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Comparative Political Regimes: Consensus and Majoritarian Democracy

Summary and Keywords

Ever since Aristotle, the comparative study of political regimes and their performance has relied on classifications and typologies. The study of democracy today has been influenced heavily by Arend Lijphart’s typology of consensus versus majoritarian democracy. Scholars have applied it to more than 100 countries and sought to demonstrate its impact on no less than 70 dependent variables. This paper summarizes our knowledge about the origins, functioning, and consequences of two basic types of democracy: those that concentrate power and those that share and divide power. In doing so, it will review the experience of established democracies and question the applicability of received wisdom to new democracies.

Keywords: democracy, consensus, majoritarian, performance, culture, institutions, power-sharing


The study of democracy has for a long time been the prerogative of political philosophers. Even today, when asked about models of democracy, the first thing that might come to the mind of a student of politics is David Held’s classic work of the same name (Held, 2006). If that student had attended any course in comparative politics, next would surely come a reference to Arend Lijphart’s (1984, 1999a, 2012) typology of consensus and majoritarian democracies, which has dominated the empirical study of democracy over the past decades. The latest edition of Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries (Lijphart, 2012) includes all countries that have been rated “free” by Freedom House for at least 20 years. Most of them are developed postindustrial countries in what is known as the Western world.

Lijphart’s typology of consensus and majoritarian democracy has been extended to new democracies in Eastern Europe (Roberts, 2006; Fortin, 2008), Asia (Croissant & Schächter, 2010), sub-Saharan Africa (Van Cranenburgh, 2003), southern Africa (Reynolds, 1999), and the small island-states of the Pacific and Caribbean (Anckar, 2000, 2008). Others have started to examine patterns of consensus and majoritarian democracy at the subnational level in the federal systems of Switzerland (Vatter, 2007) and Germany (Freitag & Vatter, 2009), as well as within the devolved United Kingdom (Lundberg, 2013). One study even classifies Swedish local governments with the help of Lijphart’s typology (Lewin, Lewin, Back, & Westin, 2008). An attempt to go back to the first decades of the Swiss federation in the early 19th century (Wirz, 2014) reveals the limits of some of the measures, which assume the existence of political parties (for example). Finally, there are case studies of Namibia (Van Cranenburgh, 2006), South Africa (Van Cranenburgh & Kopecký, 2004), Nepal (Lawoti, 2007), Brazil (Amorim Neto, 2009), and Turkey (Lord, 2012). By now, Lijphart’s typology of democracies has been applied to more than 100 countries.

Different from the literature on consociationalism, with few exceptions, the interpretation of individual cases is not controversial. Arter (2006, p. 21) regards Nordic states as “majoritarian democracies, which display varying degrees of consensual legislative practice”; Jónsson (2014) disputes the view of Iceland as a consensus democracy; and Lundberg (2013) downplays the extent of change in New Zealand after its adoption of a mixed-member, proportional electoral system. When scholars take issue with Lijphart’s work, it is normally for other reasons: theoretical, methodological, and normative.1

The publication of the first edition of Patterns of Democracy (Lijphart, 1999a) can be seen as the start of an ongoing debate about how to study empirical patterns of democracy and their consequences. This book was much more than an updated and extended version of Democracies (Lijphart, 1984). Where Democracies was still primarily an attempt at classification, Patterns of Democracy went beyond a mapping of the world’s democracies, including two new chapters in which Lijphart investigated the performance of these two types of democracy on a broad range of indicators. He found that consensus democracy performs as least as well as majoritarian democracy, and often better. This claim clearly raised the stakes and increased scholarly interest in the underlying typology of democracy.

The subsequent years saw the publication of several critiques, followed by Lijphart’s replies (Bogaards, 2000; Lijphart, 2000; Andeweg, 2001; Lijphart, 2001; Armingeon, 2002; Lijphart, 2002; Taagepera, 2003; Lijphart, 2003). Unfortunately, the 2012 edition of Patterns of Democracy (Lijphart, 2012) must be somewhat disappointing, as it does not seek to systematically integrate the contributions that other scholars have made to the study of consensus and majoritarian democracy over the years (Diaz, 2014). As this is the last edition of Lijphart’s book, it is appropriate to take stock of the research on consensus and majoritarian democracy, summarize the main findings, identify areas of agreement and contention, and formulate strategies for further development of this theme.2 Those are the aims of this article.

Comparative Political Regimes: Consensus and Majoritarian DemocracyClick to view larger

Figure 1. The Democratic Triangle

(Source: Based on Maleki & Hendriks, 2015, p. 982).

