Democracy’s Diversity Problem

Does Diversity Make Democratic Transition Harder—Or Simply More Worthwhile?


Diversity is a strength of American democracy, or so the country’s political leaders like to proclaim. In the next breath, though, they’ll complain about how the country’s diverse array of interests, people, and ideologies make it too difficult to reach the consensus necessary for democratic action. So which is it? Is diversity and inclusion making us more democratic? Or more frustrated or gridlocked? Or is it a little bit of both? In advance of Zócalo’s first ever event in Riverside, “Is Diversity Bad for Democracy?” we assembled our own diverse group of thinkers and asked if religious and ethnic diversity can be bad for democracy–and if so, how?

They make it harder. Which can be a good thing.

Religious and ethnic diversity make democracy harder. (Just ask Scandinavians whose politics have gotten more complicated as blonde hair has seen its market share decline.) Then again, a mountain trail makes hiking harder than a suburban sidewalk does. Yet people who live in the suburbs go hiking on mountain trails. The reason is that a mountain trail makes for a more worthwhile hike.

So in what sense does diversity make democracy more worthwhile? Two senses, I think.

First, I think there’s inherent moral value in reckoning with the perspectives of people whose backgrounds are significantly different from your own. A diverse democracy challenges people to do that, and if the democracy is truly successful, that means they’ve met the challenge.

But the edifying effect of this exercise isn’t the only thing that justifies it. As the world becomes–prepare yourself for a cliché, but a true one–more interconnected and interdependent, the success of nations depends more and more on their ability to get along with a diversity of nations. By and large, I think, the more diverse your population–the more its ethnic and religious diversity mirrors the world’s–the better positioned you are to interact constructively with the world.

America is now struggling with some of the challenges of diversity, including a backlash against immigration from Latin America and bursts of Islamophobia. But if this struggle is successful, this same diversity can be an asset as America tries to engage with a world that includes lots of Latin Americans, lots of Muslims, and lots of other kinds of people.

Robert Wright is editor in chief of and the author, most recently, of The Evolution of God (Little, Brown, 2009), which was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.


No, not directly

Democracy is a political system founded on a commitment to equality, with the specific objective of coping with diversity. Its main purpose is to offer diverse voices a fair hearing and to generate decisions that, even if they are not citizens’ first preferences, are perceived to be legitimate. Democratic procedures should be inclusive, and equally so.

Yet, there is a persistent claim that religious and ethnic diversity pose challenges for contemporary democracies. This exaggerated claim arises from controversies that attend increases both in the number of migrants and in the range of countries from which migrants hail. Consider for example the public debate over whether to build a mosque near Ground Zero or whether the United States should officially recognize a Spanish translation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The belief that we should obey the law stems from the belief that others are doing so also, i.e., that we are not the only suckers who pay our taxes and bus fares, even when we are not forced to do so. We trust that our fellow citizens are, like us, obeying the law; democracies rely on stores of widespread trust among citizens. This trust springs from the sense that we share norms and values with our neighbors. Not all norms and values will be shared among us, but enough must be shared for us to know that we are united as citizens in a common project.

Where citizens believe that norms and values are not shared, trust may not emerge. Especially in democratic communities that are facing increases in religious and ethnic diversity (as a result of immigration), trust can be difficult to sustain simply because citizens come to believe that they do not share the norms and values on which trust is based. It is the contemporary challenge of democratic states to ensure that citizens share the values and norms that underpin the trust on which democracies depend.

Patti Tamara Lenard is an assistant professor of applied ethics in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa. She is the author of the book Trust, Democracy and Multicultural Challenges (Penn State, 2012), in which she takes up the challenge she describes in the final line of her contribution.


It’s democracy that can be bad for diversity

I want to reverse the question, and say that sometimes democracy is bad for religious and ethnic diversity. Not all the time, of course, but there are times when ethnic and religious majorities in democracies have a hard accepting the idea that democracy does not mean the majority gets its way in all domains of life. This is particularly true when nations first democratize–moments when respect for minority rights is rarely entrenched. Think of Britain in the 17th century, Turkey in the early 20th, India and Israel in the mid-20th, Sri Lanka in the 1960s and 1970s, or numerous East European countries in the late twentieth. And these examples, spanning time and space, are only a small sample of states that both democratized and nationalized, sometimes expelling minorities, other times subjecting minorities to pervasive discrimination.

When the rule of law is strong, when the majority becomes secure, ethnic and religious violence often declines. When ethnic and religious divisions cut across political divisions (instead of mirroring them), discrimination will often (though not always) fade as well. When two dominant political parties compete for the votes of minority group members, both parties are invested in treating members of each group as equal, or close to it.

But if one political party shuns a minority group, that party also can play on the fears of the majority to attract votes.

