Darren Kew on Democracy and Ethnic Diversity

Professor Darren Kew, Executive Director of the Center for Peace, Development and Democracy at UMass Boston reflects on the relationship between ethnic diversity and democracy for a forum published by the Zocalo Public Square, a social networking site for critical thinkers. The complete forum is found here.

Darren’s contribution is below:

On the surface, ethnic and religious diversity seem like a lethal mix for democracy. Commentators typically precede descriptions of ethnic, racial, or religious conflicts with words like “intractable,” under the belief that these identity differences follow an inescapable logic of mutual animosity that must at some point come to blows. It is feared that, since one or the other religion must be “right,” or one or the other language or cultural patterns must be dominant, democratic compromise and negotiation will break down in this climate of mutual suspicion and conflicting values.

Many authors have cited democratic successes such as Finland or Japan as proof that less diversity is better for democracy. Others note that diverse democracies like the United States built their institutions during periods of ethnic hegemony first, and only later expanded the franchise. In our case, for instance, some argue that Anglo-Saxon dominance of American life for the first couple centuries ensured a fairly mono-cultural imprint on our political behavior during the critical years we were building our institutions—so that they could withstand the stresses once other ethnic and religious groups were allowed equal footing in the polity.

These views miss the fundamentals of how democracy thrives. First and foremost, democracy does not presume a common system of beliefs or identities. In fact, it assumes the opposite: that people have an array of opposing interests and beliefs that must be worked through in order to find a broader public good. The only principles that we need to have in common for democracy to work are beliefs in negotiation, compromise, and mutual respect. The rest can be negotiated sufficiently to govern well, even though we may not agree on core issues. Effective public policy does not need unanimity—it only needs a sufficient consensus. Brazil, Ghana, India, Turkey, South Africa, and many other democracies are emerging well despite massive ethnic and religious divides.

Second, democratic systems depend upon a balance of power in order to thrive. This not only means checks and balances among the arms of government, but also requires healthy balances between the state and society, unions and management, rich and poor, and so on. Consequently, religious and ethnic diversity plays a very important role in keeping society from being monolithic, and thus in preserving the balance of power against authoritarian government and society. Multiple identities promoted by multiple religious and cultural institutions ensure a diversity of structures in society that serve as countervailing forces to prevent any one group or view from winning every policy debate and squelching opposition. In the absence of a vigilant and diverse political opposition, the public lacks alternatives to replace a government it no longer favors, and democracy loses its most basic check against irresponsible leaders and, ultimately, against oppression.

Darren Kew is executive director of the Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development at UMASS Boston, and Associate Professor in the UMASS Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance.

1 Comment

  1. A good piece! The first point is particularly central for mutual co-existence (respect for diverse views). Oneness in many other values is no guarantee to the attainment of sustained democratic society. Many authors have not paid attention to challenges in societies that have so much in common, like Somalia. The challenge is that dominant groups tend to disregard or downplay the participation of other groups. Even in homogeneous societies, the rich always refused to listen to the views of those who do not have; the powerful make laws based on what they see as important to them. But this is largely because people have not value unity in diversity or the beauty in the divergence of views. Sadly, many democracy promoters do not stress this point (mutual respect) enough. Thanks again for your perspective….

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