Democratic renewal must address shifts in West’s political culture


Political scientists have long contended that culture matters to the formation and consolidation of democracy. But efforts to renew democracy and challenge authoritarianism will need to pay closer attention to the cultural underpinnings of political systems and to the ideological dimension of conflicting political cultures, analysts suggest.

The German defense ministry set out various scenarios for the year 2040 in a secret document that was leaked to Der Spiegel last week, The Guardian reports, one of which sees “the US struggling to avoid isolationism and China locked in a cultural war with the west.”

Beijing’s most prominent ideologue, the newly-promoted Wang Huning (right), insists that ‘Western’ liberal democracy is culturally alien to China.

A review of his utterances yields a Communist Confucian of both conviction and flexibility, the South China Morning Post reports: “The political system must fit into and be accepted by a country’s history, culture and society … It cannot be too above the ground.”

Culture also facilitates authoritarian consolidation and the export of illiberal values, The Economist argues.

“Russia, which has both a long history of disinformation campaigns and a domestic political culture largely untroubled by concerns of truth, has taken to the dark side of social media like a rat to a drainpipe, not just for internal use, but for export, too,” it notes.

Observers continue to debate whether the current populist upsurge is driven primarily by economic or cultural factors.

But evidence from the World Values Survey “suggests that the rise of antidemocratic sentiment has less to do with dysfunction in the political arena than with corrosive changes that have reshaped the social and cultural landscape more generally,” the University of New Brunswick’s Paul Howe, a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada writes for the Journal of Democracy:

As if “fixing” Congress, taming partisanship, neutering special interests, and devising other political remedies were not challenge enough, this analysis suggests that the problem runs deeper and will require far-reaching measures on various fronts to maintain the foundations of a democratic political culture.

The greater visibility of right-wing populism does not revert or disprove the massively rising liberalism of recent decades but illustrates a growing class divide over illiberal-vs.-liberal moral values—as a consequence of the progressive cultural shift, Amy C. Alexander and Christian Welzel contend in a Journal of Democracy symposium on democratic deconsolidation.

With the advantage of twenty-first-century hindsight, we can now see that the Enlightenment project has been unraveling for some time, and that what we are witnessing today are likely the political consequences of that unraveling, argues James Davison Hunter, the founder and executive director of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Any possibility of “fixing” what ails late-modern American democracy has to take the full measure of this transformation in the deep structures of American and Western political culture, he writes for The Hedgehog Review, drawing a distinction between the politics of culture and the culture of politics:

The politics of culture refers to the contestation of power over cultural issues. This would include the mobilization of parties and rank-and-file support, the organization of leadership, the formation of special-interest coalitions, and the manipulation of public rhetoric on matters reflecting the symbols or ideals at the heart of a group’s collective identity. This is what most people think about when they use the term culture war. In this case, culture war is the accumulation of political conflicts over issues like abortion, gay rights, or federal funding of the humanities and arts. Though culture is implicated at every level, the politics of culture is primarily about politics.

The culture of politics, by contrast, refers to the symbolic environment in which political institutions are embedded and political action occurs. This symbolic environment is constituted by the basic frameworks of implicit meaning that make particular political arrangements understandable or incomprehensible, desirable or reprehensible. These frameworks constitute a culture’s “deep structure.” Absent a deep structure, certain political institutions and practices simply do not make any sense. RTWT

“[C]ultural conflict is inevitable, since culture always involves individuals and institutions competing for resources and position. He suggests that his critics fail to acknowledge that “given,” and instead mistakenly look for consensus in public opinion. He says those who continue to dismiss cultural conflict risk ignoring the diversity essential for a healthy democracy,” Hunter contends.

Democratic discontent and disconnect is rife in the leading liberal democracies, including the United States where citizens “are currently trapped in a politics of grievance that is exploited by leaders at both ends of the ideological spectrum,” according to Carl Gershman (left), president of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Democracy exists in a particular national context, what Vaclav Havel called the “intellectual, spiritual, and cultural traditions that breathe substance into it and give it meaning,” said the recently-formed Coalition for Democratic Renewal.

