The Culture of Democracy:
Realizing the Self and Responsibility
The difference between governance of a society and the culture of that society is that the governance is a system, whereas the culture is a reflection on the effectiveness of that system. The expressiveness of the people of a society is going to be determined by how they are ruled; not because people from different nations are born either more or less self-expressive, but because certain forms of governance do not foster or in some cases even allow self-expression and advancement. Democracy is sort of the Holy Grail when working toward a successful community. If a particular nation successfully achieves democracy, the world can look at them as free, self-sufficient, and progressive. However, democracy entails more than just a rigid set of rules or a few theoretical principles. In order for democracy to work, the people need to be willing to make it work. In this sense, there is indeed a culture of democracy. A culture of democracy requires its citizens to be civically involved, concerned for the general well being of their society, and active in voicing these concerns as well as meeting solutions for them. Indeed, there is a culture of democracy.
At their very cores, government and social institutions exist as means to deal with innate social problems and conflicts. Democracy is then one form of doing away with conflict, but with certain stipulations that require agreement from the various groups that contribute to society. When groups assume democracy is simply a tool for them to push for their own particular interests and to pursue their own demands, it is possible that dissention will cause the democracy to fail from the inside out. Likewise, if the governing body uses too much force in order to maintain consensus among groups, the regime can become little more than a totalitarian state and crumble under the pressure of the government. So, a balance must be maintained in which the governed and the governance both apply equal pressure and uphold certain basic principles so all institutions are legitimate in the eyes of society.
Democracy on its own cannot simply suffice to maintain consensus in society. Citizens in a democratic society have to recognize that there is going to be both intellectual and political conflict, and that compromise and tolerance are necessary. Citizens must take an active role in society and realize that democracy is less about choices between things that are absolutely right and absolutely wrong is rather about finding various ways to interpret rights and priorities within a society.
First, let??™s explore Almond and Verba??™s take on civic culture. The closest thing to a culture of democracy is their third and most effective form of civic culture, which they have deemed ???participant???. In a participant civic culture, citizens and government actively interact to make changes, improvements, and interpretations to the political and social structure of the community. A participant culture is necessary for democracy because democratic states require the influence of the people first and foremost in order to succeed. Participant culture also requires compromise from groups. Almond and Verba say, about interest groups in society, ???…these memberships are not politically cumulative but are often conflicting, thus individuals tend to moderate and combine interests in their own minds in order to reduce conflict” (8).
In Almond and Verba??™s theoretical cases, interpersonal trust is paramount in establishing a truly participant civic culture. Moreover, rational participation needs to take precedent over emotional participation. That is to say, people must strive to push the issues that they feel will be necessary and beneficial to themselves and the common good rather than what they might feel is morally just; the two can and often do differ, which is one of the more difficult aspects of democracy. An example of this, if I may allow myself a tangent, is the death penalty. If one person murders another in our nation, we, by law and moral code, judge them to be in the wrong. What we struggle over, however, is the way in which we punish them. Some states upkeep the death penalty, and some do not. Do we punish murder with a righteous ???eye for an eye??? mentality, or do we do it with a more refined, legally sound method of trial, conviction, and long-term imprisonment More so, if enough people feel strongly in support of the death penalty, where does democracy end and pure barbaric punishment start Is life something that democratic process is suited to handle The answer is not easily afforded. What the answer is, though, is sought after by the will of the people in each respective state of our country.
From that example I digress; rational participation also means setting aside one??™s own agenda, wants, and beliefs in order to consider those of others in their society and to effectively act as a citizen in order to better the entire society in a democratic fashion. With all of this having been said, perhaps one of the most important aspects of any society, but a democratic one in particular, is the education of its people. In order to have citizens that actively rationally participate, a society must first have educated citizens. It is virtually impossible to have a functioning democracy when the citizens themselves are completely uneducated about the democratic process and the rights they possess as members of such a state.
Education is further important in a democracy because of the direct correlation education has to democratic practice. Educational content and practice within the citizenry fosters means for democratic governance. When democratic ideals are understood by the citizens they provide the ability to think independently and spawn new ideas which in turn will lead to a dynamic democracy. Again, there is no one blueprint for democracy. Just because democratic principles are put in place does not guarantee the success of democracy. Therefore, active participation by the citizenry is required as is the acceptance by the population of compromise and tolerance. The fundamental idea that democracy at its core is a system for the people by the people, positive change is attainable by their participation. A basic difference between a totalitarian regime and a democratic society is that in the former, education is not education at all, but rather a general forced acceptance of circumstances by the people. The democratic educational system therefore should not at all be a means by which the government can brainwash citizens, but rather be defended and contributed to just as other basic rights are defended.