The structure is based on the proposal by Maleki and Hendriks (2015) to think of the relationship between models of democracy, democratic performance, and society/culture as a triangle. While their study concentrates on one aspect—the relationship between culture and type of democracy—we will also look at the others. The paper is organized as follows: the next section provides an overview of the features and dimensions on which consensus and majoritarian democracy differ, a discussion of the measurement of types of democracy, and the relevance of Lijphart’s typology outside of his 36 established democracies. The second section reviews the evidence that consensus democracy is superior to majoritarian democracy from the perspective of democratic performance. The third section addresses the role that societal background variables and culture play in our understanding of the origins of consensus democracy, as well as its performance. The conclusion sums up the discussion, revisits the questions that have guided the analysis, and formulates a research agenda.


The 10 features of majoritarian democracy were derived inductively from the experience of the United Kingdom, whereas the 10 features of consensus democracy were derived deductively by taking the opposite of the majoritarian model. To Lijphart’s surprise, factor analysis shows the ten institutions that distinguish between consensus and majoritarian democracy clustering into two dimensions: the “executives-parties” and “federal unitary” dimensions. The number of dimensions, the number of relevant features, their measurement, logical links, and empirical connections are contested.

Table 1. Democratic Features

Consensus Democracy

Majoritarian Democracy


Executive power-sharing in broad coalition cabinets

Concentration of executive power in one-party and bare-majority government

Mean of share of minimal winning and one-party cabinets

Executive-legislative balance of power

Cabinet dominance

Average cabinet duration

Multiparty system

Two-party system

Effective number of parties

Proportional representation

Majoritarian and disproportional electoral system

Disproportionality of election outcomes

Interest group corporatism

Interest group pluralism

External coding

Federal and decentralized government

Unitary and centralized government

Assessment of degree of federalism plus decentralization

Strong bicameralism

Concentration of legislative power in a unicameral legislature

Assessment of number, symmetry, and congruence of chambers

Constitutional rigidity

Constitutional flexibility

Size of parliamentary majority needed for amendment

Judicial review

Absence of judicial review

Assessment of strength of judicial review

Central bank independence

A central bank controlled by the executive

Based on external codings

Source: Based on Lijphart (2012).

Note: The first five features form the “executives-parties dimension,” while the next five features, in italics, are the “federal-unitary” dimension.

It is easy to see how a proportional electoral system goes with a multiparty system, which in turn necessitates the formation of coalition cabinets that require the support of a parliamentary majority to stay in power. Minority cabinets also fit this pattern, as they are permanently involved in forming legislative alliances to pass their bills. Conversely, majoritarian electoral systems reward big parties, frequently manufacturing a majority for the plurality party, which can then govern by itself, unbothered by the opposition.

How does the system of interest mediation fit into this picture? Even though Lijphart established an empirical connection between corporatism and the other four features of the first dimension (Lijphart & Crepaz, 1991; Crepaz & Lijphart, 1995), critics like Keman and Pennings (1995), Taagepera (2003), Roller (2005), and Giuliani, 2016 fail to see a logical or theoretical connection. However, Lehmbruch (1996) has pointed at the common roots of corporatism and consensus democracy in the German-speaking countries and the Benelux, while Arter (2006) analyzes the combination of consensus and corporatism in the Nordic countries. More problematic is that the correlations between the various features in new democracies are much lower (Fortin, 2008; Croissant & Schächter, 2010), raising questions about the coherence of Lijphart’s types of democracy beyond his 36 cases. Finally, as Lijphart (2012, pp. 223–225) admits, the feature of independent central banks is losing its discriminatory power as the international financial market is compelling countries to establish independent central banks around the world.

His measures for the first two features work better for parliamentary forms of government than for presidential systems (Taagepera, 2003; Roller, 2005). While Lijphart highlights the way in which presidentialism concentrates power and reinforces majoritarianism in the political system, others note that presidentialism necessitates power-sharing between the executive and legislature, making it part of consensus democracy (Lane & Ersson, 2002, p. 247). Until now, progress on this matter has been hampered by the small number of presidential regimes among Lijphart’s cases. We should expect a more satisfactory integration of the form of government when his typology is applied to the new democracies of Latin America.

Scholars have proposed alternative measures for Lijphart’s variables. For example, Tsebelis (2002) prefers executive agenda-setting powers to executive dominance. Lorenz (2005) reviews alternatives indexes of constitutional rigidity. Vatter and Bernauer (2009) make different choices than Lijphart for most of the ten institutions that distinguish between consensus and majoritarian democracy, but their codings are limited in time and space. In the rare instance that scholars make their own selection of features of consensus and majoritarian democracy, they normally drop corporatism because of lack of data availability. It is even more rare for scholars to add their own variables. The exception is Vatter (2009), who has put forward direct democracy as the 11th variable that distinguishes between consensus and majoritarian democracy.

