Can democracies’ consensus explain their performance?

Just like psychologists use “intelligence” to explain the performance of individuals, many political scientists use “consensus orientation” to explain the performance of democracies. But is there such a thing as consensus orientation and can it be the cause of anything?

Many political scientists distinguish democracies based on the degree to which decision-making is consensual. This “consensus orientation” is seen as a latent but real causal factor, roughly comparable to the idea of a “general” factor (also called g-factor) of intelligence in psychology. If this were true, we could use a battery of indicators to estimate the general factor of consensus and then use this factor to explain democracies’ performance – just as psychologists use “intelligence” to explain the performance of individuals.

In a recent article published in Politics, we question the existence of a general factor of consensus and argue that its stipulation hinders adequate causal analysis. The general factor of intelligence might well be a real thing, but we think the general factor of consensus is not.

The indicators used to estimate the alleged general factor often have little to do with a country’s orientation towards consensus. Hence, some countries that achieve high scores on the estimated factor, such as Belgium or Israel, display an obvious lack of a consensual decision-making culture.

Matthijs Bogaards notes that much of the literature on consensus democracy fails to specify the causal mechanisms that could connect cause and effect. We offer a simple explanation: If the general factor of consensus is no real causal factor in the world, the search for causal mechanisms cannot succeed.

Causal analysis requires that we identify the effects of specific causal factors such as electoral institutions. We replicate two analyses of democratic performance in Arend Lijphart’s influential Patterns of Democracy. We show that the explanation of turnout becomes much clearer when we trace the causal effect to the design of the electoral system. For the death penalty, the putative causal effect can also be traced to the design of the electoral system, but disappears once adequate control variables are included.

While political science should abandon the idea of a general causal factor of consensus, we still believe that holistic summaries of the differences between democracies can be useful. We suggest ways to advance this descriptive project, which was pioneered by Lijphart’s earlier Democracies.

One useful focus of the descriptive project is trade-offs in the institutional design of democracy. In the Politics article as well as a companion piece, we explore how bicameral and presidential systems can mitigate the conflict between competing goals and values, and how our description of democracies might reflect his.

Steffen Ganghof

Steffen Ganghof

Steffen Ganghof is a Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Potsdam.

Sebastian Eppner

Sebastian Eppner

Sebastian Eppner is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Chair of Comparative Politics, University of Potsdam.

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