While authoritarian societies attempt to squander the independent thought of citizens and instill a passive acceptance into the general public, democracy seeks to cultivate citizens who are independent, intelligent and capable, but who also understand the process by which democracy is achieved and the role that they can play in the overall democratic process. People are not born knowing what is necessary for them to achieve true freedom; the way that democratic political and social arrangements are put into place and the way they work are learned, which is why those living in authoritarian societies do not necessarily have the knowledge of what can cause change. The process of understanding democracy begins in our school system, but it does go on to continue throughout life in civic involvement. Some citizens also continue to learn throughout their own exploration into the sources of information offered by free society.
Almond and Verba also stress interpersonal trust as a huge necessity for a truly civic culture. While civic society does not require that every individual person necessarily likes every other individual; it does require that each person respect and tolerate their fellow citizen. Because the fundamental mechanism that powers democracy is the people of a given civic society, there is (ideally) no room for displays of racism, bigotry, hatred toward one another, or dissention. On this notion, the team writes:
?????¦political parties, interest groups, and the media of communication??”are analogous to the veins and arteries of a circulatory system. Unless they are connected effectively with the primary structure of community–family, friendship, neighborhood, religious groups, work groups, and the like??”there can be no effective flow of individual impulses, needs, demand, and preferences from the individual and his primary groups into the political system.??? (13)
In a democratic culture, interpersonal trust means that each member of the process respects others??™ part in that same process, and that everyone at the core works as one. This is not to say that each person is not a distinct individual, but rather that??™s each individual??™s responsibilities are equally as important in maintaining the democratic way of life and contributing to civic society.
Society finds its own truth through democratic processes. Different ideas and individuals will clash, compromise, and ultimately be used or discarded. Solutions are not based on ideology but rather their ability to applied to real world situations, and can then be debated over and changed if necessary.
The first step in transitioning into democracy is in fact the realization of the people that their current governance is not sufficient. Once they realize this, the people must unite to overturn the authoritarian regime that rules them. However, since the democratic transition process does lie heavily in the hands of the people, there are many ways in which the entire process can fail. Andrew Wachtel??™s Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation focuses on the reasons why after the collapse of the Yugoslav state, many of the fragmented countries were unable to unify into a democratic nation state. Wachtel thinks that the disintegration of the Yugoslav nation occurred not because the socioeconomic conditions of the nation forced a massive collapse; instead, that the collapse was inevitable after the idea of one single Yugoslav nation had been destroyed. If the idea of a Yugoslav nation had been kept as an ultimate goal, then after the political and social structure had been torn down, a rebuilding would have occurred theoretically ending in at least a few multinational states??”if not one giant multinational state??”rather than multiple uninational states.
At the very heart of democratic action is coalition building. It promotes peaceable relations between different interest groups in order to effectively reach goals and to not stifle some groups??™ progress, at least in theory. Democracy and self-governance does not guarantee the prevention of mistakes, or strife, or social issues, but it does grant the power and possibility of public assembly and debate in order to mend problems. It allows groups to meet and resolve differences, can promote economic and social advancement, and most importantly promotes the ???self???, so that each individual within a society can express their own personality, views, and associations; a fundamental difference that separates a democratic culture from a totalitarian one.
If there is no general sense of social or political community across differing groups following the breakdown of a nation, then there is not chance that the rebuilding of institutions is going to be successful. If ethnic nationalism takes precedent over the state, then creating a pluralistic and multinational state in which democracy can thrive becomes impossible. This is exactly what happened in the southern Slavic states??”different ethnic groups such as Serbs and Croats could not put aside their cultural differences to assemble a larger, more diverse culture in which they could be tolerant of each other. Wachtel also says that the fault laid on the central government as well:
???By leaning toward “brotherhood” and away from “unity”, the governing Communist party encouraged citizens of Yugoslavia to see themselves first and foremost as members of a specific national group. The establishment of a “separate but equal” cultural policy allowed certain members of the cultural and political elites to ally themselves with preexisting nationalist undercurrents, destabilizing the compromise that had been in effect since the end of the war. Although it was believed that giving the various nations more autonomy would reduce tensions…this did not happen…at the expense of a rapidly weakening center.??? (30)
Another important characteristic exclusive to democratic societies is the ability of the people to ultimately control the destiny of their own state. When citizens are free, they hold the responsibility of being active in civic society and being concerned about the welfare of themselves and those around them. Again, in this way, civic culture promotes sense of self not found in totalitarian states. This is not to say that in a totalitarian state, the individual people do not have their own hopes, dreams, feelings, and talents. The major distinction though, is that democracy allows for the expression of all of these personal characteristics, whereas authoritarian regimes usually do not.
