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The Centripetal Theory of Democratic Governance Essay


In their book “A centripetal theory of democratic governance” published in 2008, political scientists and leading researchers John Gerring and Strom Thacker attempt to develop a comprehensive analysis of the role of political institutions in developing good governance. Using an empirical study, the researchers sought to address the questions on why some democratic governments become more successful than others and the impact of various political institutions on the quality of good governance.

With the help of empirical study to address these questions, the two researchers developed a relatively new theory in political science- the “centripetalism theory”- arguing that it contradicts the traditional dominant paradigm of decentralism. Nevertheless, the researchers have made several references to the consensus model of democracy that was previously developed by Arend Lijphart (27). In this case, it becomes evident that the two researchers attempt to build on the work of Lijphart.

In fact, they conclude that their work can be viewed as a refinement or reconceptualization of the consensus model. They conclude that this is not a problem, arguing that they would rather be delighted if their theory is viewed in either way. Using an in-depth analysis of the arguments and the empirical study developed in this book, it is worth viewing Gerring and Thacker’s centripetalism theory as a refinement rather than reconceptualization of Lijphart’s consensus model.

Brief review if Lijphart’s Concensus Theory

First, it is important to review Lijphart’s consensus model and the centripetalism theory developed by Gerring and Thacker. Lijphart’s consensus model, which is one of the best protocols for analysis governance, democracy and the impact of political institutions, should be discussed first.

In his 1999 book “Patterns of democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries”, Professor Arend Lijphart develops a detailed analysis of the type and nature of democracies that have survived and applied in various parts of the world. He uses an empirical study with a sample of 36 countries from all over the world to examine the nature of various types of democracies and effectiveness of each method in achieving social, economic and political goals (Lijphart 62).

The aim was to examine the types of governance systems that produce the required goals. In this model, these goals or measures of government efficiency were the expected outcomes in terms of economic growth, human development and social development.

In addition, the idea was based on the assumption that the political system is the main causative factor that determines whether other social aspects such as the economy, social and human growth will occur and their directions. Moreover, Lijphart based his theory on the idea of democracy, leaving out other non-democratic styles of leadership.

Brief review of centripetal theory

First, it is important to develop a brief but in-depth review of the “centripetalism” theory developed by Gerring and Thacker in order to determine whether it refines or conceptualizes Lijpohart’s consensus model. In their book “a centripetal theory of democratic governance, the two researchers argue that their aim is to set forth a theory for democratic governance applicable to any and all political and social settings where multiparty competitions at the national and local politics are dominance.

The authors argue against a number of previous theories. They use the term “centripetal” in reference to this combination. Noteworthy, they theory is limited to political institutions at the national level. First, unitary (rather than federal sovereignty) is needed in a country that seeks to achieve inclusive governance. Secondly, the element of parliamentary executive is better than a presidential system. Finally, the authors argue that a closed-list PR electoral system is needed instead of a preferential-vote or single member district system.

The researchers then used an empirical study to tests this hypothesis. They tested the impact of the three institutions in a wide range of outcomes of governance to determine whether the three institutional needs have an impact of including various groups within the society as well as addressing their needs.

According to the book, the results provide evidence that the three institutional elements of political institutionalization in centripetal system of governance show that the degree of achieving good governance is high in centripetal governance compared to other systems.

Comparing Lijphart’s consensus theory and the centripetal theory

In his analysis, the author uses statistical evidence to show that Westminster democracies are not more effective than democracies based on consensus. It assumes that the majorities have the right to form the government. Their interests are also addressed since they are well represented in the government. This is based on the idea of majoritarian, a popular method applied in most countries after independence in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Although Lijphart analysis about five different patterns of democracies in the world, his main argument is that consensus democracy is better than the other forms due to a number of reasons (Lijphart 57). In chapters 14 to 17 of the book, Lijphart presents a statistical analysis and evidence to determine the impact of Westminster democracies in yielding different policy outcomes in a better and more consistent manner than consensus democracies.

