• Sharon Chau

Democracy's Biggest Obstacles: Ethnic and Religious Ties


  • Ethnic ties create problems for democracies including ethnic outbidding, where parties are centred on racial lines, conflict between ethnicities, and disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities. Ethnic ties also create populism and hinder the process of democratisation.

  • Religious ties remove impartiality in policy-making and create divisiveness, as evidenced by Catholicism and Islam.

  • Some argue that religion might not harm and could even be beneficial to democracies due to the doctrines of tolerance scriptures teach. However, religious rhetoric can be, and has been, manipulated by politicians for sinister ends.

  • Hence, strong ethnic and religious ties are large obstacles to many aspects of democracy, including the process of democratisation, fair and effective policy making, and representative parties.

Context of Ethnicity and Religion in Democracy

In 1838, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that Catholics “constitute the most republican and the most democratic class of citizens which exists in the United States”. The Catholic faith “places all human capacities upon the same level… reducing all the human race to the same standard, it confounds all the distinctions of society at the foot of the same altar”. But nowadays, many regard religion rather as an impediment to democracy, seen by the increased separation of church and state, and the strict enforcement of secularity in countries like France and India.

Before we start, some definitions are in order. Democracy is defined as a method of group decision-making characterised by equality among the participants. Ethnic ties are feelings of belonging based on perceptions of shared social experience or one's ancestors’ experiences. Those with strong ethnic ties see themselves as sharing cultural traditions and history that distinguish them from other groups. Religious ties are defined as a sense of belonging based on common belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power. Ethnic or religious ties are an obstacle to democracy if they fulfil one or more of the following criteria - a) they decrease the effectiveness or legitimacy of an established democracy, or b) they hinder the process of democratisation. In this essay, the effects of strong ethnic or religious ties on democracy will be analysed, and a conclusion reached about whether they fulfil the criteria as obstacles to democracy.

Ethnic Outbidding

Strong ethnic ties decrease the efficiency or legitimacy of an established democracy. Ethnic outbidding, where ethnic divisions are weaponised as a political strategy, is harmful and inevitable. As politicians vie to maximise support from voters within their ethnic groups, this gives rise to parties centred on ethnic lines. Three explanations are offered for this theory. Firstly, people have strong psychological attachments to their ethnic kin and ethnic groups tend to try to improve their status through dominating and denigrating other ethnic groups. This makes it easy for politicians to mobilise the electorate for ethnic voting and capture votes based on divisive rhetoric. Secondly, differing cultural or social values also stem from strong ethnic ties. For example, ethnic groups might wish to have their language endorsed, and for public policies to be tailored to their specific needs and values. Thirdly, ethnic groups are motivated by the pursuit of scarce material resources, such as jobs, government contracts and subsidies. Ethnicity hence often plays a crucial coordinating and informational role in this pursuit. Ethnic identity creates a largely exogenous marker that simplifies targeting, coalition building, and exclusion from government resources. It does not matter if group members have a particular set of policy preferences or ideologies, but rather what is important is that individuals can be identified for inclusion in government patronage (or exclusion from it) based on their group membership. As a result, ethnic ties often inform voting behaviour, leading to parties capitalising on ethnic divisions. Particularly in emerging democracies with weak institutions, politicians have strong incentives to use belligerent ethnic and nationalist rhetoric to mobilise electoral support along ethnic lines. The rise of ethnic parties and the outbidding effect threatens the survival of democratic institutions and destabilises the whole democracy. The emergence of even a single ethnic party has the ability to “infect” the political system, leading to a spiral of extreme bids that destroy competitive politics altogether. Eventually, this results in a slide toward democratic breakdown, either because elites try to manipulate electoral processes, or because minorities reject majority decisions in which the minorities feel they have had no voice. This problem is particularly pertinent in unchecked majoritarian arrangements such as first-past-the-post voting rules. They are inadequate in representing minorities and can destabilise democracy in ethnically plural contexts by threatening to install the ethnic majority permanently in power. Based on the above reasons, Rabushka and Shepsle (1972) argue that the tendency towards ethnic outbidding makes democracy infeasible in ethnically diverse societies.

