Multiculturalism Need Not be at Odds with Democracy

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The Death of Multiculturalism?

“Multikulti is dead”[1]. “State multiculturalism has failed”[2]. Lofty headlines with statements made by the likes of Angela Merkel and David Cameron have proclaimed in recent years that multiculturalism, the state in which different cultural groups and identities are present in a single society, is incompatible with our textbook liberal democracies. This “realisation” comes as democratic participation and social capital declines, and with it often accompanies a promise to curb immigration numbers in an attempt to restore solidarity and rebuild social cohesion (BBC, 2011). Immigration and multiculturalist policies are blamed for creating polar identities within nations where social cohesion and civic participation, required for the flourishing of democratic values, diminish. This paper seeks to address the impact of immigration on solidarity and civic trust, and whether immigration is indeed liable for the deterioration in democratic participation.

Does Immigration Undermine Democracy?

Freedom, equality and solidarity. The three liberal-democratic values as defined by John Rawls that seemingly go hand-in-hand face tension in the issue of immigration (Rawls, 1971). In particular, the multiculturalist policies that have been put in place to ensure the freedom and rights of immigrants have been criticised as being at odds with the concept of social solidarity which many believe is required in facilitating key democratic processes and attaining democratic outcomes (Taylor, 2010).

The main argument made by proponents of this stand is that there is a need for a strong, common national identity and civic participation in democratic societies in order to achieve common goals such as the upholding of social justice (Miller & Ali, 2014). Democracy works via the expressed will of the people, necessitating that the public are able to figuratively speak the same language and banter amongst themselves. William Riker notably makes the case against pluralism when he states that “if the people speak in meaningless tongues, they cannot utter the law that makes them free” (Riker, 1988). A basic shared identity, forged both through national attachment and social cohesion, allows the people to form a common ground and deliberate as well as accept the decisions which they do not support (Miller, 1995). To realise the collective interest of the public, trust, reciprocity and stability are required in democratic politics (Kymlicka, 1995).

Robert Putnam’s study illustrates the impact of immigration in the United States (U.S.) on solidarity and civic trust. Putnam’s research revealed that fear of the foreign and unknown reduces trust, solidarity and social capital (Putnam, 1995). The correlation between immigration and decreased participation in democratic processes and civic associations was highlighted, and it is concluded that a lower sense of trust and a lack of homogeneity resulted in the lower investment in public goods and poor civic health in almost every aspect (Putnam, 2000). Social identity theory on in-groups versus out-groups has also been used to describe how immigration undermines solidarity and civic trust. The two are often thought to be negatively correlated, with in-group trust coming easier than the later (Delhey & Welzel, 2012). As such, immigration and resulting multiculturalist societies tend to be perceived as lacking in a cohesive national identity. In countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, formerly multicultural states, immigration policies have been tightened in fear of erosion of Western national identity, and anti-immigrant populist parties like the Dutch’s Party for Freedom have significantly risen in popularity.

On the other hand, opponents to the argument contend that the presence of democratic constitution helps mitigate the effects that a lack of social solidarity brings. Constitutionalism acts as an “auto-paternalistic” check on a fickle common-will which is said to result from a lack of solidarity (Woodruff, 2014). As such, even in the face of reduced (but not entirely lacking) civic trust and social cohesion, democracies can still function and exist.

Proponents for multiculturalism and free immigration reason that democratic values dictate that everyone should be treated equally and given the fundamental freedom to keep their own culture and beliefs. Civic and political liberties such as freedom of speech, assembly and religious freedom are also advocated for all. The multiculturalism camp argues that diversity as a result of liberty and justice must be accepted and that democratic values demand we do not curtail the rights of those who are different (Kymlicka, 2010). Resultantly, national solidarity is often thought to be undermined by immigration. With the spectrum of values and cultural beliefs held by different groups, it is perceived to be difficult for a collective identity to be established. Immigrant groups often huddle in their own cultural enclaves, limiting chances for cross-cultural interaction and preventing the build-up of solidarity and civic trust that comes with understanding and familiarity. In addition, language sometimes poses as a barrier when their jobs and self-containing cultural enclaves do not require the mastering of a common language (Huntington, 2004).

The debate on whether immigrants and their cultures should be accepted and celebrated or tolerated and side-lined in place of national identity is ironic as the arguments made against immigration in defence of democracy often undermine democracy themselves. Claims of trying to reach a compromise by limiting immigration often result in policies that threaten democracy. One example is that of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 (SB1070) which was passed amongst much controversy. The Bill made it a misdemeanour crime for any immigrants to be in Arizona without carrying the required registration documents and allowed enforcement officers to make “lawful stop, detention or arrest” when there is suspicion of an individual’s immigration status (Arizona HB2162, Section 3). The law also prevents state officials from restricting enforcement of federal immigration laws, which goes against the U.S. Constitution – an important tool in ensuring democracy in diverse communities as previously mentioned (Arizona SB 1070, Section 2). The Bill was criticised for encouraging racial profiling, and the U.S. Supreme Court also struck down three other provisions to the Bill on grounds of non-constitutionality and in violation of civil rights law (Barnes, 2012), showing how anti-immigration policies often go out of hand and violate the very democratic values they claim to uphold. In the case of Arizona, instead of increasing solidarity by restricting immigration, the passing of the Bill has resulted in further segregation amongst Americans who rally for or against the law (Archibold, 2010).

The pro-immigration camp also dismisses the idea that immigration necessarily undermines solidarity. In multicultural Canada and Singapore, the belief is that diversity erodes distinction and creates an inclusive community (Putnam, 2000). In these countries, immigration is widespread and viewed upon more favourably. Policies have been put in place to ensure the protection of individual rights and yet collective rights and identity remain preserved. Bilingualism in both countries ensure a common language for cross-cultural interactions yet at the same time encourages the keeping of cultural roots via the learning of various native tongues. Despite being a secular state, Singapore encourages religious participation as it represents an important tool in bridging cultural and racial divides (Putnam, 2000).  Citizenship tests and compulsory community contact-hours are part of the process of attaining a Singapore citizenship; designed not in the aim of making new citizens “one of them” but to create a new identity which is rooted in heritage but enriched by the new (ibid). These policies are just some of the simple, effective measures which help ensure that the elements of fairness, equality and solidarity can be preserved in society.

The Importance of Civil Society

The globalised world presents a dilemma unprecedented: a need to craft a sense of solidarity and shared values in the face and acceptance of divergent views and culture (Taylor, 2010). On the outset, immigration brings about segregation as it involves the new and unfamiliar. Over time, however, with the right policies and arena, this can be overcome. It is undeniable that a shared values system facilitates the achievement of democratic outcomes due to the need for majority consensus. Yet, the deliberative and participative nature of democratic processes hints in the civic strength of diversity and pluralism as opposed to solidarity in ensuring the best possible outcomes. Democracy requires a balance of both solidarity and diversity in order to function at its best and this is often achieved through the propagation of an active civil society which act as an intermediary in building civic trust. The onus is not purely on immigrants to find their place in society but also on the natives to engage and foster mutual respect and solidarity in a constantly changing environment. Both the old and new have to feel comfortable in unfamiliarity and this is often done through policies which help create a more encompassing identity in informal and social contexts. What is initially thought of as foreign culture can be so ingrained in a community through mutual-exchange over time that it would be difficult to imagine a time without it. This is not an erosion of native identity, but an enrichment and enhancement of the receiving country.


[1] BBC News Online. (2010). “Merkel says German multicultural society has failed”.

[2] BBC News Online. (2011). “State multiculturalism has failed, says David Cameron”.


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