- Democracy’s FutureThe Primacy of Culture
What are likely to be liberal democracy’s principal ideological and political competitors in the years to come? I believe that the most serious one is in the process of emerging in Asia. I also believe, however, that what happens on the level of ideology will depend on developments at the levels of civil society and culture. A short methodological digression will help explain why this is so.
There are four levels on which the consolidation of democracy must occur, and each requires a corresponding level of analysis.
Level 1: Ideology. This is the level of normative beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of democratic institutions and their supporting market structures. Democratic societies obviously cannot survive for long if people do not believe democracy to be a legitimate form of government; on the other hand, a widespread belief in the legitimacy of democracy can coexist with an inability to create or consolidate democratic institutions. Level 1 is the sphere of rational self- consciousness, in which changes in perceptions of legitimacy can occur virtually overnight. Such a change, favorable to democracy and markets, has occurred around the world in the last 15 years.
Level 2: Institutions. This sphere includes constitutions, legal systems, party systems, market structures, and the like. Institutions change less quickly than ideas about legitimacy, but they can be manipulated by public policy. This is the level at which most of the recent political struggle has taken place, as new democracies, aided by older ones, have sought to privatize state enterprises, write new constitutions, consolidate parties, and so on. Most neoclassical economics operates at this level of [End Page 7] analysis, as did a great deal of political science up through the end of the Second World War.
Level 3: Civil society. This is the realm of spontaneously created social structures separate from the state that underlie democratic political institutions. These structures take shape even more slowly than political institutions. They are less manipulable by public policy, and indeed often bear an inverse relationship to state power, growing stronger as the state recedes and vice versa. Until recently, civil society was a relatively neglected subject of analysis: in the West, it was often taken for granted as an inevitable concomitant of modernization, while in the East it was denounced by Marxists as fraudulent. Civil society became fashionable again after the fall of communism, because it was recognized that post-totalitarian societies were characterized by a particular deficit of social structures that were a necessary precondition of stable democratic political institutions. 1 Over the past couple of decades, a great deal of interesting work in political science has been done on this level of analysis, resulting in a rich taxonomy and language for describing contemporary civil societies as they relate to democratic institutions.
Level 4: Culture. This deepest level includes phenomena such as family structure, religion, moral values, ethnic consciousness, “civic-ness,” and particularistic historical traditions. Just as democratic institutions rest on a healthy civil society, civil society in turn has precursors and preconditions at the level of culture. Culture can be defined as a-rational, ethical habit passed on through tradition; although it is malleable and can be affected by developments in the three upper levels, it tends to change the most slowly of all. Analytically, this is the sphere of sociology and anthropology. In the field of political science, studies excavating the level of culture and exploring its influence on civil society have been much less common than studies of civil society.
In many respects, what Samuel P. Huntington has called the “third wave” of democratic transitions was driven by level 1—that is, by the level of ideology. For one reason or another, perceptions of legitimacy began to change rapidly and dramatically in the late 1970s and 1980s, leading to, among other things, the coming to power of free-market finance ministers in Latin America, the birth of prodemocracy movements in the former communist world, and a general demoralization of authoritarians on both the right and the left. This change in ideology precipitated a massive change on level 2, that of institutions, and spawned many debates over...