THE CULTURE OF DEMOCRACY
A Civic Culture
Democracy is more than the sum of its institutions. A
healthy democracy depends in large part on the
development of a democratic civic culture. Culture in this
sense, points out Diane Ravitch, does not refer to art,
literature, or music, but to "the behaviors, practices, and norms
that define the ability of a people to govern
"A totalitarian political system," she writes, "encourages a
culture of passivity and apathy. The regime seeks
to mold an obedient and docile citizenry. By contrast, the civic
culture of a democratic society is shaped by the
freely chosen activities of individuals and groups. Citizens in
a free society pursue their interests, exercise their
rights, and take responsibility for their own lives. They make
their own decisions about where they will work,
what kind of work they will do, where they will live, whether to
join a political party, what to read, and so on.
These are personal decisions, not political decisions."
Literature, art, drama, and film--the artistic expression of
a society's culture--also exist independently of
government. A democratic society may support or otherwise
encourage artists and writers, but it does not set
artistic standards, pass judgment on the worth of artistic
endeavors, or censor artistic expression. Artists are not
employees or servants of the state. The primary contribution of
a democracy to art is freedom--to create, to
experiment, to explore the world of the human mind and spirit.
Democracy and Education
Education is a vital component of any society, but
especially of a democracy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: "If
a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of
civilization, it expects what never was and never shall
In contrast to authoritarian societies that seek to
inculcate an attitude of passive acceptance, the object of
democratic education is to produce citizens who are independent,
questioning, and analytical in their outlook, yet
deeply familiar with the precepts and practices of democracy.
Vanderbilt professor Chester E. Finn, Jr., said in
his address to educators in Nicaragua: "People may be born with
an appetite for personal freedom, but they are
not born with knowledge about the social and political
arrangements that make freedom possible over time for
themselves and their children....Such things must be acquired.
They must be learned."
From this perspective, it is not enough to say that the task
of education in a democracy is simply to avoid the
indoctrination of authoritarian regimes and provide instruction
that is neutral concerning political values. That is
impossible: All education transmits values, intended or not.
Students can indeed be taught the principles of
democracy in a spirit of open inquiry that is itself an important
democratic value. At the same time, students are
encouraged to challenge conventional thinking with reasoned
arguments and careful research. There may be
vigorous debate, but democracy's textbooks should not simply
ignore events or facts that are unpleasant or
"Education plays a singular role in free societies," Finn
states. "While the education systems of other regimes
are tools of those regimes, in a democracy the regime is the
servant of the people, people whose capacity to
create, sustain, and improve that regime depends in large measure
on the quality and effectiveness of the
educational arrangements through which they pass. In a
democracy, it can fairly be said, education enables
freedom itself to flourish over time."
Conflict, Compromise, and Consensus
Human beings possess a variety of sometimes contradictory
desires. People want safety yet relish adventure;
they aspire to individual freedom yet demand social equality.
Democracy is no different, and it is important to recognize
that many of these tensions, even paradoxes, are
present in every democratic society. According to Larry Diamond,
coeditor of the Journal of Democracy
and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a central
paradox exists between conflict and consensus.
Democracy is in many ways nothing more than a set of rules for
managing conflict. At the same time, this
conflict must be managed within certain limits and result in
compromises, consensus, or other agreements that all
sides accept as legitimate. An overemphasis on one side of the
equation can threaten the entire undertaking. If
groups perceive democracy as nothing more than a forum in which
they can press their demands, the society can
shatter from within. If the government exerts excessive pressure
to achieve consensus, stifling the voices of the
people, the society can be crushed from above.
The answer is that there is no single or easy answer.
Democracy is not a machine that runs by itself once the
proper principles and procedures are inserted. A democratic
society needs the commitment of citizens who
accept the inevitability of conflict as well as the necessity for
It is important to recognize that many conflicts in a
democratic society are not between clear-cut "right" and
"wrong" but between differing interpretations of democratic
rights and social priorities. In the United States,
there are many such debates. Is it proper, for example, to
allocate a certain percentage of jobs to minority
groups that have traditionally suffered from discrimination?
Does the state have the right to expropriate
someone's home for a badly needed road? Whose rights prevail when
the society seeks to prohibit logging in the
name of wilderness preservation, but at the cost of job losses
and economic devastation to small communities
dependent upon the lumber industry? Are the rights of citizens
violated, or are those of the community
protected, if the police stop people at random to curtail drug
These are not easy questions, and the broad precepts of
democracy only provide guidelines for addressing
and analyzing these issues. Indeed, the answers may change over
time. It is for this reason that the culture of
democracy is so important to develop. Individuals and groups
must be willing, at a minimum, to tolerate each
other's differences, recognizing that the other side has valid
rights and a legitimate point of view. The various
sides to a dispute, whether in a local neighborhood or national
parliament, can then meet in a spirit of
compromise and seek a specific solution that builds on the
general principle of majority rule and minority rights.
In some instances, a formal vote may be necessary, but often
groups can reach an informal consensus or
accommodation through debate and compromise. These processes
have the added benefit of building the trust
necessary to resolve future problems.
"Coalition-building," Diane Ravitch observes, "is the
essence of democratic action. It teaches interest groups
to negotiate with others, to compromise and to work within the
constitutional system. By working to establish
coalition, groups with differences learn how to argue peaceably,
how to pursue their goals in a democratic
manner, and ultimately how to live in a world of diversity."
Democracy is not a set of revealed, unchanging truths but
the mechanism by which, through the clash and
compromise of ideas, individuals and institutions, the people
can, however imperfectly, reach for truth.
Democracy is pragmatic. Ideas and solutions to problems are not
tested against a rigid ideology but tried in the
real world where they can be argued over and changed, accepted or
Self-government cannot protect against mistakes, end ethnic
strife, or guarantee economic prosperity. It does,
however, allow for the debate and examination that can identify
mistakes, permit groups to meet and resolve
differences, and offer opportunities for innovation and
investment that are the engines of economic growth.
The Rule of Law
Politics, Economics, and Pluralism
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