Stable democracies exist in many different forms, each with their own unique features. Although many political theorists have tried to pinpoint the one characteristic that ensures a stable democracy, there is no general consensus. Some theorists point to the idea of social capital as the key building block of a successful democracy. Social capital is defined as the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively (Dictionary.
com). According to Morris P. Fiorina, “..
.few have questioned the basic premise that civic engagement is a good thing…” (Fiorina 417-418). It is widely accepted that political engagement generally serves to benefit a population; however, the debate focuses on whether or not a strong political culture should be established first in a newly surfacing democracy. Theorists argue that due to the high rate of political participation, populations with an immense amount of social capital will perform better and remain successful, and therefore it should be the primary focus of a developing democracy. The opposing argument concerning how to foster a stable democracy is that newly developing democracies need to first establish other crucial political factors, such as firm political institutions and a stable economy, before focusing their attention on attaining a strong political culture.
Although the integration of a strong political culture is an important step to ensure a prosperous democracy, implementing it should not be the primary goal of newly democratizing nations; instead, flourishing democracies should primarily focus on establishing a reliable form of government.Political scientist Robert J. Putnam spent much of his career attempting to discover the magic variable that explains successful democratic development.
Putnam argues that, “Regions with many civic associations…seem to nourish more effective governments” (Putnam 99).
This conclusion was derived from a case study he performed in Italy, in which he analyzed the relationship between the performance of regional governments and the social and political life within the region. Putnam generalizes his findings in Italy, and alleges that most governments will fail to properly function if social capital is not extremely prevalent throughout the population. However, is the positive correlation between civic engagement and government performance that was evidenced in Italy enough to definitively state that social capital is the driving force behind creating a sustainable democracy for any country? The answer to this question is most likely no, since Putnam’s research fails to acknowledge the possibility that Italy’s political success was a product of other factors that existed prior to the addition of social capital. For example, Putnam fails to emphasize that Italy had centuries of social trust, cooperation, and civic networking built up between the government and the population, which resulted in civic engagement being established as a norm. Attempting to apply this theory outside of Italy, Putnam states that, “Effective collaborative institutions require interpersonal skills and trust, but those skills are inculcated and reinforced by organized collaboration” (Putnam 180). Therein lies the major flaw of Putnam’s theory, in this quote he states that collaboration is derived from trust, but also states that trust is essentially derived from collaboration.
He does not specify how one would begin to implement social trust in an entirely new nation. In Italy, the social trust had been embedded in society for centuries, so the continual civic engagement was constantly reinforcing cooperation. The fact that Putnam did not acknowledge the groundwork that led to the success of social capital in Italy shows the limitations of case studies. His study was an in depth analysis of one country, not all countries have this foundation of social trust to build off of, and not all other democracies are structured like the one that was found in Italy. One way to establish social trust is to implement government policies that are advantageous to the entire population to ensure the development of a solid government foundation. Although social capital may have played a role in the success of the Italian government, there is not enough evidence to point to it as the key to ensuring a sustainable democracy in other countries, nor does Putnam provide a clear answer as to how one would establish it in a country that lacks a pre-existing norm of social trust.
Another flaw that Putnam neglects to discuss is the problem with underrepresentation. Political scientist Morris P. Fiorina highlights this major point and argues that civic engagement is only truly valuable when the people engaged are representative of the entire population, “…but when engagement is largely the domain of minority viewpoints, obvious problems of unrepresentativeness arise” (Fiorina 403). When little civic engagement is present, the country is left susceptible to the opinions of extremists, or those whose political preferences lie outside of the status quo. Fiorina theorizes that those who participate must be intrinsically motivated to do so, because most citizens are aware that their individual vote carries little power and has no real influence on the big picture.
Voters essentially treat participation as an investment, “The more individuals value the benefit…
the more likely they are to participate. The more costly is participation…the less likely they are to participate” (Fiorina 418). By Fiorina’s logic, people must value the outcome of an election in order to initiate engagement.
This example furthers the idea that political culture arises from a steadfast government, and not the other way around. Governments cannot force democratic participation. Instead, they must appeal to the population and ensure high levels of participation in order to create a fully representative political culture. Theorists such as Putnam, who argue that political culture should be the first step in fostering a stable democracy, do not acknowledge this critical flaw, or as Fiorina describes it, the dark side of civic engagement (Fiorina 403).In addition to Fiorina’s argument that voters are motivated intrinsically, economist Bryan Caplan makes the argument that typically, “…voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational-and they vote accordingly” (Caplan 2).
Caplan continues, discussing the idea that the average voter rationally chooses to be ignorant, because the individual realizes that his or her vote is essentially insignificant (Caplan 3). Although there are high levels of civic engagement, only an extremely small portion of the population is well informed, but that small portion is able to correctly make political decisions. According to Caplan, as long as at least 1% of the voting participants are well informed, the participation of uninformed voters has no true effect on the outcome of the election (Caplan 3). Caplan refers to this idea as the “miracle of aggregation” (Caplan 3), meaning that even with an extremely ignorant majority, their votes tend to even out, allowing the small portion of informed voters to swing the election. However, it is important that informed voters remain prevalent within society and maintain the ability to swing the elections.
With a stronger magnitude of civic engagement, informed voters are able to maintain a common good. In order to ensure that there are enough informed voters, Caplan stresses the importance of education surrounding political knowledge, “Education substantially improves performance on