Review: The Politics of Accommodation by Arend Lijphart

As promised, here is my review of Arend Lijphart’s The Politics of Accommodation with a nod to his 1996 article “The Puzzle of Indian Democracy” in APSR and Ian Lustick’s review from World Politics.

It clearly needs some refinement, but the basic ideas are there.  As always, comments and criticisms are welcome!

Arend Lijphart’s The Politics of Accommodation and “The Puzzle of Indian Democracy”

One of the most fundamental problems facing states with persistently sharp and incongruous ethnocultural cleavages is how to placate the collectivist political and social demands of dissimilar often competing groups while preserving the unity of the broader political community. Standard pluralist approaches argue for the need for crosscutting, politically relevant cleavages that either de-emphasize or override those which exist along ethnic lines. Insofar as dissimilar communities formed along these lines are integrated in the larger national social space by means of crosscutting class cleavages, shared values and norms, and participation in a common civil society, those elements which divide the national space along ethnic boundaries should be relatively insignificant (or at the very least coequal) compared to those other issues which unite or crosscut them. A significant problem should arise then in those political communities in which social segregation rather than integration are predominant.

It is here where Arend Lijphart’s The Politics of Accommodation, attempts to provide hope for state unity and functional democracy in the absence of its supposed socially integrative prerequisites. Lijphart endeavors to demonstrate that even in contexts where there is virtually no structurally endogenous basis for national unity, states can not only survive but may even thrive while sustaining a reasonable, non-threatening political environment. To accomplish this he points to the example of the Netherlands and its fourfold division into Liberal, Socialist, Calvinist, and Catholic political blocs. Despite the apparent lack of a shared strong national identity and the virtual absence of salient crosscutting social, political, or economic cleavages, Holland has remained one of Europe’s strongest and most stable democracies. This, he argues, is in large part due to the prevailing “politics of accommodation” by which elites in each of blocs has agreed to follow particular rules of political interaction. Here the political system is results oriented, disparate ideological commitments are tolerated, critical political decisions are made by elite consensus, no bloc receives political or economic preference, culturally contentious issues are depoliticized, and secrecy within elite bargaining and the overriding right of the government to govern is respected. Oligarchic control of political institutions, general deference to authority by the populace, and the structural marginalization of splinter parties thus characterize this consociational system.

For these reasons, Lijphart maintains that the politics of accommodation is a genuine and perhaps even viable alternative to models of pluralistic democracy based on crosscutting cleavages where ethnic divisions are particularly salient. While the book as a whole may be a very strong case study of the character of Dutch democracy prior to 1967, the claim above is quite contentious for a great number of reasons. First and foremost, the experience of a single state in a largely historically contingent setting does not provide a particularly firm basis for wide generalization. In the second edition of the book, Lijphart even acknowledges the breakdown of consociationalism in the Netherlands itself following socialist rejections of elite accommodation schemes, political losses by religious parties in national elections, and increasing resistance by the sectarian mass publics to deference and political indifference. While he asserts that this breakdown is in fact illustrative of the virtues of consociationalism, it is difficult to see how a political system dependent on elite accommodation and limitation of mass participation could be virtuous as its breakdown seems to leave behind a politically charged public space without an institutional framework for its expression.

The failure of consociationalism in Lebanon is even more dramatically illustrative of this point with its subsequent slide into civil war in 1975 and persistent instability and structural weakness to the present day. It and the Dutch case are also indicative of the unreliability of political systems premised on elite compromise and mass political indifference. Elite compromise may be both instrumental and contingent on particularly contextual factors such that once the conditions under which compromise was secured are unsettled or the particular objectives of momentary compromise are achieved, there may remain few obvious incentives to perpetuating existing arrangements. Furthermore, the only sure guarantee of mass indifference or non-participation in salient ethnopolitical debates is the delimiting of democratic means of governance. Lacking this, mass discontentment with exclusion from the political process can hardly be assured. It is for these very reasons that the most obvious alternative structural solution to the problems addressed by consociationalism, ethnofederalism, is premised upon the formal institutionalization of the roles of ethnic elites and mass publics. While subject to its own particular weaknesses, this framework may more successful in providing stable, predictable instruments of segmented political rule in the long run.

Finally, Lijphart fails to acknowledge the favorable exogenous conditions that may have contributed to the (temporary) success of Dutch consociationalism, namely that the Netherlands faced no sustained threats to its territorial integrity or political independence hindering the development of a politics of accommodation during the period described. With the notable exception of the Second World War, during and after which Lijphart argues the monarchy became a basis for greater national unity, no bloc in the country had to fear conquest by a competitor, no neighboring country sought to annex them, and no bloc enjoyed disproportionate patronage from external sources that might have disturbed the internal balance. As a state embedded in the Western European cultural and political frame, the Netherlands enjoyed an a priori significant external respect of its sovereignty and political legitimacy. This also implies a significant check on the political options of the vying ethnic blocs. Even if the most geographically consolidated blocs wished to break away from the Netherlands and form an independent state this was not a practical possibility. Neither would the regional powers tolerate the wholesale eradication or displacement of competitor blocs. These restraining conditions are not nearly so evident if at all even in contemporary non-European cases of intrastate ethnic violence. The appropriateness of the consociational model thus seems highly specific to the European context.

Again Lijphart’s own work appears to confirm this assertion. In his 1996 article, “The Puzzle of Indian Democracy,” Lijphart contends that India is in fact a strong case of consociational democracy given the possibility of minority veto of contentious legislation, relative cultural autonomy for ethnic minorities, and the presence of a “grand coalition” government manifest in the then-ruling Congress party. Yet this case represents a much revised if not substantially weakened instance of consociationalism lacking key elements of elite compromise and a spirit of accommodation. In its place lies the personalistic rule of Indira Gandhi and the overriding assumption (and hope) that the Congress party will continue to represent the whole of India despite the rise of Hindu nationalist parties like the BJP. Not only does this context lack a clearly ingrained politics of accommodation across ethnic elite actors but the exogenous conditions which were likely supportive of Dutch consociationalism are also absent. Rather the South Asian setting was still characterized at the time of writing by persistent tensions with Pakistan over territory and the real fear within India that Muslim Kashmiri separatists and Indian Muslims might be recruited by Pakistan to destabilize the state’s security infrastructure and precarious domestic political arrangements.

While Lijphart’s work on the politics of accommodation is certainly well intentioned and perhaps even largely valid in the European setting, the “creative” analytical moves which must be made in order to translate the consociational project to other parts of the world make its validity suspect and the advisability of its application questionable. Setting aside questions of the quality of democracy produced in a consociational setting, it must be determined if the elite actors in the state in question are even open to the notion of long-term compromise and strategic coordination. In the Dutch case there appears to be little to gain by reneging on the “rules of the game.” This is in no small part because domestic cultural factors and exogenous international inputs are both permissive with respect to interbloc cooperation and highly restrictive with respect to intrastate violence, subversion, or separatism. Lacking these conditions, it is difficult to predict that consociational arrangements, fundamentally dependent on elite compromise and control, could long persist absent explicit external coercion or, perhaps alternatively, internal federal institutionalization.


Lijphart, Arend. The Politics of Accommodation : Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands. 2nd , rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

———. “The Puzzle of Indian Democracy: A Consociational Interpretation.” American Political Science Review 90, no. 2 (June 1996): 258-68.

Lustick, Ian S. “Lijphart, Lakatos, and Consociationalism.” World Politics 50, no. 1 (1997): 88-117.

One Response to Review: The Politics of Accommodation by Arend Lijphart

  1. […] Review: The Politics of Accommodation by Arend Lijphart […]

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