Democracy as Ideological Engine

17 Apr

A recent worldwide study recently showed the dramatic effect of social situational factors on what we would generally view as dispositionist character traits. The study, entitled Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment, tested, through games, the fairness and punishment instincts in 15 diverse world populations. The authors found that market integration positively correlated with measures of fairness, while community size correlated positively with punishment instincts. The authors believe the study emphasizes that ‘prosociality is not solely the product of an innate psychology, but also reflects norms and institutions that have emerged over the course of human history.’ In large, market based societies, norms of fairness and punishment developed, evolutionarily, in order to help ensure the continued successful completion of mutually beneficial market transactions.

Get yer Ideologies here.

The institution of democracy strongly lurks in the background of John Jost’s paper on the elective affinities of political ideology. Jost, primarily through surveys of the populations of Western democracies, writes of how political ideologies are correlated, to a very high degree, with a person’s internal psychological traits. Jost emphasizes both top down processes, such as  ideological dissemination by elites, and bottom up processes, cognitive internal functions that lead an individual to adopt overall ideologies in accordance with their psychological needs. Jost  These two processes divide into a superstructure, a socially constructed public discourse, and a substructure, the functional and motivational attributes of individuals. Jost leaves relatively vague, in the paper, the methods of interaction between the superstructure and the substructure. I believe that lurking in Jost’s paper is the role of democracy in driving the process of elective affiliation which Jost describes.

First, authentic democracy, by its very nature, creates a bipolar or multipolar structure of elites, each disseminating a radically different ideology. The creation of this multipolar superstructure provides an open marketplace of ideologies which the citizenry can shop from. Democratic processes,  such as public deliberation and debate over policy matters, continually pit ideological stances against one another. Citizen participation, worked into the fabric of democracy through voting, encourages attention and provides a method of expressing and affirming one’s stance, which further strengthens it.

Most directly, participation happens through the act of voting. More broadly, democracies are traditionally associated with discussion and debate. Just as market transactions emphasize a certain ethics surrounding their forms, if not their substance, democracy emphasizes norms of discussion and debate for every individual. Democracies will thus create and enforce a social norm of rhetorical participation in the political debate between respective ideologies. Effective participation seems to demand the articulation and dissemination of opinions. Such a process may help provide part of an explanation for the linkage between the superstructure of elite ideological dissemination and the substructure of personal psychological situation that Jost feels remains somewhat hard to decipher.

This participation can happen both through the public act of private voting and in open conversations about politics by which an individual articulates an ideology and hence makes it their own.  Democracies are traditionally associated with discussion and debate. Democracies tend to prioritize such values. Effective participation seems to demand the articulation and dissemination of opinions, which will generally be couched in the form of principles.  Therefore, a person will be encouraged to articulate an ideology

On a larger level, democracy makes a series of normative promises about the procedures of the society which adopts it. Democracy promises the potential for changes to status quo driven by citizen participation. Much of the psychological research which Jost cites involves acceptance and justification of the status quo. In an authoritarian country, the status quo is not open to public debate. In a democracy, the status quo is open to change. People then will align themselves into groups, defined by ideologies, that either tend to favor or oppose the changes in the status quo. Also, as discussed above, democracies prize debate. In public, people tend to express their wants and needs in terms of principles rather than preferences. The process of discussion favored by a democracy may encourage groups to pick and choose principles, plucked from various sources, which are then forcibly coalesced into a semi-coherent ideology.

There seem to be a series of intriguing studies that could be conducted in this field. For instance

Is there a correlation between levels of participation in democracies (measured through voting) and overall levels of ideological coherence?

Do the structural differences between countries (parliamentary v. congressional, overall number of parties represented) have an effect on a populace’s orthogonical tendency or does every democracy tend to show ideological coherence?

Are the elective affinities of ideology present in non-Democratic countries?

Hopefully, enterprising academics will continue to explore this subject. Such research may give a better sense of whether the process that Jost describes is ‘natural’ or heavily influenced by the societal structure in which people operate.

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One Response to “Democracy as Ideological Engine”

  1. DAS April 4, 2011 at 8:47 am #

    Rio, you’re on fire.

    “Is there a correlation between levels of participation in democracies (measured through voting) and overall levels of ideological coherence?”

    This is a really interesting question given the research showing that the more people are exposed to different ideas, the less likely they are to participate in a democracy. See, e.g., Diana Mutz, Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy)

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