Using statistical evidence, the author uses a number of variables or economic outcomes like inflation, deflation, growth as well as corruption and other indicators of the effectiveness of political institutions in the countries tested in the study. For instance, in some variables or indicators such as inflation, the author’s statistics indicate that consensus democracies yield better outcomes than the Westminster democracies.

On other indicators such as economic development and corruption, Lijphart’s model shows that consensus democracies to slightly better than Westminster democracies, an indication that the consensus democratization produces good outcomes in various parts of the world where they are applied, citing countries like Canada, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany. Specifically, Lijphart’s model revealed a number of special advantages of consensus democratization in dividend societies.

For instance, the model reveals that consensus democratization has a major advantage in its attempt to include almost every segment of the society, where the majoritarian model is ignored. For instance, Lijphart’s statistical analysis indicates that majoritarian democracy has a negative impact of excluding a large segment of the total population in a country.

A good number of examples rejected and excluding the opinion of up to 49.9% of the total population (Lijphart 138). This means that almost half of the total population in a given country is excluded from the policy making processes, despite having important contribution to the social and economic development.

On the other hand, Gerring and Thacker have shown that they have no intention to refute Lijphart’s consensus theory at all. In fact, they have attempted to cite and reference a good number of ideas and methods used in Lijphart’s process of developing his theory.

In addition, the conclusion that the consensus theory is the best and most applicable in achieving a political regime that includes the opinions, views, needs and interests of the minority in policy making has not been refuted.

It is also worth noting that Gerring and Thacker have not attempted to support the previous claims that Westminster democracies are the best in achieving democratization of political and social institutional at the national and local level, neither have they attempted to refute the empirical method that Lijphart used to develop his consensus theory.

Instead, they have borrowed from most of his ideas, especially in their focus on inclusion of the excluded people in the majoritarian systems of democracy. Therefore, it is important to start at this point ion showing how the centripetal theory has is based on Lijphart’s ideas, which means that Gerring and Thacker’s argument is a refinement of Lijphart’s theory.

In advocating for the consensus model using statistical approach, Lijphart has contradicted two major arguments developed by the proponents of majoritarian-based Westminster democracies. First, he contests the notion that the problem of exclusion of a part of the population from policy making process is not relevant because there is a chance of the minority assuming the majority status within a short time.

In refuting these claims, Lijphart points out that most societies in the world have deep ethnic, religious, cultural, religious or ideological differences. Thus, there are little or no chances that the minority will turn out to be the majority with time, while the degree of homogeneity is relatively low. Thus, none of the two conditions holds, which means that a large portion of the population will be excluded from policy making processes when Westminster democracy is applied.

How the centripetal theory of good governance builds on the ideas of Lijphart’s consensus theory

An important point of consideration is that the centripetal theory appears to have a more internal consistency than Lijphart’s consensus theory because it has expanded the idea of reducing exclusion and dependency on the majority opinion based on specific inclusion of the minority in specific political institutions. In fact, it has attempted to expand the idea of reducing the degree of exclusion, focusing on the national-level political institutions.

This is an important aspect that indicates the authors’ ability to refine some aspects of the consensus idea. However, the major burden for the centripetal theory is to develop a comprehensive support for the claim that the institutional arrangements at the national level are likely to achieve normative value. In addition, the burden of proving the claim is made larger by the fact that the outcomes of arranging the executive, electoral and sovereignty into the suggested nexus are not immediate, which makes an empirical study difficult to carry out.

Thus, the authors ignore other aspects of the society and focus on political arrangements, and then attempt to determine the outcomes of these arrangements on a number of indicators that are not essentially political. This feature proves that the theory is primarily meant to build on or refine Lijphart’s consensus theory. For instance, it is evident that the researchers base their claims on the realization that political exclusion of minority groups, as suggested by Lijphart, is the basis of poor democracy and violence in majoritarian systems.

It appears that Gerring and Thacker were interested in narrowing down Lijphart’s observation to a smaller unit, that is, the political system, and focus on its impact on the other indicators of good governance. Though not supporting the consensus theory, the authors tend to develop an understanding that political institutions have a direct connection with the quality of governance through some causal mechanism, where they act as the causal factors to the outcomes of human and economic development.

