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Does the Right 'Political Culture' Really Lead Individuals and Countries to Democracy?


Why are some countries more democratic than others? Why are some democratic regimes stable and lasting while others are fragile and short-lived? These are some of the most important and closely examined questions in comparative politics. We know part of the answer. In particular, average levels of income per head - or similar indicators of 'development' - are quite good predictors of democracy. As countries get richer, they are more likely to become stable democracies. But there is plenty of variation around this tendency, and several other factors sometimes appear to contribute to democracy on a relatively consistent basis. Over the past fifteen years, considerable attention has been paid to a series of research publications from Ronald Inglehardt that claim to demonstrate that a fundamentally important predictor of stable democracy is 'national political culture'. Countries are democratic because their citizens share a set of pro-democratic values. Central to pro-democratic values is interpersonal trust. In countries where citizens are likely to agree with the proposition 'Most people can be trusted', democracy is likely to thrive. This claim that trusting attitudes lie at the heart of democracy is plausible and appealing. But is it true?

Mitchell Seligson demonstrates that it is not true. Inglehardt has used inappropriate techniques for statistical analysis, ignored strong contrary evidence, and not employed the full range of statistics that are available thoroughly to test his argument. Leaving aside all questions about the accuracy and comparability of the data Inglehardt uses, there are two major sets of problems with his technique of analysis and his conclusion.

Inglehardt's evidence comes principally from the World Values Survey, in which samples of about 1000 people from each of a large number of countries are asked a common set of questions about their values. Inglehardt takes as his indicator of a pro-democratic political culture the average proportion of respondents in each country surveyed who say they agree that 'Most people can be trusted'. He then does a simple regression analysis, using country averages as his observation points, 'showing' that, the higher countries score in relation to interpersonal trust, the more likely they are to have a long record of democracy. That is the evidence that a trusting political culture nurtures democracy. Seligson demonstrates that this statistically significant relationship is purely the result of the existence of a cluster of North European and North American countries - Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, the United States, Ireland, Britain and Switzerland - that happen to both score very highly on interpersonal trust and have stable democracies. Take those countries away from the total sample of countries, and there is no statistical association at all between interpersonal trust and democracy.

Even if there had been a consistent relationship between national averages for interpersonal trust and national records of democracy, we should be very careful about drawing conclusions, and aware of the problem of the 'ecological fallacy'. In sum, even if a relatively high proportion of the citizens of democratic countries express a high degree of interpersonal trust, there is no reason to assume that they are the same people who are especially democratic in attitudes or behaviour. Sets of survey data from Latin American and Central America demonstrate the lack of any such correlation: people who trust other people are no more likely than 'non-trusters' to be democratic in attitude and values.


Seligson concludes that we cannot reject the well-established idea that there is such a thing as a 'civic culture' that is conducive to democracy. He argues only that Inglehardt's definition and measurement of this idea are not scientifically established, and probably wrong. The debate may however have a wider contemporary significance that Seligson does not mention. Over the last decade, a few political scientists have in various ways been re-asserting the idea that 'culture' is a central ingredient of political behaviour, and emphasising the tensions and conflicts between different national and religious 'cultures'. The most well-known example is the work of the distinguished political scientist Samuel Huntington, published in various places under the rubric Clash of Cultures. In the atmosphere of confrontation and threat following September 11th 2001, the media and political leaderships of Western countries are increasingly stereotyping the politics and political leaderships of countries of the Middle East, Africa and Asia - especially those with large Islamic populations - as somehow driven by atavistic, non-rational objectives embodied in 'cultures'. Such stereotypes only generate confrontational reactions. It is particularly important that political scientists do not fall prey to temptations to present their work in ways that will feed such stereotypes, and that we apply standard scientific tests to renewed claims, long discredited in academia, that simplistic notions of 'political culture' actually mean or explain very much.

Source: Mitchell A. Seligson, 2002, 'The Renaissance of Political Culture or the Renaissance of the Ecological Fallacy?, Comparative Politics, Volume 34, Number 3, pp. 273-292.
Comparative Politics is published quarterly by the City University of New York (

Keywords: culture, democracy

Commentator: Mick Moore, IDS (July 2002)

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