Civic Culture Research Paper

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Civic Culture theory asserts that democracy is stable or consolidated when specifically democratic attitudes and practices combine and function in equilibrium with certain non-democratic ones. It was formulated and tested in empirical research in the late 1950s and early 1960s, years still reverberating with the memories of the rise of Communism and Fascism, the collapse of democracy and the catastrophes of World War II. It drew from a contemporary social science literature similarly influenced by the interwar history of the stalemated Third French Republic, the deeply flawed Weimar Germany, the Austrian and Spanish civil wars, and the breakdown of the Fourth French Republic.

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It could point to the long tradition in political theory of ‘mixed government,’ from Plato and Aristotle through to Montesquieu, which supported this anti-populism and prudentialism. Among the post-World War II social science influences were works of Joseph Schumpeter, Paul Lazarsfeld and Bernard Berelson, Edward Shils, Robert A. Dahl, and Harry Eckstein, among others.

Schumpeter rejected the ‘classic democratic’ assumption of the necessity of an informed, activist, rational public for a genuine democracy, and proposed in its place, an ‘elites competing for votes’ theory (Schumpeter 1947, Chaps. 21 and 22). This minimalist theory could be reconciled with more realistic assumptions of a relatively ignorant and indifferent demos.

Paul Lazarsfeld and Bernard Berelson, theorizing from their ‘panel’ voting studies of the 1940s similarly saw democracy as associated with a set of cultural and social conditions having the effect of limiting the intensity of social conflict. These included relative economic and social stability, a pluralistic social organization, a basic value consensus. and what we would now call a ‘civil society.’ They described a democratic equilibrium as involving mixes of involvement and indifference, stability and flexibility, consensus and cleavage ( Berelson et al. 1954).

Edward Shils, on the democratic prospects of the new nations, emphasized the importance of a ‘widely dispersed civility.’ By this he meant a moderate sense of nationality, a degree of interest in public affairs, a consensus on values, institutions, and practices, and a recognition of individual rights and obligations. He wrote ‘ … These qualities should not be intense, and they need not be either equally or universally shared.’ ( Shils 1960, pp. 387ff.)

Robert Dahl’s theory of polyarchy, elaborated in 1956 in a full-length contrast with populistic and Madisonian democracy, belongs among these early social science influences on the civic culture. His early characterization of the American political system as providing ‘ … a high probability that any active and legitimate group will make itself heard effectively at some stage in the process of decision … ’ (Dahl 1956, p. 145; see also Dahl 1970; Dahl 1989) reflected the minimalist mood that Dahl shared with the generation that emerged out of the great depression and World War II. At the time that The Civic Culture was being written, Dahl’s concept of polyarchy already had introduced an empirically grounded and quantitative set of concepts into democratic theorizing. Democracy was not an essence. In its full sense it did not exist, and probably could not exist. Hence the concept polyarchy was developed to refer to real political entities which attained measured performance levels on specified empirical dimensions.

Harry Eckstein was the first to emphasize the ‘mixed’ or paradoxical side of democracy, recognizing the necessity for a democracy not only to represent and formulate the will of the public, but to govern it authoritatively. In his Theory of Stable Democracy he describes some of the qualities which enable democracies to reconcile responsible authority and democratic responsiveness. Such reconciliation is facilitated by balances among contrasting qualities; participant behavior is balanced by deference to authority, dogmatism by pragmatism, and the like. Institutionally he attributes democratic stability to the degree to which social authority patterns coincide or are ‘congruent’ with political ones.

Civic culture theory had the advantage of being formulated in the context of a major empirical investigation informed by this historical experience, and benefiting from this prior research and scholarship. Its results were reported in book form in 1963, in paperback form in 1965; and were reprinted in 1989 (Almond and Verba, 1963, 1965, 1989) and remains in print as of this publication. It was widely reviewed in social science periodicals and in 1980 a retrospective volume was published with critiques of the theory and the findings (Almond and Verba 1980).

The data were made available in the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan, and have been utilized in many secondary studies.

Four of the five countries that it investigated were chosen because they exemplified democratic stability and instability in the first half of the twentieth century—the United Kingdom and the United States exemplifying stability on the one hand—Germany and Italy exemplifying democratic instability and break- down on the other. The fifth, Mexico, was a target of opportunity, selected with the thought that it might provide some insight into problems of democratization outside the North American-European area. The method used in the study, of combining structured and open-ended questions administered to probability samples of national populations, provided a richer set of data specifically responsive to questions arising out of this historical experience and body of speculative theory.

The conception of stable democratic political culture as a ‘mixed’ political culture received a fuller elaboration than it had been given in the earlier work of Berelson and Lazarsfeld and Eckstein. The mix of democratic political culture was based on political role theory. People in stable democracies were both citizens and subjects, and they needed to accommodate their non-political, private, and parochial roles. A thriving, stable democracy consists not only of voters, demonstrators, petition signers, and politician button-holers; but of taxpayers, jurors, and military conscripts; as well as parents, mates, work-persons, voluntary association-members, vacationers, and private, selfinvolved individuals.