Recently, Swiss scholars have identified three (Vatter, 2009; Vatter & Bernauer, 2009), four (Kriesi, 2015), and even five dimensions (Bochsler & Kriesi, 2013). As Kriesi’s dimensions mix institutional features with performance indicators, we concentrate here on the contribution by Vatter (2009), who, building on Jung (1996), has highlighted the importance of direct democracy in a series of publications. His index of direct democracy distinguishes between plebiscites, mandatory versus optional referendums, and popular initiative, all at the national level. He takes into account existence, decision rule, and actual use. Vatter uses factor analysis to show that direct democracy, combined with oversized cabinets, forms a third dimension. The explanation is that the government needs to broaden its support to reduce the risk of losing referendums, especially when citizens have the right of initiative.3 The prototypical case is Switzerland. However, this pattern has only been demonstrated for a limited number of countries in a limited number of years. Tellingly, it fails to show up when the new democracies of Eastern Europe are included (Vatter & Bernauer, 2009, p. 349).

Majoritarian and consensus democracy are empirical polar types and normative ideal types (Bogaards, 2000).4 As ideal types, they embody a particular view of democracy. As polar types, they help to map democracies around the world. In both capacities, Lijphart’s typology has been criticized. Whitehead (2013) makes a distinction between the Westminster system, or the United Kingdom’s political system as it actually exists, and the Westminster model. He argues that they never were quite the same and have drifted further apart over time. Nagel (2000) observes how the democratic end point is not majoritarianism but “pluralitarian democracy,” referring to the frequent occurrence of manufactured majorities in countries using plurality elections (see also Kaiser, Lehnert, Miller, & Sieberer, 2002).

Clark, Golder, and Nadenicheck Golder (2009, p. 686) present an ingenious star-plot of each of Lijphart’s 36 countries, showing how majoritarian they are on the five features of each dimension. Most countries exhibit a mix of features, leading to the question “What democracy does the country have?” (Lane & Ersson, 2000, p. 221). And, one might add, “What should it be called?” This problem is aggravated by the existence of two empirical dimensions. Strictly speaking, Lijphart’s two types cover only two of the four quadrants on the two-dimensional map of democracy.

One could talk about unitary consensus democracy, federal consensus democracy, unitary majoritarian democracy, and federal majoritarian democracy (Schmidt, 2015; see also Doorenspleet & Pellikaan, 2013; Bernauer, Bühlmann, Vatter, & Germann, 2016). However, this terminology gives too much prominence to the territorial division of power, which is only one of the five features of the federal-unitary dimension.

Pennings (1997) emphasizes the stability of Lijphart’s types of democracy and its components, and Lijphart (2012, p. 251) shows that the movement of countries on his two-dimensional map of democracy is limited. However, several case studies have revealed important changes. Morlino (2009) contends that, overall, Italy has become more consensual after 1992. Bulsara and Kissane’s (2009) case study of Ireland is unique because of its long time span, going back all the way to the country’s independence in 1921. They show how the country has become more consensual, attenuating the majoritarian logic of the inherited Westminster system. Flinders’s (2010) book-length case study of what he calls “majoritarian modification” in the United Kingdom is the most systematic and detailed analysis of change using Lijphart’s typology of democracies.

The most comprehensive comparative analysis of change over time is Vatter, Flinders, and Bernauer (2014). They divide the period 1945–2010 into three blocks and plot the position of 24 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries on the executives-parties dimension, minus cabinet durability. Overall change is limited, with New Zealand as a noticeable exception: from the second-most-majoritarian country, it turned into a moderate consensus democracy. There is no trend toward democratic convergence. Vatter et al. (2014) then go further and attempt to explain temporal variation in the degree of consensus democracy using financial openness, European Union (EU) membership, and an index of institutional constraints (including most of the features of the federal-unitary dimension) as independent variables.5 However, they find little evidence of their expectation of a dynamic process in which globalization and EU membership create pressures for convergence, whereas institutional veto points are supposed to make change more difficult.6 A recent study of “nested consensus politics” in the European Union likewise finds no clear effect (Andeweg, 2016).7

If a country wants to become more like a consensus democracy, what can it do?

Lijphart (1999b, p. 318) provides the answer in his discussion of Australia’s political development, where he asks: “What would be needed to turn Australia into a consensus democracy? My answer to this hypothetical question is: the adoption of PR for the election of the House of Representatives. This is probably not just a necessary but also a sufficient condition.”8 It should be noted that the electoral system itself is not part of consensus democracy. In fact, four of the five features of the executives-parties dimension capture what Fuchs (2000, p. 40) calls “empirical structural features.” In contrast, the federal-unitary dimension consists of “constitutional structural features.”

Consensus institutions do not always lead to consensual behavior. The main argument developed by Van Cranenburgh and Kopecký (2004, p. 294) is that “the working of many of the formal institutions … must be analyzed in the context of party politics.” In South Africa, the dominance of the African National Congress (ANC) is said to directly affect 5 of the 10 features of consensus democracy. Consensus institutions are not strong enough to counteract the majoritarian practice of a dominant party. Put differently, in order to understand the working of politics in a dominant party system, it is insufficient to look at the political institutions.9 Despite consensus institutions, the ANC rules South Africa very much as a majoritarian democracy, concentrating power instead of sharing or dispersing it (Bogaards, 2014).

