Cultures of Democracy and Citizen Efficacy
The twentieth century saw a great advance of democracy: not at all even, of course; it was always a question of two steps forward, one step back. But the long-term trend is unmistakable. I believe that this trend will continue in the twenty-first century. This is not because I am a simple-minded optimist (although some of my friends accuse me of this) or because I believe in the inevitability of progress. It is rather because democracy is becoming the only regime that can claim legitimacy over the long term. Human history is full of earlier, hierarchical regimes that were stable because they reposed on some belief in an ordered cosmos, where a ruler might draw his mandate from heaven; on the divine right of some dynasty; or on the natural superiority of some class or tribe. But the progress of what we call modernity, in its different forms, undermines all these traditional ideas and eventually makes them incredible. In the end, the only basis for stable legitimacy we can fall back on turns out to be that we should obey our rulers because in doing so we are really obeying ourselves.
This is not to say that democracies are stable. They may fail to deliver the goods and become discredited, they may fail to hold together in face of tensions between classes or ethic groups, and they may fall apart in a host of ways. But in our day, the regimes that displace them, often through coups, turn out to have even less legitimacy once the first flush of the novelty wears off. And they lack this because they have no good grounds to hold our allegiance over time. They have to claim superefficacy as their excuse for overturning democratic institutions, and this claim cannot fail to look unconvincing over the long term. In other words, democracies may not be stable, but other regimes are even less so; and they end up having to sustain themselves by more and more naked force, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That is why putschist generals in our day usually begin by assuring people that they will revert to elected government once they’ve “cleared up the mess” (like Musharaf in Pakistan).
But this greater geographical scope of democracy makes it harder to understand.
Or, rather, it makes us aware how little we have understood it. What are the conditions that make for stable democracies? Why does democracy take root here and not there? (For instance, why in India and not in Pakistan, when both achieved independence at the same time from the same Raj.) In the postwar period, books such as Lipset’s Political Man tried to answer these questions.1 Some of their intuitions were good, but others now seem wide of the mark.2 It may well be that the attempt to answer totally general questions — such as, what are the conditions of democracy? — is misguided. General questions assume that there is some recognizable political culture of democracy and a set of economic and social conditions that enable this. In fact, it would seem more sensible to start from another basic assumption: that there are cultures of democracy, in the plural. Just as we have (many of us) stopped talking about modernity and speak now of multiple modernities, so we will have to recognize different democratic forms.
If nothing else has, the existence of the Indian Republic ought to drive this point home. This is the world’s biggest democracy. But more than that, in some respects it is showing signs of health where some older democratic regimes show signs of decline. In the North Atlantic world, we are all concerned by the downward trend in voter participation in elections. This is most noticeable in the United States, but it is happening across the North Atlantic world. This is indeed one of the paradoxes of democratic life today — that as this form spreads over most of the globe, it is showing signs of running out of breath in its original heartland.
The paradox becomes less acute if we recognize that we are not necessarily dealing with the same form in different regions. In India, for instance, the opposite seems to be the case: the level of participation in elections is going up, and the sense of satisfaction and citizen efficacy seems to be growing. And — what is really surprising for people in the North — participation and sense of efficacy is higher among lower-income and lower-caste people than among those who are richer and more powerful.3 This is a reversal of the pattern in the North Atlantic world and close to inconceivable there. In fact, Indian democracy, in its dynamic mode of operation, is very different from what we see in these northern societies.
Does this mean that a comparative study of democracies is a waste of time? Not at all, but it does mean that the objectives we seek in the comparison must change. Instead of looking for general laws, such as the American development theory of the postwar period, we should turn back to an older tradition that finds its source in Montesquieu.4 Comparison here does not aim at general truths but rather is the search for enlightening contrasts, where the particular features of each system stand out in their differences. Of course, contrasts require likenesses as their essential background; therefore the point is not to catalog the similarities but to grasp what is particular to each.
What can we say in general about democracies? Because of their differences, this will have to be something merely formal, with the content being filled in differently in each particular context. But this need not be a fatal objective, because at least it may tell us something about the dimensions of comparison.
One such dimension I would like to introduce is what I call social imaginary. What I am trying to get at with this term is something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking rather of the ways in which they imagine their social existence — how they fit together with others and how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.5
I want to speak of social imaginary here rather than social theory because there are important differences between the two: (1) social imaginary is about the way ordinary people imagine their social surroundings, which is often not expressed in theoretical terms but is, instead, carried in images, stories, legends, and so on; (2) social imaginary is shared by large groups of people, if not the whole society, while theory is often the possession of a small minority; and (3) social imaginary is the common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy, while theory can circulate only among elites.
Our social imaginary at any given time is complex. It incorporates a sense of the normal expectations that we have of each other, the kind of common understanding that enables us to carry out the collective practices that make up our social life. It also incorporates some sense of how we all fit together in carrying out the common practice. This understanding is both factual and normative; that is, we have a sense of how things usually go, but this is interwoven with an idea of how they ought to go, of what missteps would invalidate the practice. Take, for example, our practice of choosing governments through general elections. For each one of us, part of the background understanding that makes sense of our act of voting is our awareness of the whole action involving all citizens, choosing each individually but from among the same alternatives and compounding these microchoices into one binding, collective decision. Essential to our understanding of what is involved in this kind of macrodecision is our ability to identify what would constitute a foul: certain kinds of influence, buying votes, threats, and the like. This kind of macrodecision has to, in other words, meet certain norms if it is to be what it is meant to be. If a minority could force all others to conform to its orders, there would cease to be a democratic decision, for instance.