Is it, however, possible to have a region within a nation that is a prime example of civic culture, while the nation itself still carries a culture of authoritarianism Can a country, unable to establish democracy, still contain microcosms of democratic society Nicolai Petro??™s case study of Novgorod in Russia proves the answers to these questions to be a resounding ???yes???. Novgorod managed to maintain an extremely democratic feel and a culture in which citizens were actively involved. Petro attributes the success of Novgorod to its history before the Soviet Union as a center of trade and cultural interaction. He also makes it a point to highlight Novgorod??™s active civil infrastructure. As Novgorod attempted to get on its own feet free of the grip of Moscow, local businesses came together as well as various civic and political institutions in order to achieve that common goal.
Mikhail Prusak, the governor of Novgorod at the time of Petro??™s study, was extremely charismatic and believed in using old symbols reminiscent of Novgorod??™s rich history such as the church in order to create a sense of grassroots and organic community. In a way, this is sort of pulling on the help of historical memory in order to bring citizens closer and in order to create a sense of unity. Once the civic culture is strong and the members of a community have a general sense of respect for one another, then democratic sentiments are bound to shine through. Remembering Novgorod??™s medieval history is helpful in order to instill the thoughts of a time before the Soviet age, before any authoritarian rule was forced on the nation. Historical memory is an extremely useful tool in promoting democracy and independent thought. The first phase in Novgorod was simply to dismantle Soviet sentiments, and Petro writes:
???…During the second phase, from roughly 1994-1998, civic leaders sought out specific symbols from Novgorods medieval past to help them define a new, long-term vision for the region. In the third phase, which has lasted from 1999 until today, the government has become acutely conscious of the politcal utility of Novgorod symbols and has adopted them quite overtly to build political support for its policies” (146)
Using historical memory to craft Novgorod??™s own rich history into something seemingly epic, the people have an ideal to strive for. In doing this, citizens are reminded that they are their own and do not belong to anybody else??”a very fundamental pillar of democracy, and a very prevalent characteristic of cultures that do carry an air of democracy.
It is important to note that throughout each study, education, self-expression, and self-worth and responsibility are all stressed in truly successful democratic societies, and in civic cultures that work. While people are inherently individual, the culture in which they are fostered always determines their level of self-expression within the culture itself. Clearly, democracy does not necessarily precede civic culture, as illustrated by the Novgorod case, however a truly civic culture is necessary for a successful democracy and will often give rise to a democratic culture anyway. There is certainly a culture of democracy that involves individuals in a society working together, not as drones or as brainwashed parts of a big machine, but rather as independent thinkers and doers who have the power to come together in order to control their own fates.
A democratic culture means the understanding of the people that they have the ultimate responsibility of taking care of their own communities. Democracy is not a set of rules, but the idea that rules can be made by the people of a society in order to best suit their needs and their interests. A democratic culture means peaceable compromise between conflicting groups, and also means consensus when an outside force threatens the group as a whole. What a democratic culture will not do is create citizens disinterested in their government and way of life; it will not create people who sit idly by while their communities take turns for the worse.
Democracy gives the reins to the people, unlike any authoritarian regime ever has. On its own, democracy does not serve to make any absolute promise of success or of failure. Rather, democracy offers the opportunity to the people of a society to work together in order to determine their own success or failure as a society.
Almond, Gabriel. Verba, Sidney. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton University Press, 1963. Princeton NJ. 122-160.
Petro, Nicolai. Crafting Democracy: How Novgorod Has Coped with Rapid Social Change. Cornell University Press, 2004. Ithaca NY. 146-180.
Wachtel, Andrew. Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Culutral Politics in Yugoslavia. Stanford University Press, 1998. Stanford CA. 172-226.