Ethnic Ties Create Conflict

Strong ethnic rhetoric also increases the risk of ethno-nationalist conflict, creating another obstacle to democracy. This has been empirically shown by how democratising countries are prone to international war. States that make the big leap from total autocracy to extensive mass democracy, like contemporary Russia, are about twice as likely to fight wars in the decade after democratisation compared to states that remain as autocracies. During transitions to democracy in multi-ethnic states in Africa, Asia and the former Soviet Union, Reilly (2008) highlighted the emergence of ethno-nationalist parties that drew their support from an ethnic group and espoused nationalist or separatist agendas. Democratisation might also cause ethno-nationalist mobilisation and ethnic conflict in multiethnic countries. Snyder (2000) applies this argument to explain the detrimental effect of democratisation on internal ethnic conflict. This means that strong ethnic ties are obstacles to democracy by preventing democratisation from happening in the first place, or stoking ethnic conflict during the process of democratisation. This hinders the effective transition to a democracy that nations without such strong ethnic ties might enjoy.

Ethnic Ties Disenfranchise Minorities

Strong ethnic ties can also precipitate the slide into a Herrenvolk democracy, a system where only the majority ethnic group participates in government while minority groups are disenfranchised. This was seen in South Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries during Apartheid rule, and in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws. In both countries, legislation moved toward universal male suffrage for whites, and entrenched the prevention of black people from participation in government. In the United States, herrenvolk republicanism went beyond the marginalisation of blacks to a government serving the “master race”. “Blackness” became synonymous with dependency and servility, and was seen as antithetical to republican independence and white freedom. This horrific system was caused by strong ethnic nationalism, where the nation is defined in terms of ethnicity. As Muller (2008) states, nations become “defined by a shared heritage, which usually includes a common language, a common faith, and a common ethnic ancestry”. With strong ethnic nationalism, parties have the incentive to pander to the majoritarian ethnicity and discard all minority rights, as that is sufficient for gaining power. The dangerous herrenvolk democracy based on racial hierarchy is hence born. This demonstrates how strong ethnic ties can be a large obstacle to preserve minority rights in a democracy.


Kuala Lumper, Malaysia

Some empirical examples of democracies hindered by ethnic ties are in order. One example is Malaysia, which offers preferential treatment under the bumiputera principle. The “special position” of the Malays is preserved in the Constitution of Malaysia, offering benefits including affirmative action for bumiputras, a 7 percent discount on houses or property regardless of income or wealth, whilst a low-income non-bumiputra receives no such financial assistance. Preferential treatment is also offered in regards to admission to government educational institutions, qualification for public scholarships, marking of universities exam papers, positions in government, and ownership of businesses. An additional example is Israel. It is seen as a country that utilises the ethnic democracy model in its relations with the country's Arab minority, as Israel has combined viable democratic institutions with institutionalised ethnic dominance. One last example is Northern Ireland. It was widely regarded as an ethnocracy due to its gerrymandering of electoral districts to ensure Unionist domination and informal policies that led to the police force being overwhelmingly Protestant; discriminatory housing and policies designed to encourage Catholic emigration; and systematic bias against Catholics and Irish nationalists. Many argue this means Northern Ireland should be defined as an ethnocracy from the time of the partition of Ireland until at least 1972, but not after the suspension of the Stormont Parliament, and Good Friday Agreement in 1998 today.

In an analysis of the effect of ethnic voting in 58 democracies worldwide between 1992 and 2015, it has been shown that democracies with high ethnic voting levels tend to see the quality of their democracy reduce over time relative to those with less ethnic voting. However, it is argued that ethnic parties can sustain a democratic system if they are institutionally encouraged - outbidding can be reversed by replacing the unidimensional ethnic identities assumed by the outbidding models with multidimensional ones. An example is the anomalous case of ethnic party behaviour in India, which has a strong class component as analysed by Huber (2014). This underlines the importance of disentangling the effect of group identity from that of economic well-being when analysing identity politics and the role of strong ethnic ties. The threat to democratic stability does not come from the inherent nature of ethnic divisions, but from the institutional context within which ethnic politics takes place. Institutions that artificially restrict ethnic politics to a single dimension destabilise democracy, whereas institutions that foster multiple dimensions of ethnic identity can sustain it. It is also argued there is nothing wrong with an ethnic democracy, when there is ethnic dominance with democratic, political and civil rights for everyone. The non-core groups are provided with political participation, influence and improvement of status as well as the core groups. Snooha argues allowing a privileged status to a dominant ethnic majority while ensuring that all individuals have equal rights is defensible - but insofar as Israel contravenes equality in practice, the term 'democratic' in his equation is flawed. Based on the same principle, Lijphart (2004) emphasises the importance of institutional design to foster accommodation and compromise in democracies with strong ethnic ties. However, the problem with this argument is that it is only supported by one anomalous example. It is also practically infeasible to implement systems that prevent the types of abuses explored in previous paragraphs which can greatly hinder practical democratic discourse.

