Political culture consists of a relatively coherent repertoire of cognitive and evaluative models that enable members of a political community to give sense to their role as political actors, to other political actors, to the community they belong to, and to the institutional structure in which they live. Thanks to this framework, they can decide which objectives to pursue and shape their actions and behaviors accordingly. Political culture has the following features:
- it is a shared legacy accumulated over time;
- it consists of a collection of solutions that have proved, with experience, to be effective in solving problems concerning human survival, adaptation to the external environment, and internal integration; and
- it is transmitted to new members of the political community through socialization.
Political culture has two fundamental constituents:
- Cognitive models—that is, a population of concepts enabling the imposition of an order on the world through a rational process of critical objectivization—and
- Evaluative models, which make it possible to attribute meaning to the world through identification with particular values that separate what is good, right, and desirable from what is bad, wrong, and to be avoided.
- A New Scientific Concept and Its Operational Definitions
- Changes in Political Culture: The Rise of Postmaterialist Values
- A Worldwide Research Program
- The Limits of the Comparative Survey Approach
- Social Capital and Democracy
- Political Culture, Nation Building, and State Formation
- Two Necessary Components of Political Culture
The first section of this article deals with the scientific context in which the concept of political culture was introduced into political science, the questions it seeks to answer, and the operational definitions used in empirical studies. In the second section, there is a description of the main theoretical and empirical developments in comparative studies on political culture, conducted by means of representative sample surveys in an increasing number of countries. This is followed by a section devoted to a discussion of such research design and the methodological and epistemological presuppositions that are involved. The fourth and fifth sections cover different research designs regarding political culture and related concepts. A critical discussion of the analogies and differences between various research designs is presented in the final section, where emphasis is placed on the need to consider the depth of the historic roots of every cultural pattern and, thus, of each political culture.
Like broader cultural orientations, political culture is largely experienced unconsciously by individuals, who are first and foremost carriers and users. To put it in another way, the set of cognitive and evaluative models that make up political culture are, according to Edgard Schein’s definition, “assumptions taken for granted.” Individuals who share a specific political culture consider such cognitive and evaluative models to be common sense—the obvious and natural way to give meaning to the political sphere, to its actors and institutions, as well as to its boundaries—what is politics and what is not. As anthropologists have observed in relation to cultural models in general, there is nothing objective or natural in the way in which the content of political culture is defined. It has a pragmatic basis and depends on the challenges and problems that human beings have to handle. So political culture is not just a mental construction of assumptions that are taken for granted. These assumptions form the background and the basis for the political behavior of actors—that is, the framework within which individuals act in what is considered a politically appropriate way. This involves excluding actions considered to be inappropriate or deplorable and deciding whether or not to take part in elections, to cooperate with institutions or act in a clandestine fashion, or to organize peaceful demonstrations or take part in violent protests.
Political culture is, therefore, molded by the accumulated experience of a political community and is a constraint that is very durable over time. There is debate among scholars as to how far one must go back to find the roots of today’s political culture. This problem is discussed in more detail below. However, there is a general consensus that change in political culture, as in all forms of cultural change, is a slower and more difficult process than institutional, economic, and social change. This is the reason why political culture is characterized by a certain amount of ambiguity. On the one hand, it is a valuable collective resource in that it makes perceptions, beliefs, and individual attitudes toward political institutions and actors relatively homogeneous. On the other hand, it represents an obstacle in the face of social and economic changes. In such cases, political culture may offer solutions that prove ineffective when coping with problems of adaptation to new challenges from outside or from within a given society.
Special consideration is given to the analytic, methodological, and empirical contribution made by studies of social capital, a concept that in the past 2 decades has prompted extensive research into the relationship of norms, beliefs, and social organization with the effectiveness of democracy and economic development. The concept of political culture is also compared with that of nation building, as used in comparative studies of European political development, according to a research design that is complementary in many respects to the one based on representative sample surveys. Finally, this article discusses the concept that in a political culture that is adequate for an effective democracy, there needs to be a balance between two different components—on the one hand, an emphasis on individual well-being and self-realization and, on the other, a commitment and fairness toward institutions and a moral obligation toward one’s local community and nation.
