Building democracies may not work without prior cultural changes

It has not been known for a long time whether democratic values ​​come first in a society or in democratic institutions.

When the United States invaded Iraq in the early 2000s, President George W. Bush pledged to make the autocratic country a democracy. “Iraqi democracy will be crowned with success, and this victory will send the message from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every country,” Bush said in a November 2003 speech.

The idea that the installation of democracy in a country leads a population to recognize democratic values ​​such as respect for the rights and freedoms of all peoples often influences the foreign policy choices of the United States and other countries. However, a recent study of the attitudes of nearly 500,000 people around the world suggests that Bush and others have this equation backwards. Such interventions are likely to fail unless a country’s citizens embrace democratic values, Nature Human Behavior researchers reported on December 2.

American politicians often wonder if democratic values ​​can be better applied and disseminated or monitored by other countries, says co-author Luke Matthews, an anthropologist at the nonprofit RAND Corporation in Boston. “But there is not enough humility in the two political parties to know if we can export democracy.”

In 1950, only 20 countries were democratic, characterized by practices such as free and open electoral processes and control of executive power. By 2000, that number had risen to 60. Understanding the mechanisms by which democracies emerge – in particular, the elimination of democratic institutions or democratic values ​​- was called into question, as surveys used by social scientists to measure these values ​​only appeared. over the past decades.

However, recent research has provided a solution. Computer scientist Damian Ruck of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and others has shown that a person’s cultural values ​​are stable and then remain stable for the first decades of their life. Ruck realizes that he can use the responses of older survey participants to assess cultural values ​​from decades past.

Over 25 years, Ruck, Matthews, and colleagues studied how 476,583 adults from 109 countries answered questions on two surveys about people’s values ​​and beliefs, such as openness to others, respect for individual rights, and confidence in institutions. In the array of data since 1990, researchers have been able to suggest cultural values ​​dating back to the early 20th century. The team examines how the collective worth of people has evolved along with the evolution of a country’s political brand – a political tool used to rank countries on a scale from autocracy to democracy.

Researchers have found that a growing openness to diversity – that is, a willingness to live close to a homosexual, immigrant, or other ethnic or ethnic group – can lead to the transition from ‘one country to another. three years Higher political values ​​or greater democracy preceded decades. The researchers did not see a change in the other direction: the establishment of a democracy does not lead to greater openness.

The researchers also identified another signal that could point to a country’s political future. A lack of trust in government institutions strongly predicted a change in the type of government in 30 years, with democracies likely to transition to autocracies like no other.

Taken together, the findings can explain much of the political turmoil of the past century. The idea that values ​​must change before the transition to democracy explains, for example, the United States’ difficulty establishing permanent autocracies in autocratic regions like Iraq and Afghanistan, the researchers said. Persistent mistrust of institutions is why South American countries like Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela fluctuate across the political spectrum, the team argues.

The models followed may also explain outliers, such as Japan’s transition to democracy after WWII, Matthews said. At this point, the United States spent seven years rebuilding Japan after the war and instilling democratic values. At the same time, the Japanese lost their old complete confidence in their rulers. The combination of these factors creates the conditions for unlikely political change, Matthews said.

Sociologist Robert Woodberry of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, agrees with the overall conclusion, but said the authors missed a step. “What causes changes in values?” He asked.

That’s a question for further research, according to Matthews. However, he said, measuring the values ​​of the population as well as the dependence of the population on government institutions could help policymakers identify countries where the installation of democracy is not possible. .

The study’s findings also have broader implications, according to Ruck. Research elsewhere shows that trust in the institution, high in the 20th century, has declined around the world. People are used to autocracies moving to democracies and assuming that’s the norm, Ruck said. However, this research shows that the current loss of trust in institutions threatens even a stable democracy in the United States and Europe.

Political battle expert Monty Marshall agrees. This study provides further evidence that world leaders should be concerned about the current political situation, says Marshall of the Center for Systemic Peace in Vienna, Virginia, a nonprofit that researches political violence in a sustained global context. “Democracy is fragile and if we don’t work to maintain it, it will fall.”

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