The coalition aims to promote a “democratic culture of tolerance, civility, and non-violenceand to change the intellectual and cultural climate by waging a principled, informed, and impassioned battle of ideas,” it said in its Prague Appeal.

Simon Tilford, an economist and deputy director of the Center for European Reform, believes that Britain’s political culture and economic stability have been eroding for some time, hidden by the longstanding willingness of others to give it the benefit of the doubt as a pragmatic democracy with a strong civil society and civil service, Steven Erlanger reports for The New York Times.

Over at Semi-Partisan Politics, Sam Hooper notes the two debates surrounding Brexit – the one economic, and the other, which, for want of a better term, I’ll call politico-cultural, Andrew Stuttaford writes for The National Review.

“This is “Cultural Brexit” – sneered at by the Economist but best understood as secession from the EU partly as a reaction against supranational European government, yes, but also an enormous cultural backlash against years of self-serving, centrist, technocratic government within the narrow boundaries of an incredibly restrictive Overton Window.” Efforts to promote democracy overlook cultural constraints at their peril, analysts suggest.

In Iraq, for example, “overlooked cultural conditions endangered the effort” to advance democracy after Saddam Hussein was deposed, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel wrote for Foreign Affairs.

Inglehart and Welzel’s Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy makes “a compelling case for viewing development as the expansion of human autonomy and choice, and for political freedom and democracy as the consequence of economic development and cultural change,” notes Larry Diamond of Stanford University.

The consequences for destabilizing the cultural and constitutional foundations of Western democratic regimes and the global world order continue to play out, notes Harvard’s Pippa Norris. Yet as Critical Citizens (1999) concluded many years ago, the implications of cultural change are not necessarily clear-cut and straightforward to interpret, she writes for the JOD symposium:

Deep disenchantment with the workings of political institutions, like elections and legislatures, may have destabilizing effects upon the body politic, opening the door to populist demagogues attacking the courts (‘socalled judges’) and independent media (‘fake news’). Alternatively, when reflecting genuine problems, critical citizens could also spur grassroots pressures for much-needed pro-democratic reforms, such as by reenergizing American initiatives designed to strengthen electoral integrity, restore voting rights, clean up campaign funding, and eradicate gerrymandering.

Norris is the co-author of a recent study on the rising support for populist parties in Western societies which examined the dueling theories about the causes of the populist surge and found that the cultural backlash explanation was the stronger of the two. In one of her recent papers, Norris argued that since at least the 1970s, Western societies have emphasized post-materialist” and “self-expression” values among the young educated strata of society. Sean Illing writes for Vox. This has produced movements toward greater gender and racial equality, equal rights for LGBTQ people, more acceptance of diverse lifestyles and cultures, etc. It’s also resulted in less focus on redistributionist economics.

Crime and corruption continue to pose barriers to democratic consolidation at the citizen level [in Latin America], note analysts Mitchell A. Seligson and Amy Erica Smith. And, citizens holding both high system support and high political tolerance, the combination of attitudes … most conducive to creating a political culture supportive of stable democracy, remain in the minority in the region, they contend.

Welzel and Dalton (2015) show that the new democracies of Latin America and post-communist democracies of Central and Eastern Europe are characterized by a political culture of low citizen allegiance, other analysts suggest ..

That is, “orientations that tie citizens loyally to their society and its institutional order” (p. 291). This makes them most distinct from three other regions—South and East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Arab region—that by contrast score high on citizens’ allegiance to the state and its institutions. This implies that political trust in the latter regions is an expression of loyalty rather than skepticism.

Whither America? A Strategy for Repairing America’s Political Culture

Please join the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on Wednesday, November 15 from 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. for the launch of the latest volume in the Atlantic Council Strategy Papers series. Written by John Raidt, Whither America? A Strategy for Repairing America’s Political Culture explores how the mechanics of the broken US political system fracture our nation’s democracy. He argues that, in the face of antagonistic forces looking to exploit its weaknesses, domestic political reform should be a national and international security priority. Raidt analyzes each gear that twists and distorts US democracy and offers distinct reforms to correct this course.

On Twitter? Follow @ACScowcroft to join the conversation.

Atlantic Council 1030 15th Street NW, 12th Floor (West Tower Elevators) Washington, DC 20005 RSVP

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