A New Scientific Concept and Its Operational Definitions
Unlike conceptual innovations in everyday life, in the field of scientific research, each conceptual innovation is carefully recorded due to the complete institutionalization of science. The concept of political culture was introduced by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba at the beginning of the 1960s in their book The Civic Culture. This work was part of an extensive program of theoretical discussion and empirical research into the major processes of political development that had started in the 1950s. The tragedy of the two World Wars and of the totalitarianisms in Europe, the birth of new democracies in the three nations defeated in World War II (Germany, Italy, and Japan), the establishment of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the founding of new states in Africa and Asia following the end of the French and British colonial empires—all these gave rise to a series of important research issues regarding the stability of the new political regimes, in particular the new democracies. According to the new functionalist and behaviorist approaches of this period, it was imperative for political science to study the cultural orientations of individuals, especially their attitudes to democracy, as these are crucial for the stability of democratic political systems.
The Civic Culture stressed the importance of political culture as a dimension capable of influencing, if not determining, the stability and performance of democratic regimes. The new concept built on an illustrious tradition. In the history of political thought, many authors have emphasized the importance of the cultural and moral orientations of citizens for the prosperity and power of states. The terms may vary, but the meanings are similar: civic virtues (Aristotle), values and feelings of identity and commitment (Niccolò Machiavelli), morality and customs (Jean-Jacques Rousseau), and above all the “habits of the heart,” which, according to Alexis de Tocqueville, animated the citizens of the United States in the first few decades after independence and were the foundation of American democracy.
To shed light on the subjective components of politics, the new concept of political culture drew on these classic contributions, producing a new paradigm for empirical research in political science that still underpins the majority of studies in political culture. This new paradigm is based on four of the most significant theoretical and analytic sources for the social sciences in the first half of the 20th century:
- The contributions of Max Weber’s sociology in the theory of action and in defining a typology of criteria according to which individuals consider political authority legitimate and agree to comply with its rules: On the one hand, the importance of values in orienting individual behavior is stressed by Weber’s distinction between goal rationality—that is, decisions based on a calculation of possible individual benefits—and value rationality, namely, decisions based on value orientations, irrespective of, or contrary to, one’s own interests. On the other hand, Weber defines three ideal types of political authority: traditional, legal-rational, and charismatic. Each is supported by different beliefs: the belief in its conformity to the past, the belief in its conformity to established rules, and the belief in the particular personal qualities of a leader. In other words, legitimation depends on one of three different values: tradition, the institutional structure in use, or a single, extraordinary person. The first two values support political continuity, while the latter can contribute to political change.
- The four conceptual pairs (the so-called pattern variables) defined by Talcott Parsons in relation to the theoretical foundations of his functionalist approach: universalism versus particularism, achievement motivation versus ascriptiveness, specificity versus diffuseness, and affective neutrality versus affectivity: The first term in each pair is considered a typical trait of modernity, while the second is a feature of traditional orientations. This set of opposing categories is the basis for all subsequent studies of modernization processes in both the political and the economic realm.
- The empirical analysis of attitudes developed by social psychologists such as Louis Guttman, Rensis Likert, and Charles Osgood in the context of the new behavioral approach: Different attitude scales were designed to collect systematic and comparable data on mass opinions, beliefs, and value orientations through face-to-face interviews.
- The influence of Freudian theories on American psycho-anthropology, with the notion of the “basic personality structure,” and the importance attributed to socialization processes not only in childhood but throughout the life cycle.
These four analytic contributions were then combined with the new methodology of public opinion polls, which make it possible to collect data on opinions and attitudes in representative samples of citizens. Indeed, the research design of The Civic Culture applies the operational definition of political culture in sample surveys in five democracies: the United States, Mexico, Great Britain, Germany, and Italy.
According to the new paradigm established in The Civic Culture, political culture has four characteristics: (1) it consists of the set of subjective orientations toward politics of the individual citizens of a nation; (2) it consists of knowledge and beliefs about politics and a commitment to certain political values; (3) it is the result both of a socialization process that begins in childhood and continues through one’s education and exposure to the mass media and also of direct experience acquired during adulthood with regard to the performance of political institutions and actors; and (4) it has an influence on, even if it does not determine, the performance of political institutions, due to a two-way causal link between culture and institutional performance. In general, political culture has an impact on the quality of democracy, but the latter also contributes to orienting the political culture of a nation’s citizens.
The study revealed the existence of three different types of political culture: parochial, subject, and participant. Parochial culture is characterized by a prevalence of attitudes based on particularism, localism, short-range trust, and a subjective separation from the state and politics. The main features of the second ideal type are compliance and confidence in the legal authority of the state, its administrative order, and its decisions—the output, according to a systemic view. Participant political culture is based on the active political engagement of citizens who fuel the input side through the creation of free associations, in keeping with Tocqueville’s classic reflections.
