are represented as well, than a system with only two parties. Rather a system like the Netherlands or Switzerland than the British political system. Rather a consensus democracy than a majoritarian democracy. In such systems, serious conflicts are less likely.”

The pillarization model was powerful to explain political stability in the Netherlands. In the late 1960s you wrote two books about it, but since the 1970s society has been secularized.

“Individual liberties and freedom have increased. The rigid pillars that kept individual citizens in line have disappeared. Nevertheless, the pillarization ideas are still topical. They will always be valid to some extent, as the factors that explained why the Netherlands could still remained a stable democracy – despite great religious divisions – can also be applied elsewhere. So the pacification ideas might have become less relevant in the Netherlands, but they are still interesting in other contexts, like in the European Union for example. And they could be useful in other countries with divided societies. In such circumstances, a consensus democracy would really work much better than a political system in which minorities do not get much political power. ”

In the 1980s, and especially since the 1990s, you went one step further and argued in your books that consensus democracy would work better in all countries, whether they are divided or not.

“My 1999 book Patterns of Democracy is particularly important in this respect. In this book, I compared the political systems of 36 countries. My analyses clearly showed that consensus democracies are also ‘kinder and gentler’, so they are nicer and softer. They perform better when it comes to developing a welfare state, minorities feel better represented and war is less likely. In 2012, I further expanded the analyses and the same patterns emerged.”

Would consensus democracy also be better for a country like America?

“Yes, there are only two big parties in the United States, and both sides have a chance to win. The two-party system makes the polarization in society even more acute and salient: not just between voters, but also between leaders. There is no incentive to cooperate at the elite level. It would be good if political leaders start looking for consensus, for example by reforming the electoral system. I have given advice on this issue once, but my proposed reforms are probably seen as too radical or politically unfeasible. But if we don’t try it, it will certainly not work! ”

Next week: part 2 of the interview with Arend Lijphart. Then about religion and his own childhood experiences as a Christian Scientist. To be continued…


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Selection of books, written by Arend Lijphart:
* Verzuiling, pacificatie en kentering in de Nederlandse politiek, 1968, click here.
* The Politics of Accommodation. Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.
* Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977. 
* Democracies: Patterns of Majoritarian & Consensus Government in Twenty-one Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984. 
* Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms & Performance in Thirty-six Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999 & 2012.