It is this mix of roles—participant as well as subject, non-political as well as political—that democratic citizens of a stable democracy must balance and accommodate; and which their institutions must choreograph in a process of converting demands and supports into outputs and outcomes. To shift metaphors, civic culture theory was an equilibrium theory in which political buyers and sellers reach prices at which the political market is cleared. Civic culture theory specified what conditions had to be present in order to clear these markets.

These mixes and balances were located empirically in the British and American cases in the late 1950s and early 1960s—this combination of influentialism and deferentialism, involvement and indifference, conflictual and consensual attitudes, principled and instrumental ones, The relative absence of these balances in the German and Italian cases was noticeable. There was more deferentialism and less participationism in the British case than in the American. A ‘reserve of influence’ was also noted in the American and British cases, based on the finding that Americans and the British acknowledged the obligation to participate far more frequently than they reported actually participating, This discrepancy between performance and obligation could be viewed as a kind of ‘default’ mode, a reserve supply of participatory energy available for crises. The civic culture would run cool normally and at a moderate speed, but it had a reserve of influence to draw upon in the twists and turns of democratic politics, as the concerns and interests of different groups of voters were engaged.

By the time the retrospective volume, The Civic Culture Revisited was published in 1980 it was evident that British and American civic culture were in trouble (Almond and Verba 1980, Chaps. 5 and 6).

The balance of consensus and conflict had moved toward conflict; pride in nation and confidence in government were down. Participationism had declined. In contrast Germany showed dramatic gains in social trustfulness, confidence in government, and civic competence (Almond and Verba 1980, Chap. 7). In Italy political alienation and extreme partisan antagonism continued largely unchanged. In Mexico the political culture of ambivalent belief in the legitimacy of the democratic revolution, and the corruption of politicians and office-holders, also still survived (Almond and Verba 1980, Chap. 9).

That patterns of political culture would change in response to changes in economy, demography, politics and public policy, communications technology, and popular education should not have occasioned surprise. That the exemplars of the civic culture of the 1950s—Britain and the United States—should be showing signs of wear and tear in the 1970s and 1980s; and that the problem child of democracy—Germany—was showing strong signs of an emerging civic culture, were not causes for rejecting civic culture theory. The question was whether the changes observed in the two decades after the civic culture study, were in a direction which sustained or disproved the theory. The evidence was moderately supportive of the theory. Thus, for example, the withdrawal of Johnson from the 1968 presidential race, despite the fact that political tradition would have legitimized another term of office, and the resignation of Nixon from the presidency in the 1970s were clear evidences of American instability; and the political disorders of the 1960s and 1970s were clear evidences of cultural disequilibria of one kind or another—conflict had undermined consensus, the legitimacy of government had declined, the modes of participation had radicalized. In contrast Germany had had several decades of experience of effective political leadership and remarkable economic growth appearing to produce a moderating koalition-fahig partisanship, growing popular trust in government, civic obligation, and the like.

The place of civic culture theory in the contemporary theory of democracy is in some doubt. In the continuing theoretic polemic about the nature of democracy anything settling for less than perfection partakes of sin. It was precisely to avoid this commingling of the sacred and the secular that led Robert Dahl to invent the concept of polyarchy and to place the concept of democracy somewhat, but not completely, off limits. However Dahl’s Polyarchy III (which is the closest to ultimate democracy that he gets) is achieved through increasing the depth and extent of attentive publics within the larger mass public, corresponding to the significant issues confronting the polity and policy elites. Modern information technology makes it possible that this gap between policy elites and the mass public might be significantly reduced (Dahl 1989, pp. 338 ff.).

The state of the polemic regarding the competence, rationality, and potential effectiveness of mass publics in contemporary polyarchies is well argued in a symposium held during the 1990s. The merits of the various options—elitism, inventive utilization of information technology, or reducing the scope of politics—are among the issues debated (Friedman 1999).

Civic Culture theory might have enriched this discussion somewhat by affirming the legitimacy of other than political claims upon humankind. If one views the full range of role demands on the time and resources of humans, how do we choose among them? How do these choices interact? What are the tradeoffs, synergies, and opportunity costs? How do we weight the claims of the civic world against the demands of profession, family, edification, and pleasure?


  1. Almond G A, Verba S 1963 The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Fi e Nations. Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ. Reprinted in 1965 by Boston, Little Brown & Co., and in 1989 by Sage Publications, Newbury Park, CA
  2. Almond G A, Verba S (eds.) 1980 The Civic Culture Revisited. Little Brown & Co., Boston. Reprinted in 1989 Sage Publications Newbury Park, CA
  3. Berelson B, Lazarsfeld P, McPhee W 1954 Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Political Campaign. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Chap.14
  4. Dahl R A 1956 A Preface to Democratic Theory. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 145
  5. Dahl R A 1970 Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven, CT
  6. Dahl R A 1989 Democracy and Its Critics. Yale University Press New Haven, CT, pp. 338 ff
  7. Friedman J (ed.) 1999 Special Issue: Public ignorance and democratic theory. Critical Review; An Interdisciplinary Journal of Poliltics and Society 12(4)
  8. Schumpeter J A 1947 Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Harper and Brothers, New York, Chap. 21 and 22
  9. Shils E 1960 Political Development in The New States. Mouton, The Hague, The Netherlands, pp. 387 ff.
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