“Civic culture,” which consists of a balance between these ideal types, is considered to be the most suitable cultural foundation for a stable democracy. Of the five political systems taken into consideration, the United States and Great Britain had a civic culture, while Germany and Italy were considered democracies with a high risk of instability at the time when the data for the The Civic Culture had been collected toward the end of the 1950s. Germany was deemed to have a predominantly subject-based political culture, while Italy was largely parochial.
Changes in Political Culture: The Rise of Postmaterialist Values
Some of the most important findings of The Civic Culture were reviewed and criticized 20 years later by Almond and Verba themselves. They pointed to the growth of a participatory culture in Germany, the reduction of subject attitudes, and an increase in the levels of dissatisfaction and distrust in Britain and the United States. In the meantime, a host of other investigations had been conducted, revealing a drop in the degree of confidence in democratic institutions and increasing disaffection and political protest in Western democracies and Japan.
The observed changes in value orientations are of particular interest. On the basis of a comparative study of six European nations carried out in 1970, Ronald Inglehart noted that the youth protest movements were primarily concerned with issues neglected by the traditional political parties, for instance, environmental conservation, disarmament, and needs associated with individual self-fulfillment rather than economic improvement. Inglehart considered these value orientations to be the effects of the situation of economic well-being in which the socialization of young people had taken place in Western European countries, which had reached an unprecedented level of wealth since World War II. With the modification of political priorities, cultural change was fueled by the demographic replacement of the population due to the arrival of generations with more postmaterialist orientations than the older ones, which gradually disappeared from the scene.
Inglehart based his thesis on the theory of motivation developed by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who considers the gratification of needs to be as decisive for human action as the classic principle of deprivation. According to this theory, the fundamental needs of human beings are organized into a hierarchy consisting of four ascending levels: (1) basic physiological needs; (2) the need for safety and stability; (3) the need for affection, self-esteem, and a sense of belonging; and at the highest level (4) the need for self-realization. Satisfaction of a need pertaining to a lower level brings to the fore the one relating to the next level. According to Maslow, this framework is an organizational model of the individual personality.
Inglehart turned it into an explanatory model of the changes in political culture: The older generations, who grew up amid the poverty and insecurity generated before and during the two World Wars, were oriented toward the materialist values induced by survival and safety needs. By contrast, young Europeans born after World War II are oriented toward postmaterialist values—that is, values such as belonging, self-esteem, and self-realization. Having grown up in a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, they tend to take a certain level of material comfort for granted and therefore develop the value priorities typical of higher levels of prosperity. As a result, they are more oriented toward themes such as personal fulfilment, individual freedom, and the conservation of nature. This difference between young people’s values and those of their parents leads to cultural change since, according to the Freudian concept of the “basic personality structure” developed by Ralph Linton and Abraham Kardiner, individuals tend to maintain in the course of their adult life the value priorities adopted in a deep sense during the formative phases of their childhood and youth.
The operational definition used by Inglehart to collect data on materialist and postmaterialist value priorities is an inventory of 12 possible political goals. Representative samples from Western countries were asked to choose the most important political goals from the following items:
- Material goals: maintain order in the nation; fight rising prices; maintain a high rate of economic growth; make sure the country has strong defense forces; maintain a stable economy; and fight against crime
- Postmaterial goals: give people more say in the decisions of government; protect freedom of speech; give people more say in how things are decided at work and in their community; try to make our cities and countryside more beautiful; move toward a friendlier, less impersonal society; and move toward a society where ideas count more than money
Respondents were then classified as materialists or postmaterialists depending on whether they favor one of the two kinds of goals consistently.
A Worldwide Research Program
The operational definition used by Inglehart to measure value change has become a standard tool in the proliferating studies of political culture, along with questions aimed at surveying interpersonal and institutional trust, preference for democracy or autocracy, life satisfaction, and other similar issues. This series of studies followed the research design originally adopted in The Civic Culture. The design has three main characteristics: (1) a sample survey: data collection on political opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and values conducted by means of structured interviews with representative samples of citizens; (2) a comparative design: the same questionnaire is applied in different political systems in the same period. In other words, the same operational definitions are used in different countries, favoring comparability of data and permitting the testing of hypotheses at an individual as well as a national level; and (3) a longitudinal design: if possible, the same questionnaires—or the same subsets of closed questions—are applied in the same countries in different years, creating a rising number of time series for many political culture variables, such as levels of institutional trust, satisfaction with democratic performance, support for leaders, national pride, and so on.
