The Culture of Democracy

The Culture of Democracy

John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778.

Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought
by James T. Kloppenberg
Oxford University Press, 2016, 912 pp.

A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley
by Jane Kamensky
W.W. Norton, 2017, 544 pp.

We have long known that creating democracy is more than a matter of installing the right political plumbing. Constitutions and voting systems may be democracy’s necessary conditions, but they alone are insufficient. Political machinery, no matter how carefully crafted, depends upon shared behaviors and habits of mind—what historians and political scientists often call “political culture.”

The term first came to prominence around 1963, when political scientists Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba published a study that used the relatively new tool of opinion surveys to identify attitudes about power and the state held by citizens of five democratic nations. The survey data, they claimed, revealed the existence of distinct national “political cultures” that favored or inhibited the establishment of enduring representative governments. They argued that the “civic culture”—an essentially Anglo-American political culture that blended a habit of deliberation with respect for the state—offered the best chance for creating stable democratic politics.

Political culture proved to be an attractive and protean idea. Almond and Verba’s work clothed an old argument about the cultural basis of politics in a mantle of cutting-edge scholarly rigor. Historians were quick to embrace the possibilities that this offered. Mainstream scholars of the American Revolution, in particular, saw a way for political history to assimilate compelling new work on revolutionary culture and society emerging from scholars on the left: studies of mariners and crowds in revolutionary politics, new histories of political action by the enslaved and disenfranchised. When women’s history appeared in the 1970s, it too found a logical place within this paradigm.

Historians’ investment in political culture paid quick dividends by creating longer-term deficits. Scholars of the revolutionary era seized on the language of political culture while leaving their methods perilously loose. Some influential authors, such as Gordon Wood, made lavish use of allied terms like “ideology” without defining them at all. The result, predictably, was a rather muddy sense that “culture” mattered, but little clarity about what culture was or how it actually affected politics. These errors have compounded with the passage of time. Tod...