In sum, there has been a lively debate about the number of dimensions, the number of features, their measurement, the logical links and empirical connections among them, and the relationship between consensus institutions and consensual behavior. One way to resolve at least some of the issues is to look beyond empirical correlations to underlying patterns revealing what the Germans call Funktionslogik, or the logic inherent in a particular configuration of institutions. It seems obvious that consensus democracy should be characterized by consensus. That is why the exposé of majoritarianism in the dominant-party systems of Namibia and South Africa raises the important question of how consensual consensus democracies actually are.10


Most studies on the consequences of political institutions look at individual institutions, such as the type of electoral system and form of government (e.g., Persson & Tabellini, 2000). Lijphart’s typology of democracies has enabled scholars to study the consequences of entire dimensions of democracy. Probably the first was Lijphart’s former PhD student Crepaz (1996). In another early study, Anderson and Guillory (1997) demonstrate that losers (i.e., those voters whose party of choice is not represented in government) in consensual democracies are significantly more satisfied with the functioning of democracy than losers in majoritarian democracies, while for winners, the opposite is true.11

In Patterns of Democracy, Lijphart (1999a, 2012) himself examines the performance of consensus and majoritarian democracy. Regression analysis is employed to assess the effects of type of democracy on a wide range of performance indicators, from the state of the economy to the quality of democracy (Munck, 2016). As can be seen in Table 2, no other scholar has looked at a similar range of variables. Gratifyingly for Lijphart, the results for his 2012 edition are even stronger than for the 1999 version. Consensus democracy always outperformed majoritarian democracy on the quality of democracy, leading Lijphart to conclude famously that consensus democracy is a “kinder and gentler” form of democracy (Lijphart, 2012, p. 274). In the first edition, consensus democracy still had to concede a draw on macroeconomic performance. Now, consensus democracy also wins on this point. Lijphart (2012, p. xi) attributes the stronger results to the longer time-series and better-quality data that have become available.

Table 2. Democratic Performance and Consensus Democracy


Dependent Variable



Lijphart (2012)

Government effectiveness


Multivariate statistical analysis (N=36)

Rule of law


Control of corruption


Corruption perception index


Consumer price index


GDP deflator


Political stability and absence of violence


Internal conflict risk


Weighted domestic conflict risk


Deaths from domestic terrorism


Voice and accountability


Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) democracy index


EIU electoral process and pluralism


EIU functioning of government


EIU political participation


EIU political culture


EIU civil liberties


Women’s parliamentary representation


Women’s cabinet representation


Gender inequality index


Richest-poorest 10% ratio


Richest-poorest 20% ratio


Gini index of inequality


Net public and publicly mandated social expenditure


Environmental performance index




Death penalty


Aid versus defense


Foreign aid

Weakly positive

Satisfaction with democracy

Weakly positive

Voter turnout

Weakly positive


Positive/No effect (depending on period)

Regulatory quality

No effect

GDP per capita growth

No effect

Budget balance

No effect

Heritage Foundation Freedom Index

No effect

Fraser Institute Freedom Index

No effect

Lappi-Seppälä (2008)

Imprisonment rate


Bivariate (N=16)

Green (2007)

Penal culture


Paired comparison

Qvortrup and Lijphart (2013)

Domestic terrorism


Multivariate (N=36)

Crepaz (1998)

Welfare expenditure


Multivariate (N=18)

Birchfield and Crepaz (1998)

Income share of richest 20% of population


Multivariate (N=38, 18 countries, two time points)

Hays (2003)

Labor-capital tax differential


Bivariate (N=17)

Kovras and Loizides (2014)

Deepening of economic and political crisis


Qualitative four-country study, with focus on one case

Pennings (2003)

Constitutional control of the executive


QCA (N=45)

Tavits (2004)

Size of government (outlays and revenue)


Multivariate (N=40)

Steiner et al. (2005)

Parliamentary discourse quality


Discourse analysis in three countries

Anderson and Guillory (1997)

Satisfaction with democracy among winners and losers


Multivariate, pooled model (N=8,116)

Doorenspleet and Pellikaan (2013)

Six World Bank governance indicators


Anova (N=98); pairwise comparison of means

Ozymy and Rey (2013)

National environmental performance


Multivariate (N=21)

Crepaz (1998)

Popular cabinet support


Bivariate (N=18)

Crepaz (1996)

Unemployment, inflation, working days lost, economic growth

Positive or no effect

Multivariate (N=162); nine elections in 18 countries

Fitzgerald and Curtis (2012)

Parental partisan disagreement on political interest of children

Difference demonstrated

Three-country comparison

Bernauer et al. (2016)

Four democracy barometer indicators (Government capability, transparency, participation, and representation)

Three positive, one negative (transparency)

Multivariate (N=33)

Roller (2005)

General effectiveness


Multivariate (N=17)

Environmental policy


Social policy


Economic policy

No effect

Domestic security

No effect

Poloni-Staudinger (2008)

Environmental effectiveness


Multivariate (N=23).