A number of agencies have been established in recent decades to monitor public opinion orientations and political attitudes. The Eurobarometer program of the European Union was set up in 1973 and since 1974 has supplied twice-yearly data on opinions and attitudes for each member or candidate-member of the Union. Similar survey programs have recently been set up. The New Democracies Barometer, established in 1991, covers 12 East European countries; the Latinobarometer covers 19 countries from 1996 onward; while Afrobarometer covers more than 12 states since 1999. Cooperation between different research centers around the world has led to an increase in the number of nations for which data on political culture indicators are available. Increasingly, extensive networks have been built up, making it possible to conduct the same research project at the same time in an ever greater number of nations. In particular, the World Values Survey and the European Values Survey have conducted five waves in a steadily rising number of countries. After the first wave in 1981, successive waves of data collection were carried out in 1990, 1995, 2000, and 2005, covering countries on all continents (with more than 100 in the most recent wave). A further advantage has been the setting up of efficient data archives. Coupled with new data transmission tools, these archives facilitate secondary analyses—that is, the research and empirical testing of hypotheses by researchers who have not taken part in gathering and analyzing the original data.
All these developments have resulted in a strong growth in the degree of institutionalization and standardization of research into mass orientations. One of the most recent, and ambitious, findings of this research program is illustrated in Figure 1. It was produced by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel on the basis of data collected in the first four waves of the World Values Survey.
Figure 1 The Impact of Self-Expression Values on Effective Democracy, Controlling for Each Country’s Percentage of Solid Democrats
Source: Inglehart, R., & Welzel, C. (2005). Modernization, cultural change, and democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Figure 1 shows the position of 80 states with respect to two variables. The vertical axis is an index of the quality of democracy in the different countries and takes into account not only the existence or otherwise of free elections but also the moral integrity of the political elites as measured by the “control of corruption” scores provided by the World Bank and other organizations. Corruption among elites is in fact the main factor preventing respect for the equality of rights and the law and therefore for an effective democracy. The lower values on the scale relate to nondemocratic countries with corrupt elites, while the higher scores are obtained by democracies with political elites that guarantee the rule of law and equal rights.
The horizontal axis shows the average values for each country on an index that measures the spread of a cultural orientation based on the predominance of values associated with individual self-realization and self-well-being. It is a direct evolution of Inglehart’s first postmaterialism scale. This new cultural syndrome is surveyed by five indicators:
- postmaterialist liberty aspirations (give people more say in the decisions of government, protect freedom of speech, and give people more say in how things are decided at work and in their community);
- forms of political protest, such as signing petitions;
- tolerance of homosexuality and sexual liberty;
- interpersonal trust; and
- life satisfaction.
The relation between the two variables in Figure 1 is measured controlling for the percentage of respondents who prefer democracy over autocracy, to exclude spurious effects due to merely instrumental prodemocratic motives. Countries where self-expression values are relatively less widespread than mere support for democracy would suggest are those where the political regime violates the rule of law and equal rights more than levels of mere support for democracy would suggest (see bottom left-hand corner). In the opposite corner, countries where self-expression values are relatively more widespread than mere support for democracy would suggest are those where democracy is more effective than mere support for democracy would suggest.
In short, Figure 1 shows the strong linkage between a peculiar syndrome of political culture—self-expression values—and the level of effective democracy: Near the top right-hand corner are the small democracies of Protestant Northern Europe, with England and the English-speaking democracies (the United States, Canada, and Australia). Near the opposite corner are some African and Asian states, with Yugoslavia (at the time formed by Serbia and Montenegro) ranking as the lowest European country on both variables.
The Limits of the Comparative Survey Approach
The application and extension of the research design of The Civic Culture in the 40-year period since it was first published has enabled the international political science community to build up a large number of comparable data sets on a growing number of nations. The availability of statistical packages and powerful, low-cost computers, combined with the Internet infrastructure, has facilitated the empirical testing of many hypotheses by means of complex multivariate models. Important changes in political attitudes and beliefs have been monitored over time and compared in different countries. Like any scientific method, technique, or decision, this research design also has certain limitations. As with all research tools, the capacity of sample surveys to achieve objectives depends on the degree to which they offer a simplification of the world, the complexity of which cannot be grasped by any one tool.