Ethnic Ties Create Populism

Moreover, strong ethnic ties might give rise to dangerous forms of populism, which may erode democracy into authoritarianism in the long term. Plato (Republic, Book VI) warned against the power of demagogues who prey on ethnic identities - those who are expert at winning elections and nothing else will eventually dominate democratic politics; poorly worked out ideas that experts in manipulation and mass appeal use to help themselves win office. Democracy faces a “minority problem” that must be dealt with to forestall strife or instability; the challenge is how to marginalise destabilising forms of mobilisation and to integrate the interests of minorities in a revised system of power whose legitimacy critically depends on majority rule. If not solved, this might lead to young democracies sliding into authoritarian governments in incremental but insidious ways. Ethnic democracy can easily slide into ethnocracy, where state apparatus is controlled by a dominant ethnic group (or groups) to further its interests, power and resources; “thin” democratic façade covering a more profound ethnic structure, in which ethnicity, and not citizenship, becomes the key to securing power and resources.

Ethnic Ties Hinder Democratisation

In addition, strong ethnic ties may be an obstacle to the process of democratisation. It is argued that high levels of ethnic diversity make democracy much less likely, particularly in countries where one ethnic group can plausibly aspire to dominate a state. Strong ethnic ties can also cultivate an instinctive antidemocratic animus and a penchant for militarism, intolerance, violence, and even genocide. Hence the exclusionist character of ethnic nationalism makes it a weak basis on which to build a democratic society; and only a self-consciously civic nationalism is ultimately compatible with democratic development. Interestingly, democratisation has also been shown to exacerbate ethnic conflict. Authoritarian rulers have the incentive to manipulate ethnicity in order to gain and keep power for themselves. Nationalism hence becoming politicised as elites make nationalist appeals in their competition for popular support and “play the ethnic card”. Leaders also wish to sell exclusionary nationalism to their populations as a way of gaining popular legitimacy in lieu of further democratisation. This is exacerbated through imperfect media markets characterized by partial monopolies, ethnically segmented audiences, journalists with little sense of ethics or professionalism, and government manipulation. All these factors make it easier for worried authoritarian politicians to stop democracy in its tracks with overheated “us against them” nationalist appeals. An apt example to demonstrate this would be Yugoslavia. Democratisation also reconfigures ethnic social relationships. In addition, the stakes for democratisation are high with many things on the line - the relative status of groups, the division of wealth among them, the opportunities for education and cultural expression that members enjoy or are denied, their chances for upward mobility, the representation of interests within the state, and how citizenship is defined. However, in opposite instances where ethnic minorities were the favoured group, the main problem is how to demobilise previously favoured minorities and gain their acquiescence to their altered, less favoured role in a reconstructed social order. An example is the USSR majority-dominant polity, where Gorbachev’s program of democratisation did not seek to alter the traditional ethnic-Russian dominance over the state.

