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Political culture and democracy

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How ordinary citizens challenge the status quo

If there is one thing the Arab Spring has shown us it is that political change is made by ordinary people. Surprisingly, however, interna-tional support for democratisation is traditionally directed towards state structures and actors in a role of power. In order to fully under-stand, and facilitate, the democratisation process, we need to look at political culture as well.

By Annemieke Burmeister

When we talk about democratisation, the discus­sion is usually about free and fair elections, insti­tutions like parliament, political parties and the judiciary. The approach to building democracy in for example Iraq and Afghanistan has been to establish these institutions, as they seem to be the core ingredient to democratic rule. However, the key to understanding political change to­wards democracy is the acknowledgement that people, along with their values and attitudes, make or break any of these institutional arrange­ments. Building democracy means, for example, the protection of minority opinions. It is straight­forward to assume that a well functioning judicial system will ensure this. It is however essential to understand that the structural behavioural pat­tern needed amongst citizens and elites to allow for minority opinions to be part of the political debate, goes to the core of political culture – the ground rules established and adhered to by the actors in the system, whether ‘elite’ or ‘ordinary’. Therefore our analysis benefits from a focus on this ‘soft side’ of democratic change, the side of democratic culture and democratic behaviour.

Democracy: institutions and political culture
Democracy is not primarily an institutional ar­rangement; it is a culture. It is an agreement on norms and ground rules of behaviour, accepted political elites and citizens alike. Key compo­nents of a democratic political culture are that elites show policy pragmatism, moderation, co­operation, bargaining, trust, openness to ideas of others and accommodation. In essence, there is the pre-requisite of ‘confidence in the benevo­lent potentials of man’ (Diamond 1994: 11), as this encourages political discussion and helps to trans­form politics into a non-zero-sum game in which defeated parties can accept their exclusion be­cause they still feel that their basic interest will not be threatened and the (minority) voice will continue to be heard in the political debate.

This pattern of social interaction, that we call democratic political behaviour or culture, is both referred to as a prerequisite and an outcome of a well functioning democracy. Political culture is not established in a social vacuum. Welzel and Inglehart argue in their analysis of the World Values Survey (2006) that economic development and modernisation in society give rise to values which motivate people to govern their own lives. These ‘self expression values’ include tolerance, trust, support for equality and a desire to partici­pate in public life (Diamond, 2008, p14). While we see that change in a society leading towards democratisation and other modernisation cur­rents go hand in hand, the point is that a move towards democracy is always accompanied by the rise of a culture of democratic values. Institutional arrangements that are not accompanied by these changes will not effect democratic rule.

Why we do not like culture
Talking about culture used to be a difficult issue. After the age of colonialism, when the superiority of Western values over other cultural systems was assumed, we entered an era of relativism in which it was argued that any culture or value orientation should be given equal regard. By bringing political culture into the debate on democratisation, it is in no way said that any political culture is superior to another. It only implies that if a move towards democracy is fa­voured, this has to be seen in the light of culture, values and behaviour. In other words: arguing that culture is part of the equation does not bring us back to Huntington’s clash of civilizations. In fact, the revolutions of the Arab Spring have taught us that the Arab people support values that do not fundamentally contradict democracy and human rights.

These recent developments have shown us that every society has (latent) democratic currents. Sometimes without using words like democracy or human rights, every society is familiar with concepts like dignity, trust, tolerance and com­promise. Judging a nation’s political culture on the traits of the ruling elites and regime, blinds us to the heterogeneity of the population and their values. Democratic behaviour is not only displayed in the political arena. Even people ex­cluded from participation in the political system still form a political culture as citizens, that de­fines social interaction in the household, between colleagues, within schools and universities, in social movements and NGOs. The fact that people are able to collectively mobilise against undemo­cratic elites, hints us towards a reversed socialisation process inherent to democratic culture. Where the state traditionally has a role in socialising the citizens – we here see citizens forcing a change of values amongst elites.

Power to the people
More is needed however. Political elites have little incentive to change on their own accord towards more democratic ground rules, as they derive power from the current political system. Engaging non-democratic elites in exchange programs, training sessions or dialogue will therefore not effect a change in the cultural pattern of the po­litical system on itself. The incentive for norm change will only arise if the people in power notice that their power base is shifting. In other words: change at such a fundamental level of the system will only occur if new or former outside actors gain strength and thereby access to the political field.

Structural change in a fledgling democracy is therefore achieved by supporting and strengthen­ing these democratic forces outside of the imme­diate political arena. If democrats manage to come together in collective action and mobilise social movements that make moral claims for dignified social interaction, change in political norms and political culture is effected. Foreign support for democratisation by engaging the existing power elite and representatives of the state will not be effective – sustainable change towards democratisation is achieved by putting our trust in demo­cratic currents and democratic social movements within these societies, even if they do not seem to be a formidable political force at start. Only citi­zens have the power to redefine the ground rules new norms for political interaction and establish the values on which their democracy can operate.

 

Annemieke Burmeister is an international development professional and an active member of D66. She has worked for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Asia and Africa and for the past two years she has been with the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) in The Hague. Annemieke holds a Masters degree in Political Science from the University of Leiden and most recently completed the Summer Institute in Political Psychology at Stanford University.

 

Literature

Diamond, L. and Plattner, M. eds (2008). How people view democracy, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Diamond, L. (1994). Political culture and democracy in developing countries, London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Welzel, L. and Inglehart, R. (2006). ‘Emancipative Values and Democracy: Response to Hadenius and Teorell’, Studies in Comparative International Development, Vol. 41, No. 3: 74-94.

 

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Dit artikel verscheen in idee nr. 6 2012: Trust in people’s own power, en is te vinden bij de onderwerpen cultuur en democratie.

Laatst gewijzigd op 22 november 2018