The most important development of our age has been the "Global Democratic Revolution."
There were only 30 democracies in the world in 1975, according to Samuel Huntington's estimate in The Third Wave: Global Democratization in the Late 20th Century. By the time that important book was published in 1991, the number had doubled to 60. At last count, it had nearly doubled again, to 115.
For the first time in human experience, democracy is the most common form of government and most people now live under it. The ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence conquered the world to an extent that likely would have astounded even Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Except for the places they haven't, at least thus far, raising perhaps the most interesting question in political science: If democracy is, as Francis Fukuyama claimed, the form of government most compatible with human nature, why do certain countries and regions still resist it? Why haven't all the wagon trains, to use Fukuyama's metaphor, reached California?
The most conspicuous holdout is, of course, what is somewhat peculiarly called the "Islamic world." Indeed, only a few, if any, of the world's 50-plus Muslim majority countries can be considered stable, multiparty democracies.
Since there are roughly 190 existent nation-states, and 115 or so now democratic, that means that the authoritarian residual is overwhelmingly Muslim; a condition especially true for the states located in the Middle East, the historic core of the faith.
The Arab Spring that broke out in Tunisia in late 2010 and spread throughout the region appeared to represent the beginning of belated change in that respect, only to be followed by the crushing disappointment of the Arab Winter, as the liberal young people demonstrating in Tahrir Square gave way to the Muslim Brotherhood and General Abdel el-Sisi, the Islamic State, chaos in post-Gadhafi Libya, and the ongoing horrors of civil war in Syria.
Even the one Muslim-majority country that has long been cited as the exception to the rule, Mustafa Atatürk's explicitly secular Turkish republic, has become both increasingly Islamist and authoritarian under Recep Erdogan.
The question of the relationship between Islam and democracy is thus hardly an insignificant one, especially since research carried out over time by the Pew Center indicates troublingly high levels of support for Koranic Law in most Muslim majority countries.
The defining feature of any democratic process remains the idea of "man-made" law--that is, law made by elected legislatures--but Koranic law presumes that law can come only from God (Allah), thereby defining the man-made kind as inherently blasphemous.
The possibility that culture poses an impediment to democratization also surfaces when considering the other conspicuous holdout to the world's democratic trend, China.
Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew maintained that the quasi-religious content of Confucianism and its emphasis upon stability and obedience to authority meant a reduced appeal of Western democracy for people in Asian societies.
What was called "Asian values" thus represented an explicit challenge to western developmental theory, wherein capitalist industrialization eventually fostered democracy.
The key premise in developmental theory was the tight sequential relationship between capitalism and democracy, since it was capitalism--including the concept of private property and the pursuit of profits--that drove industrial development and produced a commercial middle class (Marx's bourgeoisie) that eventually demanded rights, including the right to vote.
In short, no capitalism, no bourgeoisie and, as Barrington Moore famously put it, "no bourgeoisie, no democracy," which is another way of saying that there has never been a democratic state without a fundamentally capitalist economy.
Alas, China now has the world's largest middle class, estimated at more than 400 million, fueled by 40 years of increasingly capitalist growth. But we are nearly three decades past Tiananmen Square and, the tenets of developmental theory notwithstanding, there are precious few signs of Chinese democratization; rather, Xi Jinping has now proceeded to amass greater personal authority than any Chinese tyrant since the Great Helmsman himself.
The incongruity of an increasingly capitalist, booming China presided over by a communist party therefore continues, implicitly challenging our longstanding assumption that Western values are universal values.
If the global democratic revolution has petered out, it will likely be a loss of momentum attributable to cultural impediments (including Russia's "authoritarian relapse" under Vladimir Putin, which Kremlinologists have blamed on Russia's persisting authoritarian political culture).
Culture can, however, be changed and thereby overcome. Although Max Weber once speculated that the values encouraged by Catholicism prevented the industrialization of European Catholic countries, Huntington's "third wave" actually began on the Iberian Peninsula, with the collapse of the sclerotic Franco and Caetano dictatorships in Spain and Portugal, and spread immediately thereafter to a predominantly Catholic Latin America.
As with so much else, a certain wisdom came from Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he said: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of society," but that "the central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.
Editorial on 04/23/2018
Print Headline: Democracy and culture