Religion Removes Impartiality in Policy-Making

At the same time, religion is argued to be fundamentally incompatible with the concept of democracy. Religion gets in the way of making specific policies disinterestedly, harming essential democratic functions. There are three broad goals of legislators - a) their “representational function”, which obliges them to listen to the concerns and preferences of the citizens. That does not mean those views must be wholly followed, but they must be heard and considered; b) to consider the Constitution and what it permits and forbids; and c) to carefully consider the merits of the various proposals on which a decision is required based on public interest. Anything else is an impediment to the process and an interference in the carrying out of constitutional obligations. Religion is one such obstacle. Legislators might have the incentive to invoke religious reasons in support of policies to pander to devout voters at the expense of public interest or the sanctity of the constitution. One example is Republican United States senators using Christian rhetoric to oppose homosexual marriage. The senators did not consider the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protected citizens’ fundamental right to marriage. This constitutional guarantee was later invoked by the Supreme Court in 2015 to legalise same-sex marriage. Hence, strong religious ties can hinder lawmakers’ ability to make decisions disinterestedly in the spirit of the Constitution.

Religion Creates Divisiveness

Religion is also argued to create divisiveness. Eberle (2002) points out that “when legislation is expressly based on religious arguments, the legislation takes on a religious character, to the frustration of those who don't share the relevant faith and who therefore lack access to the normative predicate behind the law”. Religion hence breeds division and creates anger and distrust between citizens who have to find some amicable way to make collective decisions about common matters. This division hinders democracies through polarising discourse and pushing voters further to both extremes of the political spectrum. If one religious sector of the population operates on a platform of non-compromise on certain divisive issues, such as homosexual marriage or abortion, other parties also become less willing to compromise. Compromise and mutual tolerance are crucial bedrocks of democracy as they take into account the views of all parties involved, not only the winning ones. This mutual goodwill means all minorities are likely to be protected regardless of election outcomes. With strong religious ties and a lack of compromise, the opposite happens. Parties become a way of life with different communities, cultures and values, creating intense partisan animosity. Hence religion polarises politics and is a large obstacle to democracy.

Examples of Catholicism and Islam

Catholicism and Islam are pertinent examples which have been argued to be at odds with democracy. Lipset (1959) believes that democracy requires a political belief system that accommodates competition among ideas, while the Catholic Church claims that it exclusively has the truth. He argues that Catholic countries are hence prone to instability and are intolerant towards compromise and pluralism that are fundamental to democracy. The unwillingness to accept contravening ideas echoes the argument presented in the previous paragraph. Islam is also especially critiqued as inherently antagonistic towards democracy. Montesquieu was one such fervent opponent. In his own words, “the moderate government is better suited to the Christian religion, and despotic government to Mohammedanism,” due to the “despotic fury” that allegedly defined the behaviour of “Mohammedan princes”. Kedourie (1992) echoed Montesqieu’s words, albeit in milder terms - “the ideas of the secularity of the state, of society being composed of a multitude of self-activating, autonomous groups and associations - all these are profoundly alien to the Muslim political tradition”. Huntington (1991) attempts to ground this theory in reality, using it to explain why few Muslim-majority countries transitioned to democracy during the so-called “Third Wave” of democratisation that began in the 1970s. “To the extent that governmental legitimacy and policy flow from religious doctrine and religious expertise, Islamic concepts of politics differ from and contradict the premises of democratic politics”. This theory is additionally supported by empirical evidence - cross-national, country-level statistical analyses demonstrated a positive correlation between the proportion of a country’s population that is Muslim and its propensity toward authoritarianism. As for Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and corresponding ones in Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco they have not been slowly moderating under the competition of elections as some political scientists speculate. Instead, these parties embrace profound contradictions, creating hybrid agendas where notions of freedom coexist uneasily with illiberal concepts of Shari’a. This coalition of ideas balances religion and liberal ideology precariously, threatening to revert to Shari’a once voters turn against it. Hence this demonstrates how strong religious ties can be a large obstacle in the path to democratisation.

Religion Might Not Affect Democracy

On the other hand, many argue that religious ties can be a non-factor in or even beneficial to democracies. Laborde (2017) concedes that minimal secularism or separation between state and religion is needed. Apart from this baseline, liberal democracies do not require the strict separation of state and religion that is found in the French or the U.S. model, which disaggregates religion into its various dimensions including “the ways of living, political theories of justice, modes of voluntary association, and vulnerable collective identities”. This discards a crucial part of individuals’ identities, which should be allowed to shape their political decision-making.