Giuliani (2016)*

Six macroeconomic indicators

(from Lijphart, 2012)

Positive in only one, no effect in other five

Multivariate (N=36)

Government effectiveness

Depends on other factors

QCA (N=19)

Six World Bank governance indicators (from Lijphart, 2012)

No effect

Multivariate (N=36)

Scruggs (1999)

Environmental performance

No effect

Multivariate (N=17)

Lewin et al. (2008)

Disability care

No effect

Multivariate (N=274–289, Swedish local governments)

Croissant (2011)

Democratic consolidation

No effect

Qualitative (N=5)

Vis et al. (2012)

Economic performance

No effect

QCA (N=19)

Volkens and Merz (2015)

Quality of election manifestos

No effect

Comparison of mean scores (N=21)

Anderson (2001)*

Unemployment, inflation

No effect, negative

Multivariate (N=18)

Van der Meer et al. (2009)

Six forms of political participation

No effect, negative

Multilevel modeling (20 countries, 27 elections, 47,902 respondents)

Andeweg (2001)

Vote for extreme-right parties


Cross-tabulation (N=12)

Hakhverdian and Koop (2007)

Vote for populist parties


Bivariate (N=19)

Schlicht-Schmälzle and Möller (2012)

Educational inequality between migrants and natives




In bold: positive results, in italics, negative results (indicating poorer performance or undesirable outcomes)

(*) Measure comprising both dimensions of consensus democracy;

(**) First dimension without corporatism.

Almost all results in Table 2 are for the executives-parties dimension only. When Lijphart (2012, p. 272) ran the same analyses for the federal-unitary dimension, the results were very weak and statistically insignificant. Others have come to similar conclusions. Lijphart does not attempt to explain why only one dimension of democracy has discernible political consequences. In fact, one looks in vain for a causal mechanism linking type of democracy to performance variables. Under the heading of “hypotheses,” Lijphart (2012, pp. 256–257) suggests that policies in consensus democracies may be more stable and that policymaking is more inclusive, but how this should translate into lower unemployment or, say, more development aid is not elaborated. Lijphart goes directly from measuring type of democracy to performance, without developing a theory linking the two.

Even a conservative estimate yields over 70 variables that have been analyzed as dependent variables of consensus democracy.12 As can be seen in Table 2, scholars have used a variety of qualitative and quantitative techniques, though multivariate regression analysis is by far the most popular. The top of the table contains those studies of Lijphart that show mostly positive results. The middle section presents studies by other researchers that report no effects or mixed results. Very few of the studies in the table find that consensus democracy performs worse than majoritarian democracy.13

Anderson (2001) and Armingeon (2002) highlighted the importance of corporatism, and Anderson (2001) also showed that central bank independence lowers inflation. Giuliani (2016), using qualitative comparative analysis (QCA), suggests that consensus democracy contributes to government effectiveness only in conjunction with corporatism in relatively small countries.

None of these critical studies, however, argues that majoritarian democracies enjoy superior performance. A good example is Armingeon (2002, p. 99), who is critical of Lijphart’s measures, methods, and results but nonetheless concludes that a change to a more majoritarian type of democracy “is probably neither feasible nor advantageous.”

The major exception to this positive picture is studies on consensus democracy and voting for extreme-right and populist parties. Andeweg (2001) observes an empirical correlation of consensus democracy and electoral support for the extreme right. He argues that the very inclusiveness of consensus democracies will provoke a reaction from the “outsiders” against the “insiders,” and that the lack of choice (whether perceived or real) and lack of accountability that are typical for consensus democracies will force dissatisfied voters to the extremes, as only these parties provide a real alternative to the “establishment.” An update of Andeweg’s analysis with more countries, now focusing on populist parties, confirms the pattern and demonstrates that electoral support for populist parties is linked to both dimensions of consensus democracy: the executive-parties dimension and the federal-unitary dimension. The explanation for the latter finding is that the institutional complexity of political systems that divide power obscures accountability and lowers responsiveness (Hakhverdian & Koop, 2007).

In his rejoinder to Andeweg, Lijphart (2001, p. 135) admits to the strength of the correlation between right-wing parties and consensus democracy, but he offers a different explanation: “[I]t is not so much the dissatisfaction with the absence of competition among the major parties that feeds these right-wing parties as the chance that proportional representation offers them to get elected.” Currently, the extreme-right has become more popular all over Europe, leading Lijphart to speak of a “general malady in democracies” (Bogaards, 2015, p. 99) rather than a problem of consensus democracy. This was even before the election of Trump.

