I have a country where polygamy is allowed and most of the marriages are between cousins or half siblings.

Could such country have a functional democracy or everybody would vote for their extended family?

  • 7
    $\begingroup$ You're describing Middle Eastern countries in our own world, which have legal polygamy and rates of cousin marriage that can exceed 50% $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Oct 15, 2016 at 16:44
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ What does have democracy with marriage laws? $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Commented Oct 15, 2016 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeScott Which one of these has best functioning democracy? $\endgroup$
    – Charizard
    Commented Oct 15, 2016 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Charizard Tunisia, probably. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Oct 15, 2016 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - Sure, but you (probably) don't come from a culture which places such value on family ties that kin-marriage (keep it in the family) is common. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2016 at 18:50

3 Answers 3


If by democracy you mean voting, sure they might have it, if west twist their arms, but to be functional you need out-bred people or the genetic similarity will ensure that everybody is voting for their own.

Even with cousin marriage the situation is bad enough but if you allow half-siblings every extended family member is close to clone to each other. Would you vote against your twin?

The closest thing we have is cousin marriage:

Consanguinity as a Major Predictor of Levels of Democracy: A Study of 70 Nations

This article examines the hypothesis that although the level of democracy in a society is a complex phenomenon involving many antecedents, consanguinity (marriage and subsequent mating between second cousins or closer relatives) is an important though often overlooked predictor of it. Measures of the two variables correlate substantially in a sample of 70 nations (r = –0.632, p < 0.001), and consanguinity remains a significant predictor of democracy in multiple regression and path analyses involving several additional independent variables. The data suggest that where consanguineous kinship networks are numerically predominant and have been made to share a common statehood, democracy is unlikely to develop. Possible explanations for these findings include the idea that restricted gene flow arising from consanguineous marriage facilitates a rigid collectivism that is inimical to individualism and the recognition of individual rights, which are key elements of the democratic ethos. Furthermore, high levels of within-group genetic similarity may discourage cooperation between different large-scale kin groupings sharing the same nation, inhibiting democracy. Finally, genetic similarity stemming from consanguinity may encourage resource predation by members of socially elite kinship networks as an inclusive fitness enhancing behavior.

Here's a two links about Iraq:

Clan loyalty fixed by cousin marriage was always bound to undermine democracy in Iraq.


Unfortunately, nepotism is usually a zero sum game, so the flip side of being materially nicer toward your relatives would be that you’d have less resources left with which to be civil, or even just fair, toward non-kin. So, nepotistic corruption is rampant in countries such as Iraq, where Saddam has appointed members of his extended family from his hometown of Tikrit to many key positions in the national government. The Iraqis, closely resemble the Hatfields and the McCoys.


In countries and pre-modern societies where you have a high degree of inbreeding, this usually results in clannishness, nepotism and corruption, which is not a favorable condition for Western style democracies.

Basically, extended inbred families at a higher level of common family ties, leads to the formation of "clans" and "clans" in turn have yet more remote family ties as "tribes". Most people in Iraq, for example, have a clan or tribal affiliation which often is more important to them than their national identity to a multi-ethnic state created by European diplomats a mere century ago. Above tribes are full fledged cultural communities (e.g. in Iraq: Kurds, Shiites, Arab Sunnis, Turkmen, and several smaller communities like Yazidis) some of which have internal extended family-clan-tribal substructure.

Similar situations have arisen in post-colonial states in Africa and Southeast Asia. For example, it is a serious barrier to unity in the newly formed state of South Sudan.

Part of the problem, well illustrated by the Iraqi case, is that by raw numbers since factions have different sizes, one of the national factions will always win and get a majority in parliament and lord over everyone else, while everyone else will always lose. In Iraq, the numbers are such that the Iraqi Shiites always win (upsetting the previous totalitarian regime in which the minority Arab Sunnis ruled knowing that their lack of a majority requires them to defer to the wishes of other ethnic groups; something similar is the case in Assad's Syria).

Since movement between factions is more or less hereditary rather than fluid, this means that a substantial share of the population and majorities in large parts of the national territory, will always be on the losing side of every election. This makes democracy seem like a sham system not worth adopting to the perennial losers. They may as well be denied the franchise entirely.

@Platypus adequately addresses the more or less consensus conclusion of the literature on that point.

But, when no one clan is in a position to dominate the others, the most democratic (or at least most responsive to the opinion of the governed) alternative systems of government that arise are typically one of two kinds.

Neo-Feudal Meritocracy

An Example From Afghanistan

One example is noted by David Anthony in his book "The Horse, The Wheel and Language" involving migration of people from Pashtun people who had a democracy of equal landowners in the jurga of Afghanistan to the neo-feudal society of the people in the neighboring mountains.

