Democratic Culture

Components of the
Culture of Democracy

José Eduardo JorgeJosé Eduardo Jorge

EnglishDemocratic values. Scientific consensus on the concept of value. Influence of values on the behavior of the individual. Beliefs and norms. Ideology and values. Theories of political culture: commonalities and differences. The Postmodernization Theory: Emancipative or Self-Expression Values. The Social Capital Theory and the Civic Community. Approaches on Support for Democracy and Confidence in Institutions. The Civic Culture model. The Theory of Basic Human Values. The congruence hypothesis. Go to Part 1: Definition of Political Culture


The Scientific Study of Values

We have said that the core components of political culture in a society are likely embodied in a small system of basic values. Values are cultural ideals: conceptions of what is good or bad, desirable or not. They are expressed in the norms, practices and institutions, and influence the attitudes and behaviors that people see as legitimate or illegitimate – and are stimulated or discouraged – in different social contexts (Schwartz, 2009).

According to Schwartz, culture is “outside” the individual. It refers to the “press” to which individuals are exposed due to the fact of living in a social system. Psychologically, cultural pressures are stimuli that the individuals find frequently and that direct their attention, for example, to the material or the spiritual, the group or the individual, etc. In sociological terms, these pressures are expectations that the person finds when performing roles in social institutions.

“The frequency of certain stimuli, expectations and practices accepted in society express underlying regulatory emphasis value, which are at the heart of culture” (Schwartz, 2009, p. 128). An emphasis on obedience values is expressed in frequent stimuli and expectations that induce widespread conformity behaviors. The organizational structures, policies and daily practices of social institutions are stimuli and expectations that express underlying value emphasis. Educating children in achievement, basing the economy on competition and the legal system on confrontation, convey value emphases that promote success and ambition.

Schwartz has summarized in six main points the growing scientific consensus on the notion of value (Schwartz, 2007, 1992). Values are beliefs (that is, cognitions), but inextricably linked to affect. When a situation activates them, they are infused with emotion. If I value my freedom, if freedom is important to me, I feel worried when I see it threatened, distressed if I lose it and happy when I can enjoy it.

Values imply desirable ends that motivate people’s behavior. They are abstract or general, so that they transcend specific actions and situations. Solidarity and respect for others, for example, are relevant in a variety of contexts. This characteristic sets them apart from attitudes and norms, which are linked to more specific behaviors, objects and circumstances.

Values also serve as criteria for selecting and evaluating people, opinions, government policies, etc. They are ordered by importance relative to one another, forming a system of value priorities. This hierarchical organization of values is another difference with attitudes. Societies as a whole and each individual have specific value systems.

How do values influence people’s behavior? The mechanism relies on their relative importance. Any behavior or attitude usually involves more than one value. Among these multiple values there are relations of congruence and conflict. Accepting a promising well-paid job may be congruent with an individual’s values of success and wealth, but conflicting with her values of independence and leisure. Decisions are guided by a trade-off among competing values that are relevant in a specific situation.

An individual’s behavior in a given context not only depends on their values. They are influential if: a) are relevant to the situation; b) are important for the individual, especially if they are central to the Self (“I am honest,” “I am ambitious”).

Beliefs and patterns of behavior, which likely occupy a more peripheral position than values, are two additional types of components of political culture. The former are the ideas about what is true or false that prevail among the members of a society. They represent the knowledge created by society that individuals accept and share. Ideologies – including political ideologies in a narrow sense – are highly organized and integrated systems of beliefs, which help to explain and make sense of the world and our place in it, and serve to legitimize different aspects of social organization. Political ideologies usually involve values, but are predominantly cognitive. It is not uncommon for an individual to suddenly adhere or reject a political ideology by means of rational persuasion. Changes in basic values are much less likely (Inglehart, 1990, pp. 371-92).

Patterns of behavior include a variety of rules that define the accepted and expected actions of people in different contexts (Cialdini & Trost, 1998). They range from the simple standard or repetitive behavior – the “normal” or usual action observed in a group – to “norms” in the strong sense of compulsory rules. The latter are inculcated with a feeling of obligation and their infringement leads to informal or formal sanctions. The intensity of the obligation and sanctions depends on the relevance of the norm: it reaches a minimum degree in some habits and customs, and a maximum one in taboos.

Theories of Political Culture

A good theory is able to explain a great variety of facts and processes through a concise structure of concepts and hypotheses. Our field reunites a set of interrelated theoretical systems, hypotheses and concepts, which converge on the goal of identifying a core of key components of political culture, their relationships with the political-institutional sphere and their processes of formation and change. The main focus of these theoretical viewpoints is the role of political culture in the emergency, stability, depth and effectiveness of democracy.

A highly formalized paradigm, with solid empirical support, based on more than 400.000 interviews gathered from 1981 to 2014 by the WVS, is the Postmodernization Theory. Developed by Inglehart (and subsequently also by Welzel), its central thesis is that a stable and deep democracy results from the emergence of a system of “Emancipative” or “Self-Expression” values. This system is, in turn, a product of economic development, and it spreads throughout a society during the postindustrial phase by means of generational replacement.

The concept of “postmodern shift” (Inglehart, 1997, 1990) refers to a set of interrelated changes in values, beliefs and norms in every area of culture: family, religion, work, politics, etc. While most members of a society are still living in conditions of relative insecurity (a situation that extends to the most part of the industrialization stage), people tend to value economic and physical security above other goals. As a way to maximize predictability in an uncertain world, people adhere to absolute rules, traditional sexual norms and established roles of men and women. Foreigners, ethnic diversity and changes in cultural patterns are perceived as threats. Correlative phenomena are intolerance toward homosexuals and other groups seen as “different,” as well as an authoritarian political outlook.