Contrary to their expectations, Schlicht-Schmälzle and Möller (2012) find that on both dimensions, consensus democracy increases educational inequality between migrants and natives. This certainly goes against the notion of consensus democracies being “kinder and gentler,” but why expect such a relationship to begin with? Schlicht-Schmälzle and Möller (2012, p. 1050) reason that “consensual patterns of democracy balance the interests of immigrants and natives in the political decision-making process.” Probably a first step in the analysis should be to examine whether immigrants’ interests are indeed better represented. The authors admit that “we do not know exactly how majoritarian political institutions affect immigrants’ educational success” (Schlicht-Schmälzle and Möller, 2012, p. 1061; emphasis in original). As discussed before, the lack of a causal mechanism is a more general problem in the literature relating type of democracy to outcome variables. This is where the research on majoritarian versus proportional visions of democracy (Powell, 2000; Achen et al., 2011) may provide a helpful bridge.

Benz (2015) urges an examination of the relations and tensions between democracy’s dimensions (see also Czada, 2003). One way to do this is with the help of the literature on veto players and veto points (Tsebelis, 2002). Crepaz and Moser (2004, p. 262) posit that “not all veto points are created equal and have equal effects.” (See also Kaiser, 1997). Birchfield and Crepaz (1998, pp. 181–182) introduce the distinction between “competitive” and “collective” points. Competitive veto points “occur when different political actors operate through separate institutions with mutual veto powers, such as federalism, strong bicameralism, and presidential government” (pp. 181–182). Collective veto points, on the other hand, “emerge from institutions where the different political actors operate in the same body” (p. 182). Typical examples are proportional electoral systems, multiparty legislatures, multiparty governments, and parliamentary regimes.

Different types of veto points are hypothesized to have different consequences. Competitive veto points are predicted to result in deadlock and immobilism, whereas collective veto points are expected to produce responsive policies, compromise, negotiation, and goal-oriented policymaking. The explanation is that collective veto points enable closer, and more personal, interaction of political actors, collective agency, and shared responsibility. Examining income inequality, Birchfield and Crepaz (1998, p. 193) find that “some veto points have enabling effects while other have constraining effects.” Concretely, collective veto points lower income inequality whereas competitive veto points are associated with higher income inequality. Crepaz and Moser (2004, p. 278) find that collective veto points are positively associated with government consumption as percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) and competitive veto points are negatively associated.

McGann and Latner (2012) classify democracies on the basis of two criteria: the number of veto players (majoritarian versus supermajoritarian) and the type of electoral system (proportional versus majoritarian). For each of the four combinations, McGann and Latner (2012, pp. 833–834) formulate hypotheses about the flexibility and responsiveness of policymaking.14 They find that the combination of PR and majority rule allows for high flexibility in terms of government spending, as well as the expansion and retrenchment of welfare states (see also McGann, 2006).

Gerring and Thacker (2008, p. 18) make a similar distinction between what they call “centripetalism” (unitary, few veto points, PR, and parliamentary) and decentralism (federal, presidential, plurality or preferential vote electoral systems, and more veto points). They contrast the performance of these normative models of governance and find that on a range of indicators of good governance, centripetalism outperforms decentralism (Colomer, 2001); however, it groups elements of both types together under the heading of “pluralist institutional formulas” and shows that the combination of PR, parliamentary form of government, and decentralized, bicameral federalism is better at satisfying citizens’ demands and produces higher social utility.

So, what if the two dimensions of Lijphart’s typology of democracies work at cross purposes? If the two dimensions of consensus democracy have different consequences, then any measure that combines the two risks yielding inconclusive results, as the contradictory effects of power-sharing and power-dividing institutions cancel each other out. This might explain why Scruggs (1999) finds no relationship between consensus democracy, measured through a combination of nine features from Lijphart (1984), and environmental performance. The results from Poloni-Staudinger (2008) and Ozymy and Rey (2013) point in the same direction, as both studies report statistically significant contradictory effects of the dimensions on one or more environmental variables. In the case of disagreement, the effect of the first dimension is always positive and the effect of the second dimension is always negative.15

In sum, Lijphart’s typology of democracies has taken the study of the political causes of political performance beyond individual political institutions to entire dimensions of democracy. His work has spawned a wide array of studies that reach similar conclusions as he does. Consensus democracy performs at least as well as, but often better than, majoritarian democracy. The main controversy focuses on the drivers of this success—is it a cluster of features, or individual political institutions such as corporatism? Another controversy regards the relationship between consensus democracy and the extreme right and populist parties. Several questions remain unanswered: What is the causal mechanism? Why does only the first dimension seem to make a difference? How can we study the interaction effects of different dimensions of democracy?


Why are some democracies more consensual and others more majoritarian? Colonial legacy, population size, and the degree of societal pluralism all seem to play a role (Lijphart, 2012, pp. 52–59), but so far nobody has tried to explain the geographical distribution of patterns of democracy. Fortunately, this is changing.

