Is the resolution of conflicting ethnic preferences manageable in a democratic framework?

“We think not.”

And, in just three words, that’s the bottom line.

That was the answer given by two professors of political science at Harvard and Stanford, the authors of one of the go-to books on governing plurinational societies.¹

In Politics in Plural Societies: a theory of democratic instability, Rabushka and Shepsle present a model of development of political phenomena in multi-ethnic nations, which they refer to as plural, analysing the behaviour of both the political elites and the population of over a dozen countries in four continents.

A nation must meet three conditions in order to be qualified as plural.

  1. It needs to have diverse identities;
  2. these must be organised into cohesive political sections (parties, trade unions, etc.); and
  3. its conflicts must be understood in ethnic terms.

This calls for the following assumptions about the population:

  1. Intracommunal consensus, all its members have identical preferences.
  2. Intracommunal conflict, the preferences are intenseand therefore mutually exclusive.
  3. Collective decisions are made through elections,where parties compete for votes and if one group is predominant over time, it ostracises the other.

On the basis of these assumptions, the theory establishes the following chronological behaviour on the part of the elites:

  1. Pre-self-government cooperation, formation of a multi-ethnic coalition.
  2. Initial ambiguity,survival of the coalition.
  3. Pre-eminence of the ethnicity, caused by the ambiguity and demand generation for national issues.
  4. Ethnic outbidding,the emergence of ambitious politicians who arouse ethnic passions and the ineffectiveness of brokerage and the aggregation of interests.
  5. Machinations and distrust,if the politicians fail to achieve their objectives. Loss of democratic quality.

The authors clearly set forth two limitations from the outset: they cannot explain the formation of political preferences in the society nor the other side of the coin: how the politicians begin their action.

From this initial uncertainty, they make it abundantly clear that once the requirements of definition and intensity of preferences have taken hold, politics will inevitably run through the five points described above.

Once self-government has been attained, the initial multi-ethnic coalition turns the shared political game of extracting power from the central power into a game of making gains at the expense of its coalition partners.

When local interests become more salient, local forces gain strength and cooperation becomes less and less necessary.

Then the politicians, like advertisers, need to generate demand and sensitise the electorate to their chosen political spaces.

This leads to a growing ethnicisation of collectively provided goods, such as education and police protection, which become the preserve of an advantaged ethnic community.

The common goods, by definition inclusive, thus become “bads” for those groups which do not share the same objectives.

Once intensity takes hold, it becomes very difficult to make concessions in bargaining processes (ibid. p.73).

Finally, when opinions reach a certain intensity, there emerge movements demanding total control of the state (ibid. p.86).

In this way, the members of separate communities, now conationals, have internalised a history of intergroup conflict which manifests itself institutionally in the nation state.

Because the ethnic preferences are intense and, therefore, not negotiable, the community is often the group with which individuals identify and show loyalty more readily.

In ethnically diverse societies, these loyalties (tribe, language, religion, culture, etc.), in turn the basis for political cohesion, contend for political authority.

Democracy, as it is known in the West, cannot be sustained under conditions of intense, exclusionary loyalties because, in such conditions, outcomes are valued more than procedural norms.

In contrast, creating national identification and cohesion through plurinationalism depends on acceptance by society of its existence as a dynamic process; that is to say, of the (simultaneous) presence in the society of a continuous conflict and the constant search for a solution to it.

Pluralism, which is by nature competitive, has to find a balance with naturally exclusive nationalism.

Ethnic pluralism and nationalism have to accept each other and bury the hatchet in a democracy, because in heterogeneous societies, where, by definition, multiple affiliations exist, primordial sentiments must be subordinate to the needs of civil society.

The indispensable legitimacy which all democratic systems need is an affective dimension which the very system must engender without excluding the groups that compose it.

No ethnic group is going to submit to majority-based democratic procedures which, while supposedly fair, are set to emasculate its culture.

Creating a consistent loser delegitimises the institutions (ibid. pp.31-2).

A community’s stability and future may depend upon its ability to restrict the kinds of issues eligible for public resolution (ibid. p.56) and avoid those matters to which many experts, such as Rabushka and Shepsle, believe there is, by their very nature, no democratic solution in plural societies.


  1. Rabushka, A. and Shepsle, K.A., 1972. Politics in Plural Societies: a theory of democratic instability (Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co).


Another more generic but equally operational definition is: An ethnic group is “a group the members of which have, both with respect to their own sentiments and those of non-members, a distinctive identity which is rooted in some kind of a distinctive sense of its history”. Parsons, Talcott, (1975). Some Theoretical Considerations on the Nature and Trends of Change in Ethnicity, in Glazer, Nathan; Moynihan, Daniel P. (eds.), Ethnicity: Theory and Experience, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 56.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s