Therefore, this understanding expands Lijphart’s assertion that the political system is the primary and most important feature that defines democracy and influences the social, economic and developmental outcomes. It is therefore worth noting that Gerring and Thacker wanted to refine Lijphart’s assertion through an empirical study on the political institutionalization, which is an aspect of the consensus theory narrowed down to a single unit (the national political set up).

On his part, Lijphart was interested in examining the various democratic styles of political leadership as the center of social, economic and human growth. It is also worth noting that the terms Westminster democracy, consensus and majoritarian democracy have been used intensively in the book.

In brief, the term Westminster democracy refers to the democratic styles of leadership in countries whose constitutions were based on Westminster conferences in the 19th and 20th centuries. In particular, these were former British colonies. Their voting system is based on simple majority, where even one vote can make one the automatic leader, leaving out the opinion of the remaining 49.99% (Lijphart 139).

According to Gerring and Hacker, federalism and unitarism fail to achieve good governance due to their internal weaknesses. In this context, the authors argue that federalism has a negative impact on the internal party coherence. It is evident that these claims were directed against the ideas of majoritarian democracies, which are supported in the Westminster pattern of democracy. In essence, Gerring and Thacker were refining the definitions of poor democracy in Westminster majoritarian systems that were observed in Lijophart’s work.

Gerring and Thacker have attempted to narrow down the wide pattern of majoritarian and Westminster democracy into smaller units of unitarism and federalism. In this way, they used an empirical evidence to show that the majoritarian democracies fail to address the political needs of every aspect of the society due to lack of convergent opinion. In essence, this is a clear indication of the authors’ attempt to refine Lijphart’s observations in his consensus theory.

In fact, Lijphart’s study reveals that most nations in the world have deep cleavages or divisions based on social, cultural and ethnic differences, which results into diverse opinions, needs and interests at the local and national levels. Thus, if the majority voting is used to determine the political institutions, then it is most likely that a large population is left out of the government.

In addition, Lijphart’s model reveals that the deep divisions within the society make it hard for a possible crossover, which prevents today’s minority from becoming the majority over a long period. In addition, Lijphart points that the likelihood of an overlap between the interests of the majority and those of the minority groups is significantly low, which means that the voting system will always make sure than a large group of the total population is excluded from the policy making system.

Lijphart argues that this is the major cause of violence in various nations that apply majoritarian system of Westminster democracy because the minorities feel that they will remain excluded from the policy making system. On the other hand, Lijphart’s model reveals that consensus democracy is the institutional solution to these problems.

It allows democracy to function by involving and incorporating the rights, interests and views of the minority groups, which influence politics that are dominated by the majority groups (Lijphart 7). Although Lijphart agrees that there might be less or no turnover in the legislative institutions, the government will be a representative of a wide range of citizen’s interests, which is rare in Westminster democracies.

Although Gerring and Thacker have attempted to narrow down Lijphart’s theory into political institutionalization only, it is worth noting that they have also shown that Lijphart only conceptualized his theory along a single spectrum of majoritarian and consensus. They argue that a polity is majoritarian to the extent that a small group of individuals uses the simple majority or plurality to govern a rather diverse and heterogeneous society, excluding the opinion and interests of a large group.

In addition, the authors conceptualize Lijphart’s view by claiming that a polity can also be consensual to the extent of allowing leaders to rule through super-majorities. They claim that this is a major weakness in the consensus theory because it assumes that the rule through super-majorities is a move towards consensus, while in reality, it is still a majoritarian system of governance that has the basic weaknesses of the Westminster democracies.

Nevertheless, rather than refuting Lijphart’s theory based on this weakness, the centripetal theory attempts to fill this gap by refining the argument by Lijphart. In this case, the centripetal theory uses the institutionalization of the political system at the national level to address the problem identified in the consensus theory. The authors argue that ten institutions are relevant in this determination.