When a country is diverse, however, this strategy becomes risky. When there are many minorities, it becomes harder to mark a particular minority (or all of them) as the enemy. As the United States becomes less white, both major political parties will have to appeal to ethnic and racial minorities: Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans. This is the challenge that the Republican Party faces. If it does not figure out how to broaden its appeal, it risks becoming a permanent minority party–not immediately, but soon enough.

Jeff Spinner-Halev is the Kenan Eminent Professor of Political Ethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is Enduring Injustice (Cambridge University Press, 2012).


There’s no easy answer

Since I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on this precise topic, it would be nice if I could provide a succinct answer. Unfortunately, I believe that the relationship between democracy and cultural heterogeneity is a complex one, and the question of whether diversity is good for democracy is a loaded one. If I may, I would offer that diversity isn’t necessarily a bad factor for sustaining existing democracies, but diversity is not necessarily helpful in creating them in the first place.

In On Democracy, noted democracy scholar Robert Dahl states that the weaker the cultural conflicts in a society, the more likely democracy becomes. According to Dahl, two of the four ways that societies can be designed to have low levels of tension are assimilation and partition. In other words, people must either be separated or forcibly homogenized in order to create the conditions for democratic politics to operate successfully. So diversity is either eliminated or managed by a series of walls. The third of the four methods–deciding by consensus–can be employed in culturally diverse societies. However (and this is a pretty sizeable “however”), democracy by consensus is mostly found in such small, wealthy places as Belgium and Switzerland. But without a huge degree of commitment and a number of exceptional conditions (including what Dahl calls a “talent for conciliation”), the result is likely to be more like what transpired in Lebanon.

This leads us to Dahl’s fourth option: creating a system of electoral rules that encourage cooperation rather than divisiveness among groups in society. This is possible, Dahl says, but must be enacted from the very start before toxic ethnic politics set it (such toxicity seems to be already entrenched in the Iraq case).

So it is clear that creating democracy from a soup of peoples is difficult. Yet I do not believe that, once a democracy is in place, that ethnic heterogeneity is a particularly pernicious problem. India seems to be a relatively successful case where most members of societies (both elites and the masses) are committed to a democratic process. Indeed, studies repeatedly show that high levels of ethnic diversity are not particularly conducive to higher levels of ethnic conflict and state-sponsored human rights violations.

But set aside India, and the picture is less bright. Ethnically diverse societies are more often than not either non-democracies or highly contentious ones. How can this be the case? The answer is that while ethnic pluralism does not necessarily make democracy more difficult, ethnic pluralism is correlated with low levels of economic development. In turn, low levels of economic development tend to translate to a low likelihood of a strongly functioning democracy. So while democracy may not be directly hampered by high levels of diversity, democracy is unlikely in diverse societies because they are likely to be poor.

While democracy is possible in diverse places, most successful countries are democratic or (like the United States) began their democratic lives as very homogenous polities and slowly expanded to become more diverse. It isn’t the diversity itself that’s the problem–rather, it’s how one would manage to create a democracy in the first place in a diverse society. Once established, diversity can be a tool to encourage greater tolerance. But the road diverse states must take to establishing a healthy democracy is a difficult one indeed.

Scott Walker is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He has written widely on the topics of human rights and democracy.


It depends on us

Diversity is not inherently bad for democracy. But the way we deal with diversity can be. That’s up to us.

First we’ve got to stop invoking the fictitious good old days when we were all just plain old Americans. That time never existed.

Diversity has been an issue since our nation’s birth. The First Amendment prohibited the “establishment of religion” and supported “the free exercise thereof.” It also proclaimed freedom of speech and press, in any language. It took a war to eliminate slavery based on racial categorization, and women had to struggle to win the right to vote. Legal segregation gave way grudgingly and religious institutions are still being vandalized. Just plain old Americans? When? Give me a date.

Diversity has been a forge on which our public institutions and national character have been hammered out. But if diversity has always co-existed with political democracy, then what’s the issue?

The difference is that we’re now talking more openly about diversity and, in the process, identifying and dispelling myths. We’re recognizing that, while acculturation has created an embracing sense of national identity, ethnic and religious diversity hasn’t disappeared. The mythical melting pot didn’t work for all because it excluded and marginalized–often through segregation, anti-miscegenation, and naturalization laws–those who didn’t “look right” or came from the wrong parts of the world. Responding to exclusion, the marginalized built resilient and vibrant group identities. As Lorraine Hansberry once told James Baldwin, “I love being Black, Jimmy, but it can be very inconvenient.”

The dilemma is not diversity vs. democracy. It’s how we, as a people, deal with the presence of diversity within a democratic context. Our challenge is building a more inclusive, more equitable Unum while simultaneously supporting the richness of Pluribus and defending the right to be different.

Carlos E. Cortés is professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Riverside. He is general editor of the forthcoming Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia, while his memoir, Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time, was published earlier this year.


No, dealing with diverse viewpoints is the essence of democracy

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.

*Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.