The sample survey research design in the comparative study of political culture is no exception to this rule. In particular, it tends to emphasize the orientations of mass political culture rather than those of the elites. Similarly, the wide-ranging comparative design makes it easier to concentrate on mass attitudes relating to the polity and politics levels instead of the policy level, which is more context dependent. Scholars have stressed these limits together with others that stem largely from the basic assumptions of the two main approaches that gave rise to this paradigm: functionalism and behaviorism.
The functionalist approach has two limits. On the one hand, there is a tendency to regard politics as a clearly defined sphere with respect to society and the economy, which is easily recognizable even in very different social systems. On the other hand, functionalism tends to favor a synchronic perspective, with a consequent reduction in the attention devoted to the diachronic dimension and in piecing together the historic origins of the observed processes. As seen above, in the paradigm of the comparative research survey, the temporal dimension is only taken into account through the collection of successive “snapshots”—that is, the various waves of sample surveys.
The behaviorist approach, whose roots lie in experimental psychology, has greatly stimulated the operational definition of citizens’ opinions, attitudes, and value orientations. However, it is based on the individualist and atomist assumption that the whole equals the sum of its individual parts. The critical point is, therefore, the link between the microlevel (a sample of individuals interviewed) and the macrolevel. The political culture of a country is viewed as a statistical aggregation of the opinions and attitudes of individual citizens.
In addition to these limitations, which derive from the epistemological features of functionalism and behaviorism, representative sample surveys also have several methodological limitations:
- Actual behaviors, which are the overt output of cultural orientations, are not observed but only inferred by verbal answers to questions.
- It is assumed that the meanings of questions and answers are the same in different countries and languages—a necessary assumption if one is to consider the answers of interviewees to be comparable.
- The number of interviews in national samples is usually too small to guarantee the statistical representativeness of subnational samples. This makes it impossible to explore the regional differences in political culture within a given country.
- Surveys also often have difficulties of grasping the unconscious and “things taken for granted,” as pointed out above.
The following sections deal with two different contributions to the study of political culture that can be regarded as complementary to the paradigm established by The Civic Culture, in that they pursue different research designs or strategies of inquiry, each of which overcomes some of the limits described above, though in different ways.
Social Capital and Democracy
One of the principal conceptual innovations in political science and sociology over the past 20 years is the notion of social capital, introduced in the 1960s by the economists Gary Becker and James Loury. The concept of social capital became popular in political science as a result of the analytic work of James Coleman, who related it to social networks, and the research of Robert Putnam into the institutional performance of Italian regional governments in Making Democracy Work. According to Putnam’s definition, social capital “refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions” (p. 167).
In other words, social capital is a collective resource and has some of the features of a public good: It offers advantages to all the members of a group, but no one can appropriate it in an exclusive way. If one person benefits from social capital, this does not reduce its availability for others. On the contrary, social capital has a radically anti-economic feature: The more it is used, the more of it becomes available for the entire community. Social capital, therefore, offers a solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by scholars such as Mancur Olson and Elinor Ostrom. As a form of social organization, social capital also has positive effects on economic development in that it contributes to creating a favorable environment for market exchanges thanks to cooperation, trustworthiness, honesty, and compliance with formal and informal rules. The notion of social capital is closely related to that of civic culture. They have a common ancestor, Tocqueville, who attributed great importance to the trustworthiness of citizens and the significance of free associations. The two concepts also share concern about the relation between culture and effective democracy.
Putnam’s research on Italian regions exploited the opportunity to apply an experimental design. In the 1970s, the newly introduced regional institutions began to operate within the same nation-state. The research question was which variables explain the differences in the output of the new regional governments in the common context. According to Putnam’s findings, the marked differences in the economic development of the Northern and Southern regions tend to coincide with great differences in institutional efficiency. However, this turned out to be a spurious correlation. The independent variable, when introduced as a control variable that, in fact, explains the differences in both economic development and institutional performance is the amount of social capital present in the various Italian regions at the end of the 19th century. The Northern regions had the same level of poverty as the Southern regions but appreciably higher levels of social capital. Seventy years later, in postwar Italy, social capital or the “civic community” (Figure 2) explains both the difference in economic development and the difference in institutional performance. The well-known economic cleavage between the North and South (i.e., the Mezzogiorno) is only one aspect of a multifaceted divide that sets regions with a high social capital and high institutional performance apart from regions with limited social capital and inefficient local institutions.
