Democracy and multiculturalism I: approaching the issue

jueves, 15 de octubre de 2009

1. Introduction: Multiculturalism and stability

In the last decades of the 20th century and in the first one of the 21st, we have seen an enormous increment of the interdependence and interconnectedness of the different communities in the world. That proximity is not recently-born; it is a process developed through history, but there has been clear burst lately. This new scenario is commonly called “globalization”, and can be defined as “those trends, processes and interactions which are making the world more interdependent in many complex ways, in respect of communications, cultures, language and politics, [and] not just the alleged development of a single world economy” [1].

Globalization probably finds its main cause in the enhancement of communications – either the media or the means of transport – that allow instant connectivity between distant places in the world, and thus permitting international trade, cultural exchange and migration. Interconnection has led to increasing migration fluxes, mainly from poor countries to the developed ones – by the way, this trend seems to have stalled or decreased since the economic crisis started last year [2]. The phenomenon has been particularly relevant in nations like Spain, whose economic position has evolved since the return of democracy – especially since the second half of the nineties –, but also in other European countries.

Immigration trends favour multicultural societies, in which members have very different national, religious or ethnic backgrounds, and therefore different world views. It is important to highlight that the plurality of values does not necessarily come from the outside: we can easily think of states within which different cultures coexist. These may result either from economic, religious, or territorial diversity, among others. Spain’s past is a good example of this – with such breaches having even led to several civil wars in the last two centuries. But even if these differences still exist and cause a certain level of cleavage, it is the globalizing process I have spoken of supra which creates the main cultural division in contemporary democratic societies.

Multiculturalism is usually seen as enriching [3], because of the “reflexivity that results from experiencing other cultures” [4]. It is obvious that all democratic regimes regard pluralism as a fundamental principle, either explicitly [5] or implicitly, since the possibility of directing politically the government in different directions is an inherent requirement for having a truly democratic system – a certain level of moral relativism is an essential feature of democracy. But pluralism may also cause intense conflicts, especially if they are related to identity-based cleavages [6] such as religious or other dogmatic beliefs.

Stable polities need that the individuals – and groups in which they integrate – share a common ethical base upon which build a social order that can work peacefully. Claus Offe argues that every political community needs a level of integration o “reflexive homogeneity”. As a result of that, he asserts [7] that a democracy is politically integrated when the vast majority of the members of the polity are committed to the state and its democratic regime form, sense that their fellow citizens – that are holders of equal liberties – are linked to them by a common fate “and they rank these loyalties higher than the various cleavages that divide the national society”.

Ronald Dworkin also refers to the need of a “common ground” in Chapter 1 of Is democracy possible here?He argues – talking about the deep split between liberals and conservatives in America – that “if the division between the two cultures is not only deep, but bottomless, then it is neither possible to find a common ground nor maintaining a real debate” [8].

Hans Kelsen [9] also asserted that democratic stability needed a “relatively homogeneous society from a cultural point of view” and that the majority rule required a “uniform national body”.

II. The defence of Democracy

The origin of conflict in disunited societies can be found in the ineffectiveness of democratic process to deal with debate on its core fundamentals. Democracy is certainly a useful tool when it comes to the debate on contingent talking points and political measures that are superficial, but it comes to a stand-off when a decision on non-debatable items is required. Then, the problem starts when a relevant percentage of the members of the political community want to initiate a debate on core issues, such as the democratic regime itself. Claus Offe says that democracies are not defenceless against these movements, and that tend to self legitimate themselves by giving civic, political and social rights to citizens – and eventually some rights to groups [10]. But what if these measures are not enough and non-democratic parties and associations are still able to successfully put into question the roots of the system?

Here I think it is important to make a difference between two constitutional mechanisms that democracies may use to protect themselves. That is the difference between “procedural democracies”, such as the United States or Spain, and “militant democracies” like Germany or Turkey. A procedural democracy is that whose constitutional text establishes no intangible clauses, making it fully revisable. Opposed to them are the militant-democratic constitutions, which include limitations to the amending power, and thus impeding the possibility of changing some dispositions of the fundamental text. Although Article 5 of the US Constitution included temporary limitations for the first years of constitutional life, those have today no effect. Article 168 of Spanish Constitution explicitly provides for the possibility of totally reforming the text by merely following a formal procedure. We can compare those clauses with article 79, section C of the German Basic Law, that says that “Amendments to this Basic Law affecting the division of the Federation into Länder, their participation on principle in the legislative process, or the principles laid down in articles 1 and 20 [human dignity, democracy, federalism, social state] shall be inadmissible”. Or with article 4 of Turkish Constitution, that indicates that “the provision of Article 1 of the Constitution establishing the form of the state as a Republic, the provisions in Article 2 on the characteristics of the Republic [democratic, secular and social state governed by the rule of law;], and the provision of Article 3 [unity of Turkish nation] shall not be amended, nor shall their amendment be proposed”.

