Sunday, December 17, 2006

Rambling on the Role of Culture in the Development of Democracy

Americans have a tendency to think that freedom and democracy are universally good and desirable - above almost all other things, in fact. "Live free or die" is not just he state motto of New Hampshire, it is a slogan that many of us probably agree with - even if we think it sounds a little over-dramatic in this day and age.

We also tend to see capitalism as the obviously superior economic system. Given the unique experience of our nation and the core values shared by most citizens throughout our history, these assumptions about the superiority of liberty and capitalism seem quite valid in theory and practice. And within the borders of the United States and many other countries, I would say they have largely been proven valid (though the extremely poor would probably have something to say about the superiority of unchained capitalism).

But do the rules change when you leave the borders of this country? Of Western Europe? Japan? Recent world events tend to suggest that they often do, though it seems impossibly complex to diagnose how or why this is the case. (Reading Tom Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem is a great place to start, by the way).

Many, including George W. Bush, have stated that it is condescending to suggest that democracy is not suited to people of certain cultures. And I agree that to make that blanket assumption about certain groups of people, is somewhat condescending without asking simultaneously asking why it is the case. Surely it is neither moral, nor intellectually respectable to say that some people are intrinsically and permanently incapable of thriving in a democratic political context.

In any case, as the world continues to shrink, we must start trying to answer this question. It seems clear that, all other things being equal, a democratic society is the best model for individuals to reach their full potential. Furthermore, I think most would agree that the entire human race would be more secure and prosperous in a world full of democratic nations. It is a goal worth pursuing, to be sure. But, as we have recently and violently been reminded, it cannot happen overnight.

One need not have observed Iraq over the last three years to learn that lesson. In the United States the full democratic franchise was not fully expanded to all citizens until the 20th century when women were given the right to vote and the Civil Rights Act passed. Many persuasively argue that there is still more work to be done on this front. It has been a tough and painfully slow transition in most countries.

This leads me to ask: 1. what about our own culture made this transition slow, and 2. what ultimately made it possible? I do not know the answers of course. But, if we could figure this out, it would certainly yield some useful - and indeed, life saving - insights on the rate of progress we are seeing in other parts of the world and more importantly, how to speed it.

In any event, our leaders, in government and the academy, need to be asking more fundamental questions about what cultural values are conducive to building and sustaining free and stable political systems. Only then can we plan effective strategies to encourage their growth. Foriegn policy, economic development and global security will all be enhanced with each lesson we learn.

A Washington Post article sparked my thoughts on this issue. If you like, you can read it here.

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