Figure 2 The Civic Community and Institutional Performance
Source: Putnam, R. (with Leonardi, R., & Nanetti, R.). (1993). Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy (p. 98). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
As Figure 2 suggests, Putnam’s point of departure is similar to Inglehart and Welzel’s, but the research design differs on many significant points:
- There is no comparison between different nations but an analysis of a single nation, Italy, with various research techniques. The comparative design regards the Italian regions, thereby emphasizing within-state differences and reducing the risk of comparing cases that are too heterogeneous.
- The nature of the civic community is measured not only by means of elite and mass surveys but also by gathering data on observable and documentable behavior (involvement in voluntary or other associations, newspaper circulation figures, and election turnout).
- Data gathered from official documents and historical archives also make it possible to make intertemporal comparisons during almost a century.
- Differences within the same country are highlighted and their historic origins reconstructed using data and findings relating to the Italian tradition of electoral studies.
- By conducting a comparative analysis within a single nation, it is possible to make reliable predictions on the basis of dynamic models. The differences between the Northern and Southern regions are not only significant but above all are hard to eliminate, in that they tend to create two opposing conditions of equilibrium. Regions with civic communities display virtuous circles of trust, participation, effective institutions, and economic development. By contrast, regions with uncivic communities are entrapped in a vicious circle of distrust, defection, inefficient institutions, and economic stagnation.
Political Culture, Nation Building, and State Formation
Putnam’s conclusions confirm, on the one hand, the importance of political culture for the quality of democracy and, on the other hand, specify the particularity of Italy, as had been observed in the 1950s and 1960s not only in The Civic Culture but also in the contemporary ethnographic fieldwork of Edward Banfield in The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (referring to a community in Southern Italy), which shed light on the syndrome of “amoral familism.” Italy is a case of a divided political culture in which the divisions are to a large extent geographical. In Northern Italy, the civic community, which corresponds to a participant political culture, tends to prevail. In the Southern regions, there tends to be a prevalence of parochialism characterized by localist and familistic loyalties—that is, the vicious circle of the uncivic community.
This latter set of concepts emphasizes a further aspect of political culture, namely, that political culture also consists of beliefs and attitudes that do not have an explicit political content. The political meaning and consequences of familism and parochialism are implicit and embedded. Nonetheless, they are just as important as the explicit political content of participant and subject cultures. More specifically, it can be said that parochial culture is the consequence of historic processes marked by limited social and political mobilization on the part of the elites.
As Karl Deutsch argued, mobilization is a process of change that involves, entirely or partially, the population of countries that are undergoing modernization. In the early stages, this tends to lead to changes in the employment and residence of individuals while, subsequently, it also radically modifies their perceptions, expectations, beliefs, memories, and sense of identity. In other words, the process of mobilization changes the assumptions that people take for granted, in that it changes behavior and the problems that need to be coped with. Sectors of the population that are less affected by this process maintain to a greater degree the traditional set of assumptions and beliefs that political scientists label as parochialism or familism.
Social and political mobilization also lies at the heart of Stein Rokkan’s study of state formation and nation-building processes in Europe, starting from the collapse of the Roman Empire. In general, the political development of Western Europe has taken place in four phases, which can be summed up as follows: (1) state formation, which involves the establishment of politically centralized control over a given territory, which is defended from external or internal attack and administered in a uniform way by civil and military bureaucracies; (2) nation building, promoted through a process of cultural standardization with the imposition of a common language, a single religion, and rituals and myths that lend legitimacy to the power of the monarch or elites; (3) democratization, through the granting of suffrage to increasingly large portions of the population; and (4) the creation of the welfare state—that is, a state that looks after its citizens, guaranteeing them health care, education, and protection against the risks of poverty.
The ways in which this occurred and the time it has taken for different states to meet these four challenges has had a lasting effect on the quality and stability of democratic regimes. The older states, formed prior to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), have proved to be the most stable democracies in the 20th century. Typical cases are England, Sweden, and Denmark. At the opposite extreme, there is the case of Italy and, to a lesser extent, Germany, which only became unified states in the 1860s and 1870s, after the beginning of a process of social, political, and economic mobilization fueled throughout the continent by the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. These new states have had to overcome the four challenges in less than a century. In both cases, the liberal and democratic state collapsed in the period between the two World Wars, with the rise of the fascist and Nazi regimes.
