How does culture affect the emergence and survival of democracy?

What a great question.

In my own work across multiple disciplines, a theme that keeps recurring is that culture is one of the strongest memetic forces in existence — culture dominates nearly every human action and decision, both individually and collectively. Culture is often stronger than religion — so strong that religion tends to conform to culture over time. Culture is stronger than political economy — it informs how governance and economy actually function, regardless of expressed ideals or principles. I’ll offer a few examples that seem to nibble around the edges of cultural dominance:

1. Russian culture habitually gravitates toward strong man autocrats, regardless of their underlying system of government. Tsars were replaced with authoritarian dictators, despite communism and then democracy claiming to represent “the will of the people.” The failure of communism and democracy in Russia are, IMO, a product of a deep and enduring cultural propensity to elevate and uphold a strong man autocrat.

2. Genital mutilation of girls and women continues to occur even where it opposed or unsupported by the dominant religion for centuries. FGM is not supported by the Quran, nor by a majority of hadith (though there are some that seem to support a more limited practice), and some fatwas have even been issued forbidding it — and yet is occurs Muslim countries as a routine practice. It also occurs in neighboring Christian countries, where it has no scriptural basis and was opposed by the earliest Christian missionaries. Why does it persist? Because this *****cultural practice***** preceded both of these religions…and those cultures won’t let it die.

3. Misogyny and oppression of women persists in cultures where Christianity is the dominant religion — despite the fact that the New Testament is full of liberating feminist themes that were truly extraordinary for their time (see excerpt from A Progressive’s Guide to the New Testament.pdf). Again, this is because the culture preceding exposure to Christianity was profoundly patriarchal, often treating women as mere property or brood mares, and those cultural practices and attitudes simply resisted religious reforms.

4. Democracy consistently fails when the culture in which it is being implemented has preexisting power structures that oppose democratic civic institutions. This has been almost universally true — whether it is the consequences of the Arab Spring, U.S. “nation-building,” or some other abrupt introduction of democracy. Whenever the existing cultural power hierarchies (i.e.deference to military or religious authority; deep-seated tribalistic conflicts; economies and governments where bribes, kickbacks and corruption are the norm; etc.) is challenged by democracy, democracy eventually fails.

5. Even where democracy thrives for a time, it can eventually be eroded by culture. There is probably no better example of this than the United States. Although founded on the democratic principles of a republic, the U.S. has also had deeply-seated plutocratic, racist, patriarchal memes in its culture from the beginning. For example, a majority of the Founding Fathers envisioned wealthy white men who owned land as having the most justifiable power in society — at first, those were often the only citizens who could even vote (for U.S. Senators, in certain localities, etc.). Even John Adams — frequently the most progressive-thinking Founder — believed women and the poor should be excluded from voting (see John Adams letter to to James Sullivan). And so, over time, we saw the continued march of racist, sexist plutocracy weakening democratic institutions in the U.S. The invention of “corporate personhood” by a court clerk in 1886; resistance to voting rights for minorities and women for over a century; today, the active disenfranchisement of minority communities by the GOP; unfettered corporate influence in U.S. politics (via lobbyists, A.L.E.C., RAGA, Citizens United ruling, etc.); revolving door politics; and of course neoliberal crony capitalism that captures elected officials and regulatory agencies (see L7 Neoliberalism). So the U.S., once envisioned as a beacon of democratic values, has become a de facto oligarchy. In the same way, the cultural meme of “rugged individualism” has also undermined democratic function, as it confuses atomism and egotistical self-absorption with a “liberty” that must actually be agreed upon by everyone in society (see The Goldilocks Zone of Integral Liberty).

So the answer to the OP’s question: “How does culture affect the emergence and survival of democracy?” Is that strong cultural memes simply preempt or override interobjective structures in society as a matter of social function. It is more important what I learn from my parents, peers, immediate community and cultural tribe than any formalized, institutional elements of civil society. Democracy may seem like a great idea to a society longing to be free — just as a particular religion may seem like it resonates with prosocial values that are important to a given society — but longstanding cultural practices and groupthink can override or undermine both. Nowhere is this more evident than the election of someone like Donald Trump to office, with his ongoing support from Christian evangelicals and other religious conservatives — a person who demonstrates disdainful disregard for democratic civic institutions and most spiritual values, but is wildly popular among the cultural proponents of plutocracy, corporatocracy, misogyny, patriarchy, xenophobia, and the superiority of the white race.

My 2 cents.


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