Since you standing as a citizen and in the community among the Pashtun was dependent upon owning land, if you lost all of your land for some reason you joined a social underclass and had no future prospects.

In contrast, in the neighboring mountain community, everyone was a liege of someone else (even the "king" of the region who was a liege of a leader of someone in Khazikstan), so there was no shame in being subordinate so someone else, and the system was fluid enough that if you showed promise, you could cast your allegiance with a more powerful master and move up in society without actually owning land.

While not a true democracy, the neo-feudal mountain society did consider the views of underlings far down the power structure and promoted them if they had merit much as soldiers in the military might be promoted to higher office. A neo-feudal meritocracy can work in a clannish and inbred society.

Other Examples

If clan leaders are part of the overall feudal structure and the lord to which they all owe allegiance is distant and does not actively impose much order on the clan leaders, a cooperative council of clan leaders can result. This kind of dynamic is what gave rise to the House of Lords in the U.K.

This neo-feudal meritocracy also characterizes the power structure and succession in the clannish society of Saudi Arabia, which is much more fluid than European feudal systems because the status of subordinates is frequently altered based upon merit from year to year, and in the system of Papal Succession within the Roman Catholic church.

For what it is worth, this is also more or less how student organizations like clubs and student councils work in Japan, and how U.S. business corporations, universities and the U.S. military are organized.

Again, it isn't democracy, but it is a system where there is room for advancement and where the quality opinions of people at the bottom can receive recognition and advance. It is a middle ground between absolute monarchy on strict hereditary principle applied at all levels of the organization as in Medieval Europe, and a free rule of law capitalist or democratic system.

A Democratic Oligarchy Of Clan Or Faction Leaders

Modern Examples

Another example is that many clannish societies have a council of top clan leaders who jointly make policy for the entire clan society. For example, in Lebanon, there has been an arrangement for each of three top positions in the government to be allocated to a different religious faction (Muslim, Druze, Christian), so that each faction has a meaningful say in how the top level political decisions are made.

Malaysia has a residual council of kings that collectively serve the role of a constitutional monarch with similar origins. One can look at the rotating presidency of the European Union as another example of what a political system on that basis can look like.

Historical Examples

Similar structures have existed historically, at times, in alliances within the Aegean Sea when it was balkanized into city-states, and among the Scottish clans.

Many of the city-states of late medieval or early modern Europe were run on this basis with city council seats based down on a hereditary basis and divided among the leading families of the community as a previously more democratic system ossified into democratic oligarchy.

In North America, the Iroquois Confederacy had this character.

In The Bible

While it is a bit hard to discern, the political system of the Hebrews described in the Hebrew Bible books of Exodus, Numbers, Joshua and Judges in which there were twelve tribes of Israel that met as councils when necessary to govern the overall community, and appointed temporary war leaders to lead them when necessary (called "judges") prior to the creation of the kingdoms of Judea and Israel, also reflect that kind of clan level democracy.

In Fiction

In fiction, a good example of this is the political structure of the living vampires explained in the later installments of the Vampire Academy series by Rachel Mead where governance is by a council of a dozen or so families led by a king chosen among them by a vote of the clan leaders. Another exploration of that kind of political system can be found in the Merchant Prince series by Charles Stross. You also see it in the structure of Werewolf society (by clan) and of other types of supernaturals (in family run "cabals") in Kelley Armstrong's Otherworld series.

Vestigial Forms Of Clan Leader Democracy In North American Political Systems

The U.S. Constitution is a hybrid of a democracy that gives each citizen with the franchise a roughly equal say (though the House of Representatives) and one that gives each collective group regardless of population a say (particularly before the adoption of the 17th Amendment when Senators were appointed rather than elected). The Confederation of the American colonies that existed from 1776-1789 before the current U.S. Constitution was enacted, was likewise based on a democracy of groups of people, rather than of individuals basis.

In Canadian politics, councils of provincial premiers together with the prime minister to address issues of federalism, particularly where the provinces has some formal role but unity is desirable, have made what on paper seems like a relatively unitary political system work out in practice to be more of a hybrid system than the formal constitution would suggest.


When you are inbred you actually have less extended family

If your parents are siblings, you only have 2 grandparents and 4 great grandparents.

If your parents are cousins, you have 4 grandparents and 6 great grandparents.

If your parents are unrelated, you have 4 grandparents and 8 great grandparents.

The conclusion

The country could have a fully successful democracy, no problems. If you are worried about people voting for their extended family, this would be more of a problem in a society where inbreeding is looked down upon (basically, our society). Is this a problem? not really. Our democracies work well enough.

On a side note, perhaps inbreeding would improve our politicial system..... I mean, anyone can see that improvement is needed to a system which gives you two candidates for president who are widely disliked.


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