The transition to democracy involves our being able to sustain together elections and the other practices and institutions of democracy, such as national elections, an operative and reasonably open public sphere, political parties and other movements engaged in peaceful mobilization, and the acceptance of a legal framework as ultimate arbiter (e.g., on who has won the election, on which laws are validly adopted). This can be seen as a change in our repertory, but it also should be understood as a transformation of our social imaginary in which we take on the kinds of understandings which can sustain these new practices. But the transition is from other such practices and imaginaries. Some of these can be crucial stepping stones in the transition — that is, with some modifications, they can be integrated into the practices of democracy. But others will be very hard to fit into a democratic dispensation and will have to be abandoned or radically modified. In some cases, again, the new regime will involve building from scratch institutions that have no relation to what went before.
Thus, transitions to democracy will be very different from each other because the people concerned are moving from very different predemocratic repertories and imaginaries and are often moving to rather different variants of democratic imaginary. And these two phases are naturally linked.
But this means that we should not think of transitions as different routes to the same (at least hoped-for) end point, a stable democracy of a normal kind. In fact, democracies are path dependent; the founding transitions they undergo mark their future.
For instance, we can compare the two great late-eighteenth-century revolutions in the West that helped to usher in democracy there: the American and the French. We note that the Americans already had within their repertory elected representative institutions, which were seen as legitimate expressions of popular will. This smoothed the path toward the first fully modern regime based on popular sovereignty, which found expression in the 1787 Constitution, which was attributed to “We, the People.” By contrast, the parallel kind of institution in France was weak, had been in abeyance for one hundred fifty years, and still was strongly marked by ancien régime features such as separate chambers for each order. Moreover, there was a vigorous tradition of popular revolt, which in one way could be built on but in another was hard to combine with democratic politics.
The American transition, if one takes into account the whole half-century from 1775 to 1825, emphasized the equality of independent agents.6 In the French case, a crucial weight came to be laid on the enacting of a common purpose, which often found a congenial intellectual formulation in the Rousseauian idea of a general will. We can see these different emphases arising in the respective transitions that began in the late eighteenth century. But they also continue to mark the political cultures of these two great democracies.7 Pierre Rosanvallon’s recent book gives an interesting illustration of this continuity in the French case.8
At the same time, in the American case, we can see the continuing influence of the political culture that evolved in the first thirty years of the new republic, which dignified individual self-reliance and initiative with the (in that context) powerfully loaded title of “independence.” This has perhaps, among other things, contributed to the relative lack of importance of trade unions in the U.S. polity — one of its striking points of contrast with France in the twentieth century.
Indeed, one of the crucial differences between the United States and many European societies lies in the fact that the spreading of the new political imaginary downward and outward took place on the Old Continent partly through the crystallization of a class imaginary of subordinate groups, particularly workers. This meant more than the sense of a common interest among, for example, mechanics, present from the first days of the republic. The class imaginary of the British Labour movement or of the French or German trade unions went beyond the sense that certain kinds of independent individuals shared an interest; it came closer to the sense of a common identity shared within a local community (e.g., in mining villages in the UK), or the volonté générale of those who share a certain community of fate, such as exploited workers. In some cases, it belongs to a political culture shaped by the Rousseauian “redaction” of the modern moral order, which was alien to the American trajectory.
So, we can think of the social imaginary of a people at a given time as a kind of repertory, including the ensemble of practices which they can make sense of. To transform society according to a new principle of legitimacy, we have to have a repertory that includes ways of meeting this principle. This requirement can be broken down into two facets: (1) the actors have to have a sense of themselves as forming a collective agent, capable of acting together; and (2) the ensemble of actors has to know what to do, has to have agreed practices in its repertory that put the new order into effect.
There have been certain modern revolutionary situations where facet 1 has been almost entirely missing. Take the Russian case, for instance: the collapse of Czarist rule in 1917 was supposed to open the way to a new republican legitimacy, which the provisional government supposed would be defined in the constituent assembly they called for the following year. But if we follow the analysis of Orlando Figes, the mass of the peasant population could not conceive of the Russian people, as a whole, as a sovereign agent.9 What they did perfectly well understand, and what they sought, was the freedom for the mir to act on its own, to divide the land that the nobles (in their view) had usurped, and to no longer suffer repression at the hands of the central government. Their social imaginary included a local collective agency, the people of the village or mir. They knew that this agency had to deal with a national government that could do them a lot of harm and, occasionally, even some good. But they had no conception of a national people that could take over sovereign power from the despotic government. Their repertory did not include collective actions of this type at the national level; what they could understand was large-scale insurrections, like the Pugachovschina, whose goal was not to take over and replace central power but to force it to be less malignant and invasive.
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- Seymour Lipset, Political Man (New York: Doubleday, 1960).
- For instance, the notion that democratic development correlates with economic development. But it turns out that some relatively low-income countries (e.g., India, Sri Lanka) live in functioning democracies while many better-off areas do not.
- See Yogendra Yadav, “Understanding the Second Democratic Upsurge: Trends of Bahujan Participation in Electoral Politics in the 1990s,” in Transforming India, ed. Francine R. Frankel, Zoya Hasan, Rajeev Bhargava, and Balveer Arora (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), 120–45.
- Montesquieu, De l’esprit des lois, vol. 11 of Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Seuil, 1964), 585 – 98.
- I have discussed these issues at greater length in Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004).
- See Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1993).
- I have discussed this in greater detail in Modern Social Imaginaries, chaps. 8 and 9.
- Pierre Rosanvallon, Le modèle politique français (Paris: Seuil, 2004).
- See Pierre Rosanvallon, Pour une histoire conceptuelle du politique, leçon inaugurale au Collège de France (Paris: Seuil, 2003): “Le peuple n’existe qu’à travers des représentations approximatives et successives de lui-même.” [The people only exists through successive and approximate representations of itself] (16).