Maleki and Hendriks (2015) examine the relation between cultural values and models of democracy. On the basis of modernization theory and cross-cultural psychology, they formulate hypotheses about the relationship between a variety of cultural dimensions and orientations and type of democracy. Unfortunately, their dependent variable is not consensus democracy, but what they call the “integrative” and “participative” dimensions of democracy. This is measured through the effective number of parties in parliament and government—proportionality on the one hand, and voter turnout plus protest activity on the other. The advantage is that data is available for more countries, but the disadvantage is reduced comparability. Despite the high correlation of 0.884, it goes too far to claim that the “IDD index replicates Lijphart’s executives-parties dimension for a larger number of countries” (Maleki & Hendriks, 2016, p. 245). They find a consistently strong, negative relationship between Schwartz’s “mastery” orientation and the integrative dimension of democracy.

Heijstek-Ziemann (2014) looks at the connection between changes in mass culture and democratic reform. She finds a disconnect: while the hierarchical values she associates with consensus democracy have declined, most reforms have strengthened consensus democracy. The societal demand for participatory forms of government does not seem to have been met. In other words, political culture and political institutions are growing further apart in the 11 Western European countries for which Heijstek-Ziemann has data.16

Lijphart (2012, p. 301) suggests that “both consensus democracy and these kinder, gentler policies stem from an underlying consensual and communitarian culture.” Recent studies, however, suggest a more complicated relationship between culture, institutions, and performance. Lockhart (2011) finds that the impact of the executives-parties dimension on government performance loses statistical significance when postmaterial values and an index based on cultural theory are included in the model. In fact, only the cultural theory index turns out to be related to government performance. Doorenspleet and Pellikaan (2013) implicitly follow Bormann’s (2010) injunction to examine the performance of political institutions in the context of a country’s society and culture. They find that in heterogeneous societies, consensus institutions clearly outperform majoritarian institutions (Doorenspleet & Pellikaan, 2013). They also find that in homogeneous societies, consensus democracies perform better when power is centralized. This leads them to the conclusion that “the interaction between societal structure and type of political system is a crucial explanatory variable for levels of good governance” (p. 260). Giuliani (2016, pp. 30–34) likewise finds that a country’s background makes a difference on the impact of consensus institutions. Maleki and Hendriks (2015, p. 1,001) speculate that “incompatibility of cultural orientations and democratic institutions … could contribute to the malfunctioning of democracy,” but this is not part of their research.

Lauth (2010) argues that the more corrupt a country, the less clear its classification as a particular type of democracy, because corruption undermines the functioning of the country’s formal institutions. That is to say, if democracies have the same degree of consensus but a very different level of corruption, their political systems will operate differently. This might help to explain a country’s performance and invites the use of corruption as a control variable instead of a dependent variable, as in Lijphart (1999a, 2012). But Lauth goes further, arguing that a high degree of corruption undermines the validity of Lijphart’s classification. For example, Greece cannot be identified as a majoritarian democracy because of its corruption (Lauth, 2010). This seems a step too far, for how does corruption affects Greece’s position on Lijphart’s two-dimensional map? How does corruption make a country more or less majoritarian?

According to Lijphart (2003, p. 22) “culture and structure are interdependent.” Even if true, this statement is not very helpful. Recent research is trying to disentangle the relationship, allowing two preliminary conclusions. First, there seems to be a link between cultural values and type of democracy. Second, democratic performance depends not just on political institutions, but also on the combination of the type of democracy and sociocultural factors (Roller, 2005). If these points are correct, then most existing studies on democratic performance suffer from omitted variable bias and selection problems.


It is difficult to classify any particular country as either a consensus or a majoritarian democracy. First, that question is a matter of degree, and second, there are two separate dimensions. Thus, it would be inaccurate to say that Sweden is a consensus democracy. Rather, Sweden is more consensual than majoritarian on the executives-parties dimension, but more majoritarian than consensual on the federal-unitary dimension. Or perhaps we should say that Sweden has more joint powers/responsibilities and fewer divided powers/responsibilities. Lijphart (2012, p. 5) finds these labels “more accurate and theoretically more meaningful,” but still prefers executives-parties and federal-unitary because “they are easier to remember.” To complicate matters further, we have seen that a tension exists between these two dimensions and that the nonmajoritarian alternatives of power-sharing and power-division do not map perfectly on Lijphart’s two dimensions. In fact, on closer inspection, there are three types of government (cf. Colomer, 2001): those that share power (parliamentary: oversized coalitions and minority governments), those that concentrate power (parliamentary: minimal winning, single-party cabinets), and those that divide power (presidential). If this were not enough, studies show that in new democracies, Lijphart’s dimensions are less coherent than in established democracies. All of this raises some fundamental questions:

  • Can we still talk about consensus versus majoritarian democracy?

  • Are there really two dimensions of democracy?

  • Are Lijphart’s 10 measures still helpful in distinguishing different types of democracy?