As societies move towards a welfare economy based on the tertiary sector, successive generations, due to the growing security conditions in the life of individuals, tend to give less and less priority to materialistic goals of survival and more to postmaterialist values related to self-expression and quality of life.

This theory of intergenerational value change relies on two hypotheses. One is that of the early socialization of individuals, according to which the basic values that people learn in their formative life stages change little in their adulthood. The other corresponds to the model of hierarchy of needs postulated by Maslow (1954). Physiological and safety needs have to be reasonably satisfied before the individual gives priority to the psychological requirements of self-actualization, belonging and esteem.

The system of emancipative or self-expression values emerges and gradually spreads throughout society at the pace of generational value change and replacement. This syndrome is congruent with democracy, since it prioritizes freedom of choice, participation in decision making, gender equality, diversity and respect for others, as well as generalized trust (Inglehart & Welzel, 2005).

A second body of theory, which shares elements but also shows important differences with the previous one, is the Social Capital paradigm. After studying for twenty years the Italian experience of regional governments, Putnam did the most influential analysis of democracy based on this concept. He has postulated that a good performance of democratic institutions is a consequence of a specific social and cultural context: a model of coexistence that Putnam calls “civic community.” It is characterized by high stocks of social trust, voluntary associations and reciprocity norms, which allow people to solve effectively dilemmas of collective action. The civic community, a notion whose origins go back to Renaissance “civic humanists,” would not be a product of economic development, but of the whole history of a society, which is conceived in terms of path dependency.

The social capital approach has also produced alternative hypotheses that differ from those of Putnam. The most important ones refer to the role of institutions in the creation of social capital (Montero et al., 2008, Rothstein & Stolle, 2008), the dissimilar political impact of different types of voluntary associations (Warren, 2001), and the problematic link between interpersonal trust and participation in voluntary associations (Uslaner, 2002). The topic of the sources and political effects of interpersonal trust has become a field of intense research efforts (Delhey & Newton, 2005).

A third viewpoint takes into account some aspects of David Easton’s political system approach (Easton, 1965), on which the foundational model of “civic culture” developed by Almond & Verba (1963) was also based in good part. Easton stressed the importance of citizen’s “support” for the political regime and its institutions to keep the system running. According to this, positive attitudes toward democracy, satisfaction with the performance of the system, and confidence in political institutions, are essential for the stability and effectiveness of the regime (Linz & Stepan, 1996; Torcal, 2008; Montero et al., 2008, 1998; Norris, 1999).

The theory of basic human values proposed by Schwartz (1992), which he developed by administering questionnaires to samples of students and teachers in many countries, has been adopted by the ESS for its periodic surveys conducted since 2002 in European societies. Schwartz has identified and tested ten universal types of values at the individual level and seven at the level of societies and cultures. He derives them from a priori theorizing about alternative solutions to a small number of universal problems that all societies and individuals face. Cultures and individuals differ in the priority they give to each of these basic values.

At the level of societies, Schwartz (2006) found, agreeing on important points with the posmodernización theory, that the values of “individual autonomy” and “egalitarianism,” which are opposed to “embeddedness” in the group and “hierarchy,” are associated with – and previous to – changes in the level of democracy, and seem to be, at the same time, a consequence of socioeconomic development. The author suggests that his approach represents a “fine-tuning” in relation to that proposed by Inglehart.

Democracy and Democratic Political Culture

Nevertheless, the central hypothesis of the political culture approach, according to which democracy (and, in fact, any stable political regime) requires a congruent culture that supports it, has some detractors.

A common argument points to the autonomy and causal primacy of the action of elites. Posing the question of what are the “principles” that make democracy “feasible,” Schmitter and Karl (1991) focus on the agreements among political actors. Such arrangements would emerge from the interaction between “mutually suspicious” antagonists and would be based on “rules of prudence,” not on a “civic culture” of “benevolent rules” and “deeply ingrained habits.” The latter would be a product of democracy, not what makes it viable. The assumption that democracy would be the cause of democratic political culture, because of the learning it encourages (Hadenius & Teorell, 2005), dates back to a renowned work by Dankwart Rustow (1970).

According to the emancipative values and social capital approaches, the actions of political leaders are strongly influenced by the cultural orientations of ordinary citizens. On the one hand, the members of the elite share cultural traits with the general population. It has been observed that the elites of different nations differ more from each other than from the rest of their countrymen. On the other hand, the political culture of ordinary people largely shapes their level of aspirations and, therefore, the kind of demands they direct at the elites. As the political culture of a society becomes more sophisticated, citizens have at their disposal increasing motivational, cognitive and associative abilities, and (due to the correlative economic development) growing material resources, in order to define and channel their demands.

Almond and Verba (1963) conceived democratic “civic culture” as a balanced mix of participatory and passive orientations. The citizen of a democracy had to obey the laws and the authorities. Citizen’s participation was mainly a reserve to be used when the elites did not respond to the requirements of the public. The emancipative values approach assumes, by the contrary, that the emergence and deepening of democracy depends on the ability of citizens to pose challenges to the elites. The emphasis shifts from the “allegiant” citizens described by Almond and Verba to those who “assert” themselves (Dalton & Welzel, 2014).

As I show elsewhere (Jorge, 2016, 2012, 2011), economic development is likely the most powerful force operating on the formation and change of political culture, but it does not explain everything. The cultural traditions of a society, its unique historical trajectory, political learning fostered by collective experiences, public deliberation and cultural diffusion, as well as changes in power relations among predominant groups, also contribute to shape the prevailing values in a community.

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