According to this line of research, in Europe, the culture of a country derives from the interaction between three fundamental components: ethnic-linguistic identity, religious faith, and the outcome of processes of cultural standardization activated by nation builders through the education system, compulsory military service, and so on. Political culture is, therefore, profoundly influenced by the timing and the modalities of state formation and nation-building processes. Moreover, the outcomes of these two processes create the patterns that define a feature of political culture that Weber had already considered as decisive for the stability of a regime: the degree of legitimacy enjoyed by political institutions. These may in fact be regarded as positive values—symbols with which to identify as members of a nation—or negative values—that is, symbols of a political regime that has little legitimacy and arouses distrust and suspicion. This top-down schema of the relationship between political culture and institutional architecture assigns a fundamental role to the elites of nation builders and places the origins of modern-day political cultures much farther back in the past.
Rokkan’s schema of political development also highlights cases of countries with nonuniform political cultures. This lack of uniformity may be due to resistance on the part of some peripheral areas to the process of cultural standardization promoted by the center or to shortcomings or delays in the state formation process. Spain, the Netherlands, and Italy are three examples of countries that have experienced nation-building difficulties as a result of cultural differences within their frontiers. Spain is a case of early state formation, but it has been unable to overcome the resistance of peripheral areas with considerable economic resources, which have managed to maintain linguistic and cultural autonomy. After the transition to democracy in the 1970s, the new constitution, introduced in 1978, recognizes the existence of a plurality of nations within the Kingdom of Spain.
The Netherlands are an example of a country with different subcultures resulting from linguistic or religious cleavages. These cultural cleavages have been successfully bridged by the concept of consociational democracy founded on “pillarization,” involving cooperation of the elites across cleavages. This institutional accommodation is effective to the extent that it recognizes, confirms, and reassures each of the different cultural identities (Catholic, Protestant, and secular). Incidentally, the dramatic developments following the collapse of the Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1990s testify that this accommodation is very difficult to adopt, even within 21st-century Europe, if the countries involved do not have a democratic political culture.
Italy is an example of late state formation carried out by a secularized elite of nation builders that was weak and isolated with respect to the twofold opposition of the Catholic and socialist movements. These movements created strong antistate subcultures, thus contributing to the democratic breakdown in 1922. Here, too, there is a general lesson to be learned: The historic legacy of an element of weakness—strong antistate subcultures—can become a resource once the political and institutional framework and the international context have changed. In postwar Italy, it was the networks of these two subcultures—the unions, cooperatives, voluntary associations, religious groups, and local savings banks—that provided the organizational basis of the civic community of Northern Italy as described by Putnam.
Two Necessary Components of Political Culture
The question about the relationship between political culture and democracy has been answered in many ways over the past few decades and has opened up various research perspectives. Three different research strategies, among the most influential and well-known, have been presented in detail. Of the three, the paradigm of comparative survey research into political culture orientations adopts methods and techniques that differ greatly from those used by Rokkan in his theory about the conditions and processes that led to the birth of democracy in Western Europe. There are four main differences:
- With each new wave, the World Values Survey has tended to enlarge the number of countries covered by the representative sample surveys, without, however, taking into account the growing variance in the level of economic development, the literacy of the population, and the duration of the democratic regime. By contrast, Rokkan focused on a more limited area that is relatively homogeneous in terms of historical, cultural, political, and economic development.
- The first paradigm seeks to explain the differences in opinions, beliefs, and values by resorting to multivariate models capable of producing high correlation coefficients. The second pieces together the complex, centuries-old web of social, political, economic, and cultural processes with typologies that can explain the individual national versions of European democracy.
- The first paradigm alternates between individual- and state-level analyses. The second is interested in detecting the existence of specific territorial cultures within states, interpreting them as aspects of a peculiar path of state formation and national building.
- The first paradigm recognizes the two-way relation between political culture and the effectiveness of democracy. However, the rising number of countries considered under a synchronic perspective tends to privilege the spread of civic and self-expression values as the causal factor that makes democracy work, according to a bottom-up schema. The second paradigm tends instead to emphasize a top-down schema, analyzing the different nation-building capacities of state institutions—that is, their ability to define political culture.
On all four points, the work of Putnam and his colleagues lies in an intermediate position, resorting as it does to a comparative approach limited to a homogeneous area, stressing the historical roots of the differences between the cases considered and recognizing virtuous or vicious circles between effective institutions and civic community.