How are these intangible clauses useful? We may point out two main positive effects. First of all, the unconstitutionality of the ideas excluded by those provisions creates a popular consciousness of their incorrectness. This mind-conditioning measure will work as long as the system that marginalizes those ideas is perceived as legitimate. Second, forbidding some constitutional amending directions and, coherently, the ideas and parties that want to head the community to them, may be useful to erase them from the beginning, as it provides a legal basis for coactive state action on them. Avoiding their gaining popularity is surely an effective tool to hamper their success.

But we have to take into account that a combatant democratic regime can have negative undesired outcomes. Given a context of social unrest in which we may expect undemocratic movements to gain political relevance, I can picture at least three plausible negative side-effects of an intangible clause. First of all, we surely can imagine what might happen if a rising party is outlawed by a contested legal order: it is quite likely that the action will backfire on the political system, and therefore will legitimize the ideological positions of the illegalized party. Secondly, marginalizing parties that oppose the current political regime may encourage the members of that group to take violent action, starting a dangerous terrorist spiral that may spread and put in serious risk the future stability of the democracy. And last, if such a political movement became as socially strong as to be able to try to amend the constitution, would an intangible clause be an obstacle to the party to overrule it? Would not the clause, in fact, foment the likelihood of acoup d’état?

In that sense, procedural democracies have clear advantages. As undemocratic parties are allowed to participate in the elections and to compete, it is not likely their acquiring popularity because of that “backfiring effect” resulting from their illegalization. We may also think that it is quite probable that their poor electoral results would mean their own discredit, since they would not be able to blame the state for the failure. Permitting this kind of groups to take part in the electoral process has also the effect of acting as a disincentive of terrorist action, since they have no reason to take the risk of being convicted for an activity that, furthermore, would undermine the public image of their movement. Besides, democratic elections cause a positive externality: the desire of gaining seats in the parliament or a post in the cabinet tends to compel radical positions to moderate.

Finally, a procedural democracy may find a last firewall if its constitution allows the total revision of the basic text, but submits the amendment to a hindering-but-reachable procedure. Even undemocratic regimes require a minimum of appearance of legitimacy to be stable, so it is likely that – being allowed to modify the basic law in its full extent – the non-democratic party would try to avoid violent takeovers of power and follow the constitutional procedure.

So far, we can come to the conclusion that in a conflictive context, militant democracies would not be better protected – but worse – that a procedural one. I have discussed two different alternatives that democratic regimes have to defend themselves mainly in ex post situations – when it comes to dealing with situations in which the problem (dangerous political groups that could use democracy to put an end to it) already exists.

But if a democratic community wants to assure its own future, it would be useful to introduce a preventive instrument to avoid the necessity of the ex post measures to come into operation. The best tool that a legal system has at its disposal is education. In fact, Kelsen himself saw “education for democracy” as an essential practical requirement to safeguard democracy, even if the educative process is not itself democratic [11].


[1] Kim RUBENSTEIN, Globalisation and Citizenship and Nationality. Jurisprudence for an interconnected globe, Catherine Dauvergne, ed., Ashgate 2003, page 5.

[2] Centro de Investigación de Relaciones Internacionales y Desarrollo (CIDOB), Noticias 6th March 2009,

[3] Will KYMLICKA, Multicultural Citizenship, 1995, page 122-3, quoted by Claus OFFE, Homogeneity and Constitutional Democracy: Coping with Identity Conflicts through Group Rights, The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 6, Nº 2, 1998, page 135.

[4] Rainer BAUBÖCK, Multicultural Questions, 1998, quoted by OFFE, Op. Cit., page 138.

[5] Article 1.1 of Spanish Constitution explicitly says that Spain “advocates freedom, justice, equality and political pluralism as highest values of its legal system”.

[6] Claus OFFE, Op. Cit., page 120.

[7] Claus OFFE, Op. Cit., page 119.

[8] Ronald DWORKIN, La democracia posible Spanish edition, Paidós, 2006, page 20.

[9] Hans KELSEN, De la esencia y valor de la democracia, Spanish edition, KRK Ediciones, 2006, page 163.

[10] Claus OFFE, Op. Cit., pages 122 and 139.

[11] Hans KELSEN, Op. Cit., page 208. It is not clear if he is talking about education in democratic values or in skills to manage a government.

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