For instance, they argue that the effective number of parties represented in the national parliament, the minimal winning one-party cabinets, the executive dominance and the disproportionality of the electoral system are significant matters that need institutionalization. In addition, the theory argues that constitutional rigidity, judicial review systems, the independence of the central monetary system and federalism are also important institutions that should be focused on when refining Lijphart’s theory.

The authors use Switzerland as the empirical example of a nation that has used consensus institutionalization along the aforementioned political and economic institutions. They further argue that Lijphart’s idea of better governance across a range of expected outcomes should be emanating from the institutions that have been developed under consensus system.

However, they note that Lijphart’s argument has failed in this case because the set of institutions in a country like Switzerland bears a casual resemblance of the refuted veto point model, which Lijphart criticized for its ineffectiveness to bring good governance.

Thus, Gerring and Thacker cite this weakness in Lijphart’s theory as a major issue that needs further refinement. In addressing this problem, the authors use their centripetal argument to show that Lijphart was able to use the idea of operationalization of political institutions to avoid the problems associated with decentralism and Veto models of governance.

Moreover, the centripetal theory finds another major issue in the consensus theory. Gerring and Thacker reveal that a key issue in the consensus theory concerns whether the decentralization of key institutions can lead to mutual defection or cooperation.

If there is cooperation through power sharing instead of defecting, Lijphart reasons that better policies are set to emerge. To refine this argument, the two authors used an in-depth theorization of this point based on integrating it into the ten-institutional typology that have used as a paradigm for good governance in their work.

Finally, Gerring and Thacker reveal that Lijphart’s model used a factor-analysis approach to the institutional factors before conducting tests on a wide range of measures for good governance. They reveal that Lijphart’s model differentiates between federal-unitary and executive-parties dimensions.

However, they reveal another weakness in Lijphart’s model based on the finding that only a few tests provided evidence of a relationship between good governance and the variables chosen across all the 36 countries used as the study sample. To resolve this problem, the authors have used the centripetal method and a larger sample of countries.

They found that a larger sample provides evidence that additional links exist between good governance and the inclusion of several opinions, views and needs of the diverse groups of people in a given nation.

Thus, it is evident that the idea in Gerring and Thacker’s model was to build on the ideas and methods that Lijphart had developed when developing his consensus theory. It is clear that the aim of using a larger sample in developing the centripetal theory was partly to determine whether additional links exist between the outcomes of good governance and the level of institutionalization of the political units.

Finally, it is worth noting that Gering and Thacker’s empirical research did not have a large deviation from the method used by Lijphart. Their research methodology is relatively similar to Lijphart’s methods in that both cases were primarily quantitative in nature. In addition, sample selection, target population, study process, variables, methods of data handling was relatively the same.

As such, it is worth noting that the objective was not to refute or conceptualize Lijphart’s model. Instead, Gerring and Thacker’s objective was to refine the methods, findings and arguments developed in the consensus model using a more pronounced and advanced research.


Although Gerring and Thacker have developed a new theory that has significant differences with Lijphart’s consensus model, it is clear that the attempt was not to refute Lijphart’s claims and ideas. Instead, the authors carried out a research with an aim of building on the previous claims and findings by Lijphart. In addition, the theories of majoritarian and Westminster democracies have been refuted intensively in the centripetal model, which supports Lijphart’s point of view.

Similarly, the idea of reducing or avoiding exclusion of some groups of people from the national policy making process is supported in both theories. Although the centripetal theory attempts to define the exact institutions that should be nationalized to avoid exclusion and control of the majority, it is clear that the basic knowledge used in developing this idea is similar to Lijphart’s point of view.

In addition, other aspects such as the use of statistical approach, similar study populations and study methods provide a clear indication that Gerring and Thacker’s centripetalism theory as a refinement rather than reconceptualization of Lijphart’s consensus model.

Works Cited

Gerring, John and Strom Thacker. A centripetal theory of democratic governance. London: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print

Lijphart, Arend. Patterns of democracy: Government forms and performance in thirty-six countries. New Haven: Yale University press, 2012. Print.

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