chapter  12
15 Pages

Consensual but not Confucian: resolving the paradox of consensual politics in Scandinavia

The Confucian notion of harmony, which several chapters in this volume discuss in detail, is to some extent at odds with the Western image of politics.1 In a Confucian culture, political mobilization and institutions serve to promote the common good, which reflects some degree of social harmony. Harmony in this culture also serves as a norm or an ideal towards which society should strive. In Western culture however there is certainly a notion about ‘the public interest’ too, but there is also a very strong notion that politics departs from – or is a manifestation of – social conflict and that it is one of the key tasks of the political system to accommodate or resolve such conflict. This requires that while there may be disagreement among different social constituencies about what should be the role and objectives of politics, such disagreement must coexist with a high degree of consensus about the rules of the political games and the role of political institutions. The Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) are often referred to as ‘consensual’ or ‘the consensual democracies’. We will go into that concept later in this chapter, but already here it should be mentioned that in some ways the notion of consensual democracy represents a middle ground between the adversarial Westminster model of government and the Asian, Confucian model of harmony in government and society. It would probably be incorrect to argue that consensus is a social norm in Scandinavia; in fact, given the high level of social and political mobilization in political parties and organized interests in these countries, one could well argue the exact opposite. The logic sustaining that standpoint is that a high degree of social and political mobilization requires some degree of willingness among the political elite to accommodate all interests and to find compromise. Thus, we need to realize that consensual politics is not the same as Confucian harmony; whereas harmony is a feature of society, consensualism has more paternalistic and elitist features. How do political systems in Western culture reconcile the tension between the articulation of conflicting political ideas and objectives, on the one hand, and the need for some level of consensus, on the other? If we assume that political debate, even division, is basically healthy for democratic governance, how do political systems ensure that such division does not evolve into conflict concerning the political system as such? What are the requirements for political institu-

tions to foster political alternatives that are attractive to the electorate and raise interest in politics among the citizens and voters while ensuring consensus and harmony? These are questions that strike at the foundations of democratic governance. Institutional systems that are insufficient for resolving social and political conflict may produce political turmoil, with state collapse as the eventual result. However, a political system which successfully fends off such conflict by creating too-powerful gate-keeping structures faces the risk of witnessing the growth of movements which use extra-parliamentary strategies to pursue their political interests, again with potentially fatal consequences to the political system. Needless to say, these are questions and issues which require far more space than a single chapter. We need only browse through the works by leading social theorists such as Seymor Lipset, Stein Rokkan and Talcott Parsons to understand the scope and magnitude of this problem (see, for instance, Lipset 1985; Lipset and Rokkan 1967; Parsons 1991). Therefore, this chapter will take a more modest approach and boil down these overarching problems and issues to more manageable ones. The chapter then will explore what could be seen as a critical case in the analysis of political conflict and the need for harmony, and it will also look at the Scandinavian countries and the ‘consensual style’ of policy making which for a long time has been somewhat of a trademark for this region. If the predominant policy style and political culture is oriented towards conflict avoidance or conflict accommodation, this could be a way of managing the tension between competition and harmony. We should note already here that harmony is not an altogether easy concept to define. From its lowest level, where harmony could be defined as a notion of peaceful coexistence, we can think of a ladder up to a level where harmony – which in no way excludes diversity – means concerted action towards a common good. Consensualism however recognizes that there are social and political divisions in society but that those cleavages can be accommodated at the elite level. Harmony and consensualism are thus both social norms, although harmony is broader and more encompassing than consensualism, which refers to a particular philosophy of political decision making and accommodation. The next section discusses ‘consensual politics’ and the Scandinavian countries more broadly. Following that, the chapter focuses on the role of the political parties in articulating and accommodating political issues and conflicts. Since the significance of the political parties as representative structure has been increasingly questioned, I then look briefly at changes in governance in the Scandinavian countries. The chapter closes with a concluding discussion.