Almost paradoxically, the two most distant paradigms yield analogous results. The countries that the series of World Values Surveys have shown to be characterized by the greatest democratic effectiveness and a more self-expression–oriented political culture include the European countries that, on the basis of Rokkan’s analysis, were the first to achieve a stable democracy, having concluded the state formation and nation-building phases prior to the French Revolution. These are the two oldest and most powerful Protestant monarchies of Northern Europe (England and Sweden), and the consociational democracies are situated at the source and the estuary of the Rhine in Switzerland and the Netherlands, respectively. More generally, the West European nations reveal a greater presence of postmaterialist values and more democratic effectiveness than the East European countries. Rokkan’s schema, which in the 1970s aimed to explain the historical process of democratization in Europe, is therefore a good predictor of the results obtained by Inglehart and Welzel in sample surveys conducted over the past 2 decades to measure the current content of political culture and recent changes. This convergence of results suggests that the two research strategies, though they differ greatly, are not alternatives but are supplementary with regard to the characteristics required of a political culture in terms of democratic effectiveness. There is a continuity between early and successful state formation and nation building and the rise of postmaterialist and self-expression values.
Such a convergence is by no means obvious, because the process of nation building involves the spread of altruistic values and the subordination of individual interests to those of the community—which runs counter to the emphasis placed by postmaterialist values on the primacy of individual liberty and self-expression.
Analytically, the opposition between the cultural outcomes of successful nation building and the syndrome of self-expression values becomes evident if one bears in mind the process that led to the expansion of citizenship rights, as charted by Thomas Marshall. According to a cumulative schema, citizens’ rights first saw the light of day in the 18th century with the establishment of the rule of law, whereby the civil rights of all citizens were recognized and guaranteed by impartial courts. The following century saw the development of political rights, quintessentially symbolized by the increasing role of independent parliaments. The 20th century was marked by the introduction of a new family of rights: social rights, with the establishment of compulsory education, public health, and so on.
This threefold typology corresponds, significantly but partially, to the four stages of political development defined by Rokkan, as shown in Table 1.
Table 1 European Political Stages and Citizenship Rights
Source: Cartocci, R. (2007). Mappe del tesoro [Treasure maps] (p. 121). Bologna, Italy: Mulino.
The succession of the three types of rights corresponds to three of Rokkan’s four phases, with the lower row corresponding to the institutional structure of Western European democracies after World War II: a generous welfare state that guarantees social rights and satisfies the material and security needs of its citizens. There is an empty box alongside the nation-building phase, for which there is no corresponding family of rights. In fact, nation building does not presuppose the recognition of citizenship rights. On the contrary, individuals have duties and obligations toward the nation. There is, then, a shift from the preeminence of individuals to that of the community as a whole. The establishment of individual rights is a fundamental feature of European political identity. The concept of the nation relates not so much to an individualistic as to a holistic perspective, according to which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as is well expressed by the value of fraternité (fraternity) in the motto of the French Revolution.
The United States does not lend itself to comparison with Western Europe. But even in the case of American political culture, scholars have found a similar equilibrium between opposing values: individual freedom on the one hand and communitarian bonds, loyalty, and commitment to institutions on the other. As Robert Bellah has observed, Americans consider individualism to be the preeminent and distinguishing value of their culture. However, this individualism is counterbalanced by two opposing moral orientations: civic republicanism and the Biblical tradition. Both value sets relate to the holistic nature of the community—respect for the dignity of all human beings and an invocation of the moral goals that guided the Founding Fathers, which place on each citizen responsibility for the common good.
In both Western Europe and the United States, freedom and individual rights are accompanied by solidarity values and subordination to the common good. A political culture in which just one of these components prevails becomes a risk for democratic stability. An effective democracy needs a political culture with a balance between postmaterialist values, which stress the participation, tolerance, and self-expression of individuals, and the values of successful nation building, such as loyalty toward institutions, considered an effective means of guaranteeing the safety and well-being of citizens.
Participant postmaterialist citizens stimulate the renewal of democracies and prompt them to find effective institutional solutions to deal with new forms of inequality relating to gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, and so on. However, these value orientations are associated with the privileged sectors of society, especially educated young people. Seymour Lipset and Jason Lakin have recently observed that an excessive number of participant citizens create the risk of provoking a dangerous overload of political demands, thereby generating zero-sum conflicts. By contrast, scholars such as Robert Putnam, Theda Skocpol, and Russell Dalton have stressed the decline of civic engagement in Western democracies, even in younger cohorts.
Democracies have to find a way to adapt to the new attitudes and behavior of Western citizens, who are more critical and less confident than before. Democracies owe their legitimacy to their ability to simultaneously guarantee both the self-fulfillment needs of the more educated, secularized, and postmaterialist sectors of society and the safety and physical needs of the majority of citizens, who share the more traditional and materialist values and are unwilling to engage in stronger forms of political commitment.
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