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What a Difference Political Culture Makes

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

While democracy is developing and strengthening in more and more countries across the world, there may be some lessons to learn from older, established democracies. Democracy does not equal democracy – different forms and philosophical foundations shape different political cultures. Different political cultures favor different practices and outcomes. The political and civic leadership in evolving democracies may possibly have a chance to push things in one or another direction by looking at practices and outcomes in other countries.

Political communication scholar Diana Mutz published a book in 2006, Hearing the Other Side, in which she explores the fundamental difference between participatory and deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy is currently a favorite paradigm in political science, and is also becoming increasingly important in development. Deliberation has been shown to improve the lives of the poorest and most disadvantaged citizens by allowing them a seat at the table of (often local) decision-makers and by giving voice to their needs. The deliberative ideal, which is based on collaborative problem-solving, sounds pretty good when the goal is improving people’s lives. Mutz argues that although participatory democracy is related, it is more adversarial and competitive. In participatory democracy, the political process is about giving some interests precedence over other interests. It’s an adversarial culture, based on conflicting and competing interests, where, for instance, elections decide which interests will dominate.

History seems to have a lot to do with the form of democratic culture. In an enlightening article, political sociologist Uri Ben-Eliezer explains how the Anglo-Saxon form of liberal democracy has come to be focused on a competition of interests: This particular democratic tradition is influenced by the English Puritan Revolution of 1688 and John Locke’s political philosophy with its focus on the protection of individual rights and the pursuit of individual interests. The Western-European model of Republican democracy, on the other hand, can be traced back to the French Revolution of 1789 and to the philosophy of Rousseau, favoring equality among citizens and a strong sense of community. I would argue that deliberative, collaborative democratic practices are more likely to be an integral part of the political process if community and interest harmonization are part of the political philosophy. If it’s about competing interests, the political culture is more likely to be competitive and activist.

I find this argument interesting for development in at least two ways. First, we have just witnessed the Arab Spring. History will show which values were dominant among those who led the revolution and among those who now have to turn the new beginning into a functioning state. But it seems to me that a strong focus on freedom and equality was at the heart of the Arab Spring. Which democratic form will stem from these values? Chances are pretty good that it will be a new form, looking different than the forms of democracy we have seen throughout history throughout the world. Will this new form be a good fit for other developing democracies?

Second, I’m wondering whether political and civic leaders can have a hand in shaping political culture by promoting certain political practices. Deliberation may be a good example here. If collaborative practices such as deliberation are being fostered in the process of democratic evolution, can this push the political culture toward the deliberative ideal?

Picture: Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar

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