Historical Social Research

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Thomas A. Baylis, Elite Consensus and Political Polarization: Cases from Central Europe, [Abstract]

The concept of “elite consensus” is pivotal to the work of John Higley and his associates, but like many key political concepts its meaning is not precise. Consensus implies broad agreement, but just how much agreement, over what matters, among whom (i.e., who are the relevant elites), and how enduring remain to be specified. Higley et al. recognize these problems, placing their emphasis on procedural rather than substantive agreement and granting that individual cases may lie somewhere on the borderline between elite consensus and disunity. In this essay I explore the consensus issue by examining several cases from East Central Europe and that of Germany in the aftermath of the fall of Communism. Higley and Burton see especially in the Polish and Hungarian “roundtables” instances of near-contemporary “elite settlements.” But in both cases observers have recently pointed to a degree of political polarization whose intensity seems to call into question the actual achievement of elite consensus and indeed of “democratic consolidation.” I assess these apparently conflicting perspectives by examining the divergent views of the new political institutions and of the legitimacy of one another held by rival elites in Poland and Hungary and compare the cases of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Germany.