Importantly, empirical evidence supports the view that religion does not affect democracy. Ciftci (2010) conducted a study of attitudes toward democracy in ten Muslim-majority countries. She discovered that adherence to Islamic precepts was unrelated to support for democracy, which “is remarkably high, and independent of ‘sectarian’ or theological traditions across the Muslim world”. From cross-national data from the World Values Survey, Norris and Inglehart (2011) also discovered “surprisingly similar attitudes toward democracy found in the West and the Islamic world”. These two surveys of attitudes demonstrate that believing and practising religion does not affect how individuals view values of democracy and freedom.

Religion Might Improve Democracies

In addition to not being an obstacle to democracies, religion may even be able to improve democracies. Religious organisations can channel individuals into democratic politics, and Bloom and Arikan (2013) demonstrate that participation in religious social networks appears to be positively associated with some forms of support for democracy. This is due to the egalitarian nature of religious groups and their scriptures which emphasise mutual tolerance and helping those in need. An example is Hong Kong’s 2014 democracy protests. Leadership developed in Christian communities came to the fore, and Hong Kong’s churches played a quiet but important role in the city’s protests. They offered food and shelter to demonstrators, with some organizers and supporters citing Christian values as inspiration in their fight. The Catholic Church has also played a prominent role in Latin American politics. Its development of “liberation theology”, a synthesis of Christian theology and Marxist socio-economic analyses that emphasizes social concern for the poor and political liberation for oppressed peoples, has been widely influential. It was accompanied by the construction of “base Christian communities” in which local citizens articulated their daily concerns and democratically advocated for change. Specifically, The Catholic hierarchy has been a key actor opposing the socialist project of Chavismo in Venezuela, and their participation in politics has enhanced, rather than diminished, the quality of representation in the region. Many Catholics who were previously more apathetic towards politics viewed the Catholic Church’s movement as a rallying cry, and subsequently joined local grassroots and religious movements. This supports the theory that comparing strictly secular states to those with a less stringent separation of church and state, democracy is more likely to emerge and survive when religious actors are included in transition processes, instead of being viewed as hostile forces to be contained. Besides, so-called Islamist parties - previously thought to be opposed to democracy and individual liberty - have emerged as some of the region’s foremost exponents of democratic political arrangements. Hwang and Mecham (2014) demonstrated that Islamist parties represent diverse interests and behaviours - but through repeated elections, they often come to operate less as anti-establishment parties and more in line with the political norms of the regimes in which they compete. While a few parties have deliberately chosen to remain on the fringes of their political system, most have found significant political rewards in changing their messages and behaviour to attract more centrist voters - because through participating in elections over time, they form political coalitions and eventually moderate. Hence, it is argued that not only is religion not an impediment to democracy, but it can also aid political participation and countries on the path of democratisation.

Religion Can Be Manipulated

The problem with these arguments is that they ignore the nature of religious participation in politics. When religious groups invoke scriptural reasons of love and tolerance for certain policies, a dangerous form of decision-making is present - the use of religious rather than logical, secular reasoning. Although this might be useful in certain scenarios, it can be subject to horrifying abuse. Throughout history, religious doctrine has been used to justify the most atrocious actions, from witch-hunting to the present-day subjugation of homosexuals. Hence, religious justification should play no role in democracies. Even if it might be able to encourage more individuals to turn up to vote or increase the degree of political participation, those are benefits that should be forfeited when irrational religious reasons are invoked without any further secular reasoning to back them up.


Mill (1861) said that a democratic method of making legislation is better than non-democratic methods in three ways: strategically, epistemically and via the improvement of the characters of democratic citizens. The basis of this argument is that politicians in a multiparty democracy with free elections and a free press have incentives to respond to the expressions of needs of the vulnerable. This is only possible through the lack of strong ethnic and religious ties which distract from the main function of democracy and representative governance. Ethnic ties stoke conflict, encourage ethnic outbidding and polarise politics. Religious ties make use of dangerous religious justifications for policies which are subject to abuse. The exclusionary nature of politics also poisons democratic discourse, preventing compromise which is crucial to any democracy. Hence, we can conclude that strong ethnic or religious ties are obstacles to democracy.

[Winner of the R.A. Butler Politics Prize by Trinity College, Cambridge]


Recent Posts

See All

©2020 by Sharon Chau