What makes democracies work? This simple, yet disarming, question can be broken down very broadly in two respects: what do we know and what can we control? In principle at least, we think we can manipulate institutions -- whatever their actual contribution to the success or failure of democracy. Alternatively, non-institutional factors contributing to the success or failure of democracy are seemingly less controllable by human will. Culture, mores, norms seem to mold us rather than the other way around. So does the relative affluence or poverty of our environment. What is especially perplexing to us is that while institutions and non-institutional factors seem entirely separable analytically, they are anything but that in reality. Indeed, an important body of work on institutions propagated, among others, by such figures as Walter Powell, James March and Johan Olsen, argues that institutions create cultural norms and are not merely situated in an unchanging cultural context.
The basic problem we have is one of determining causality in what accounts for democratic success, or conversely, failure. We know about coincidence (what seems to correlate) but not necessarily much about cause. Briefly, there are three issues I want to touch on in my remarks, the last of which constitutes the chief thrust of my commentary. These issues are (1) what do we mean by democratic success? (2) what do we mean by institutions? and (3) what are the most important non-institutional considerations in the democratic equation? I shall briefly speak to the first two and dwell a bit more on the third, inasmuch as that is my assigned territory.
It is always a good idea to define one's dependent variable. Insofar as we seek to understand what leads to democratic success, we probably need to start here. The standard definition of democracy is the continuity of institutionalized political competition -- that is to say, a fairly minimalist Schumpeterian definition. This may be a bit more like measuring the longevity of life than its quality, but once we head into quality of democracy issues, things become much cloudier. Do we measure democracy by the level of equality? Accessibility to the leadership? The level of political peace? The quality of policy dialogue? The degree of freedom? In broad terms, there are clearly differences of various sorts between democracies as defined in the Schumpeterian sense. There is a lot more accessibility to political leadership in the U.S., for example, than in the more bureaucratized and centralized French democracy. There is more freedom of the press in the U.S. as well than in Britain, with its Official Secrets Act and its stricter interpretation of libel laws. Yet, most European democracies, as well as Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have a higher degree of equality among their citizens and considerably less poverty.
Democracies differ. Why they do, we cannot answer simply, much as we might crave a simple answer. However, as a general matter, democracies in the minimalist Schumpterian sense have more freedom, more equality, less poverty, more accessibility, etc. than do non-democracies. It is always the exceptions that surprise us -- India with its immensely diverse population and its poverty continues to support democratic politics; Brazil with its vast inequalities nonetheless appears likely to be able to sustain a democratic political system. On the other side, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia with significant wealth appear to be quite distant from venturing into democracy.
I do not here want to poach on what others have to say. Nevertheless, institutions (a rough set of independent variables) are also not easily defined. Do we mean institutions as primary architectural arrangements? Do we mean them as electoral rules and systems of representations? Do we mean them as rules and even norms that have developed within the existing institutional framework? Simple distinctions, such as presidential and parliamentary systems, conceal an immense amount of variability within each category. We need to be aware that large distinctions also conceal large amounts of variance. It is by no means clear that any given system is clearly superior to any other, when controlled for other relevant factors.
There are both non-lumpy and lumpy considerations feeding into the democratic equation. Culture is an obviously lumpy concept. We use it when we are at wit's end, and have no further explanation based on less lumpy ideas. The U.S. and Anglo systems in general tend to be sharply adversarial in public presentation, while the Scandinavian systems, especially, tend to be oriented towards consensus-building. Is this inherent in political institutions? I doubt it. But just exactly what does explain these differences?
Much has been made lately also about the importance of civic culture, especially in Robert Putnams' recent book Making Democracy Work and in his essays about the decline of the U.S. civic culture. Putnam's arguments are controversial, to be sure, but is there a connection between social involement and the health and sustainability of political democracy? Or is that connection, assuming it is a relevant one, likely to be mediated by the relative level of equality that exists in society?
Outlooks on politics are no doubt influenced by other somewhat less lumpy factors such as affluence, population diversity and social cleavages, inequalities, the sheer amount of time democractic habits have been in force, the availability and openness of communications technologies and so on. Putting together a simple set of rules for the democratic stability of a society would probably boil down to something like the following: (1) be prosperous and distribute the proceeds relatively evenly; (2) have a democratic (associative) rather than authoritarian (hierarchical) culture; (3) be relatively homogenous in population characteristics and where possible seek to assimilate rather than differentiate; (4) have a substantial degree of social capital; and (5) have a democratic political order uninterrupted for some time. A culture of social comity and interpersonal trust is a key ingredient to democratic success, yet ironically, too much of that may breed provincialism and intolerance.
No one seeking to find answers to the crucial question of how to sustain democracy (in a world that has become more democratic) is likely to be out of work.
Bert A. Rockman is the University Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh where he also holds appointments in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and as Research Professor in the University Center for International Studies. At the University of Pittsburgh, he also directs the Center for American Politics and Society. He has previously been a Senior Fellow in the Governmental Studies Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He has been a Fellow at the Centre for European Studies at Nuffield College, Oxford and will be a Fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences (SCASSS) in 1997.
Rockman has published articles in such journals as the Journal of Politics, the British Journal of Political Science, the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, Administration and Society, Governance, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Comparative Political Studies, Public Administration Review, The Brookings Review, Society and others. He also has published numerous chapters in edited volumes and has authored or co-authored, edited or co-edited nine books. These include, Bureaucrats and Politicians in Western Democracies (Harvard), The Leadership Question: The Presidency and the American System (Praeger), Elite Studies and Communist Politics: Essays in Memory of Carl Beck (Pittsburgh), The Bush Presidency: First Appraisals (Chatham House), Do Institutions Matter? Government Capabilities in the United States and Abroad (Brookings), Researching the Presidency: Vital Questions, New Answers (Pittsburgh), The Clinton Presidency: First Appraisals (Chatham House), Agenda for Excellence 2: The State of Public Administration (Chatham House), and Institutions and Democratic Statecraft (Westview). He has received the Pi Sigma Alpha prize (1980) and the Richard E. Neustadt prize (1985). He is a past President of the American Political Science Association's Organized Section on the Presidency.
He has been a consultant to a number of organizations including the World Bank, the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, and National Public Radio. He is presently working on a book for The Brookings Institution (with Joel D. Aberbach) focusing on change in the U.S. federal executive between the period 1970-72.
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