One way to tackle these issues is to go back to basics. The difference between majoritarian and consensus democracy is rule by the majority, or even plurality, as opposed to ruling by as many people as possible (Lijphart, 2012, p. 2). This interpretation revolves around the number of citizens involved in decision-making, not about how decisions are made. By consequence, it adequately captures power-concentration but fails to distinguish between the division and the sharing of power. Or, put differently, it fails to acknowledge that it makes a difference how consensus is reached: through the sharing of power among political actors in common institutions or through a separation of powers that necessitates interinstitutional negotiations.

Consensus democracy is not a coherent type of democracy, but one that combines distinct and contradictory logics: power-sharing and power-division.17 There are several advantages to analyzing democracy through the prism of power-concentration, power-sharing, and power-division. First, it allows a more precise examination of its consequences. As we saw, there are theoretical and empirical reasons to believe that power-dividing and power-sharing institutions have different consequences for democratic and macroeconomic performance. Second, in his book on “vital democracy,” Hendriks (2010, p. 136) argues that “the reality of democracy is that it is blended rather than pure.” He views this positively because all models, including consensus democracy, have their strengths and weaknesses. Thinking of patterns of democracy as particular combinations of power-sharing, power-division, and power-concentration allows for normative as well as theoretical and empirical nuance.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (1.) For helpful summaries and reviews of the literature, see Müller-Rommel (2008), Bormann (2010), and Lembcke and Hebenstreit (2016).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (2.) Lijphart, born in 1936, has made it clear that he will not write another edition (Bogaards, 2015).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (3.) This logic fits with Ganghof’s (2010, 2012) expectation that the number of veto points (as well as the number of parliamentary parties) increases the likelihood of oversized coalitions.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (4.) In the literature, there is occasional terminological confusion. Doorenspleet and Pellikaan (2013, p. 248) use the label “consociational democracy” for a consensus democracy in a heterogeneous society; Armingeon (2002) writes about “consociational democracy” where he means “consensus democracy”; and in Lundell (2011), “consensus democracy” and “majoritarian democracy” refer to types of party system. On the relationship between consociational and consensus democracy, see Bogaards (2000, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (5.) Haukenes and Freyberg-Inan (2013) claim that the European Union actively (though implicitly and perhaps unwittingly) promoted consensus democracy in the new member states of Eastern Europe. Their evidence, however, is weak. First, they do not show that the European Commission insisted on a parliamentary form of government or proportional representation as the electoral system. Second, if there really was a push for consensus democracy, this obviously failed in light of the diverse forms of democracy in the region. Third, the observation that “the Commission showed a preference for political stability, coordination, inclusion, and consensus around commitments to EU membership” (Haukenes & Freyberg-Inan, 2013, p. 1277) hardly proves that, by implication, it preferred consensus democracy. Neither does the opposite indicate a preference for majoritarian democracy. After all, who wants instability, chaos, exclusion, and hostility toward the European Union?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (6.) Nikolenyi (2011) argues that attempts at electoral reform in the Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovenia failed because of the veto players inherent in consensus democracy. His analysis shows that where the electoral system is constitutionalized, constitutional rigidity makes a difference. Surprisingly, though, courts and referenda, rather than halting electoral reform, were its main driving forces.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (7.) Lijphart (2012, pp. 40–45) has also analyzed the European Union itself as a consensus democracy. For a critique, see Bogaards (2002, pp. 360–361).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (8.) Kim (2008), who makes the case for a more consensual South Korea, would undoubtedly agree.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (9.) For similar observations, see Van Cranenburgh (2006) on Namibia and Spinner (2008) on Hungary.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (10.) Unfortunately, Lijphart (2012) does not cite her work.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (11.) Bernauer and Vatter (2012) suggest that oversized and minority cabinets, as well as direct democracy, drive these results. Anderson et al. (2007) deliberately avoid using type of democracy in their study, preferring to unbundle the institutions and examine their individual impact.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (12.) In a series of studies, Pampel has connected consensus democracy to homicide (Pampel & Gartner, 1995), suicide (Pampel & Williamson, 2001), and even fertility (Pampel, 1993). In each case, consensus democracy is part of a “collectivism” index consisting of four other items.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (13.) The contributions to Thomassen (2014), not included in Table 2, tend to find weak or negative results. However, the relationship between their dependent variables and consensus democracy is often tenuous (Bogaards, forthcoming).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (14.) In their typology, decentralist and centripetal models of governance are both inclusive, meaning that any variation between the two is strictly in the centralization of authority (Gerring & Thacker, 2008, p. 17). In contrast, Lijphart’s (1999a, 2012) distinction between majoritarian and consensus democracy is explicitly based on the degree of inclusion.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (15.) The same is true for Bernauer et al. (2016, p. 22), who look at government capability, transparency, participation, and representation. Roller (2005, p. 258), however, finds that the federal-unitary dimension has a positive impact, though rarely and weakly.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (16.) It should be noted that the connection between values and preferences for certain democratic models (see also Hendriks, 2010, p. 154) is assumed rather than demonstrated.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            (17.) Lane and Ersson (2002, p. 246) arrive at the same conclusion, though for different reasons.