With democratic forms of government seemingly in retreat, this blog looks at different approaches to visualising the connection between the values and beliefs held in a society with democratic forms of government.
There are three main opinions on the relationship. Some hold the view that democratic systems of government will not take root and flourish unless the values in society already favour those supportive of democracy such as moderation, fairness, civility, and a willingness to compromise. Others believe, on the contrary, that the institutional arrangements in a democracy can be engineered to bring about moderation and compromise in political behaviour despite strongly held differences in values in society. Yet others believe that societal values have their own dynamic that may sometimes be supportive of democratic political values and at other times corrosive and contribute to democratic backsliding. Institutional arrangements can have a positive influence on this dynamic but not control it.
Starting points: From the individual to the collective whole
In order to simplify discussion of these different views about the relationship between societal values and politics, it is tempting to move straight from assumptions about the character of individuals and individual behaviour to assumptions about the character and behaviour of the social and political whole.
There are three main reservations that can be made about any direct transition from the individual to the whole. The first is that it is likely to oversimplify human motivation and behaviour. Even Adam Smith, who modelled economic behaviour in the market on the assumption of self-interested behaviour, did not use self-interest for modelling other aspects of our social behaviour where he attributed a fundamental importance to our feelings of sympathy and empathy with others. Among the possible assumptions, we can model the individual as a ‘multiple self’ with a many identities and motivations. We can also think of individuals in terms of a limited set of material, emotive and normative interests, each of which needs to be satisfied.
The second class of reservation is that any direct transition from individual to societal behaviour still begs the question of why, in the pursuit of collective goals, people of varied beliefs and motives should want to coordinate and engage with others according to democratic norms. Autocratic regimes will claim that they can do better and achieve more. Perhaps the best-known response is about the importance of reciprocity in social behaviour. If individuals feel that their material and other interests and values are being considered by others in collective action, then they will respond by taking the interests and values of others into account in their own behaviour. Everyone is satisfied as long as their interests and values are not in direct conflict. Even if they are in conflict, a sense of reciprocity means that individuals will look for exchange and a fair return in their relationships and to the overall success of collective action. However, in today’s diverse societies reciprocal behaviour is unlikely to arise spontaneously. Some supportive social and political framework seems to be required.
Thirdly, any attempt at a direct transition from the individual to the collective whole ignores the importance of intermediate associations in society such as family and other social ties and group affiliations.
In the light of these reservations an alternative starting point is to go back and look at the variety of relationships possible between individual behaviour and group behaviour and how this might play into politics.
The spectrum of difference
When we think about the role of individual and group behaviour taken together the most obvious feature is the huge variety of relationships possible. Individuals adjust their own behaviour to the setting and may behave differently in the home, workplace or neighbourhood. Some groups and associations cater to very narrow interests that engage only fellow enthusiasts, while others are more outward oriented and are concerned with a wider neighbourhood or religious or other community. Some groups are organised in rather spontaneous and free-form ways, while others are top down and sanction the behaviour of members if they step out of line.
From a cognitive perspective we tend, as individuals, to have a bias towards the familiar, we like to reduce the uncertainties and ambiguities around us, and we tend to be averse to any setbacks from our present position. Memberships in groups can be positive from each perspective - in reinforcing what is familiar, in reducing the uncertainties and ambiguities we face in the world around us, and in helping to protect us against loss. But both individuals and groups can be challenged from outside. Faced with challenges to something that is important to us, both individuals and groups can react in negative ways.
Defensive thinking and behaviour
Both individuals and groups tend to react defensively to challenge by clinging to their prior positions and knowledge and by only taking on-board information that fits with their prior perceptions. Groups become liable to ‘group think’ and both individuals and groups become vulnerable to stereotyping other individuals and groups. In turn, defensive thinking can lead to defensive behaviour. Defensive behaviour may take the form of unwillingness to cooperate, but it can also lead to a struggle for power and control. The distance between groups increases.
Modern communication and the world of the internet makes vastly more information available to people and this potentially can make people and groups receptive to new and different views and less defensive. But in a world of information overload people may still prefer to associate with groups, such as in the social media, who share their own views and prejudices. We tune in to those we agree with. We tune out other views. The problems of biased assimilation of content have possibly grown more pronounced.
Traditionally, political scientists have looked to political parties to play a key mediating role in democracies. Democratic politics offers the widest form of association in a society and parties have an interest in cultivating a wide appeal so that they can win power. However, to get attention, communication in politics is short cut, ‘content lite’ and image-driven. Some parties draw their strength from an appeal to a narrow base. Party politics has been characterised as the mobilisation of bias. There is therefore no easy transition provided by political parties between the thinking and behaviour of individuals and groups in society and the norms of democratic politics such as tolerance, a willingness to listen to others and to be open to compromise. On the contrary, political parties may channel defensive thinking and behaviour.
The role of political institutions
Against this background it seems unlikely that we can count on individual and social norms to consistently support democratic norms. In today’s diverse world our preconceptions are likely to face constant challenge as social and economic conditions change. Defensive behaviour and struggles for power will be commonplace, and this will be reflected in the character of politics. The question therefore turns to how far political rules and institutions can promote, protect and stabilise democratic norms.
In order to achieve political coordination and reciprocal behaviour, there is a set of minimum institutional requirements. First, people need to understand the focal points for collective action and what is to be done where. In democracies the focal points centre on elections and representative bodies and on the growing role of expert bodies. Secondly, societies need what are known as ‘path rules’ to help allocate and sort out decision-taking and bargaining processes. Thirdly, they need statements of basic values in a political framework to provide normative guidance and benchmarks.
Establishing these minimum conditions is not straightforward. Nor, once established can they be assumed to perform as intended. Elections can be gerrymandered; elected bodies can lose their representativity. Path rules, such as those of subsidiarity and proportionality in the EU, can be side-stepped. Basic values can be subject to many different interpretations and can be manipulated.
Some political scientists therefore suggest that when social behaviour is defensive and non- cooperative, the safeguarding of democratic norms requires a more stringent set of institutions and rules of political behaviour. These include proportional representation at elections, as well as high majorities for especially important decisions and considerable degrees of policy autonomy for groups within the social whole. The purpose and aim of these conditions is to ensure as wide as possible representation in government and to require bargaining. The difficulty is that these more stringent requirements come at a cost – a tendency towards stagnation and the entrenchment of difference rather than the ability to solve collective problems.
The relationships reassessed
Amidst the challenges of contemporary society, it seems we have to recognise that individual and societal behaviour possess their own dynamic that may sometimes support democratic political values and at other times contribute to democratic backsliding. In a world where individuals and groups feel that what is important to them is under constant challenge, non-cooperative behaviour may become more prevalent, even in established democracies. There is therefore an increased urgency to keeping the institutional framework up to date and to make sure that the focal points for collective action and the rules that promote bargaining are kept under constant review and constantly refreshed. The US is an example where non-cooperative behaviour seems to have become more prevalent and of a political system unable to address collective needs – its infrastructure is out of date, its health system wildly over expensive and inaccessible, its education system hugely underperforming. Unless the US updates its political structure, it faces a continued erosion of democratic norms.
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