Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.

University President & Professor of Political Science








Modern constitutional democracy, as a functioning and enduring system of government, has worked quite well in some of the world's political societies, but has been less than a shining success in many others. Constitutional, representative democracy has been most hardy and resilient in six English-speaking societies--the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland, and Great Britain (not including the Northern Ireland region)--and in certain West European societies, particularly Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries. In the post-World War II era, other West European countries and Japan have had appreciable degrees of success in establishing and maintaining constitutional democratic political regimes. Most African, Asian and Latin American societies, however, have encountered serious difficulties in their efforts to operate such regimes. In many of the non-Anglophone and non-West European societies, experiments with constitutional democracy have ended in complete failure, resulting in the emergence or reemergence of dictatorship. In some of these societies, efforts to establish and operate constitutional democratic regimes have never been made.

From the end of World War II in 1945 to the political developments of the late 1980s and early 1990s, virtually all of the political societies in East Central Europe and the Balkans were Communist-ruled one-party states, most of them puppet states whose regimes were installed and controlled by the Soviet Union. That vast chunk of the Eurasian land mass known, throughout the greater part of the twentieth century, as the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" was one big Communist-ruled one-party state. Despite recent developments in the former Eastern Bloc--the collapse of the Communist one-party regimes and the dissolution of the Soviet Union--it remains to be seen whether the countries located in East Central Europe, the Balkans, and the territory of the late U.S.S.R. can and will make the transition from authoritarianism to viable and enduring political regimes characterized by constitutionalism and the rule of law as well as the forms and processes of representative democracy.

Why are some societies more successful than others in developing and operating constitutional democratic political institutions? The cause of this difference among the political societies of the world lies primarily in political culture--in the variations in political culture from society to society. A society's degree of success in operating a governmental system that is both constitutionalist and democratic in character depends, to a very large extent, upon the nature and content of the political culture of that society. For constitutional democracy to work, the society's political culture must be compatible with and support the very concepts of constitutionalism, the rule of law, and representative democracy--as well as be consistent with and sustain the country's established, agreed-upon Constitution, including the constitutionally prescribed procedures for managing and resolving controversy over public questions, making and carrying out authoritative decisions on public policy, protecting the rights and liberties of citizens, and peacefully transferring governing authority from one group of political leaders to another.

What is a political culture? How does a person acquire a political culture? What is political socialization? What is the content of a political culture? What are basic political values and norms? What are basic political beliefs? What is the relationship between a society's political culture and its political regime? What type of political culture permits development and operation of and provides sustenance for a governmental system that is genuinely constitutional, representative, and democratic in character?

1. Political Culture--Definition and Description:

Political Culture--A Definition. Political culture, one very important aspect of a society's general culture, is concerned with (1) the nature and exercise of political power, (2) the purposes for which political power is employed, and (3) the distribution of political power within the society at large as well as within the society's governmental system. In a political society characterized by a relatively high degree of unity and stability (e.g., the U.S.A. or Great Britain), the political culture is that society's common and characteristic perspective, or outlook, regarding politics and government. The political culture consists of the basic orientations of the society's members toward their system of government and toward the acquisition, exercise, retention, and transfer of political authority. The political culture is comprised of fundamental political attitudes, values, beliefs, and feelings that are deep-seated in the society's general culture and widely shared by its population, including both the masses and the elites. These basic political attitudes, values, beliefs, and feelings are set ideas and views about political phenomena, including the normal and legitimate channels through which political conflict within the society is managed and resolved. They are a set part of the people's traditional and customary patterns of political thought and emotional reactions to political stimuli--their ingrained habits of mind and action in responding to political stimuli within their environment.

Political Socialization--How a Political Culture Is Acquired. The political culture of a society, like its general culture, is the product of experience and learning. A society's political culture is the result of (1) the entire society's past and present experience and (2) the personal learning experiences which help transmit the society's basic political attitudes, values, norms, beliefs, and views to each individual member of the society. The political culture, in other words, is the product of (1) the society's political history and development and (2) the process of political socialization to which all of the society's members are subjected.

Political socialization is the learning process by which a society's political culture is passed on from one generation to the next. Political socialization occurs through informal acculturation--the informal experiences which condition children and adapt adult immigrants to the political culture. The process is also carried on through formal acculturation--through deliberate, consciously planned programs of political education and indoctrination.

Generally, the most important instruments of political socialization are the family and the school. Other important agencies of political socialization include religious institutions, youth groups, and other formal organizations as well as the mass media and informal groups (e.g., peer groups and work associates).

In the U.S.A., the process of political socialization is, most of the time, carried on automatically and unconsciously. The individual members of American society are conditioned and programmed by their society and common culture to pass the culture--including the political culture--on to the youth, and to do this this without thinking about it. Normally, political socialization is a natural and intrinsic part of (1) child rearing in the home, (2) teaching and learning in the schools, (3) religious and moral training in church and synagogue-sponsored activities and programs, (4) activities of counselors and Scoutmasters in youth organizations, and (5) the exertion of influence by peer groups.

The Content of a Political Culture. Among other things, a political culture consists of (1) basic political values and norms and (2) basic political beliefs.

The basic political values and norms comprising a political culture are fundamental value judgements about what ought to be, politically--fundamental value judgements about what should be, politically. They include ideas, views, and expectations regarding two important questions--(1) how government ought to be conducted and (2) what government should attempt to accomplish.

Basic political values and norms, as regards the general question of how government ought to be conducted, include ideas, views, and expectations concerning the more specific question as to what the rules of the political game ought to be: What should be the rules, procedures, and processes by which (1) authoritative decisions on government policy are made and carried out and (2) the major authoritative decisionmakers in the government are selected? Basic values and norms relating to the proper and desirable operation of government also include ideas, views, and expectations regarding (1) what ought to be the relationship between the rulers and the ruled and (2) what should be the power relationships among the different parts of the governmental system--e.g., among the legislative, executive, and judicial organs of government, between the military establishment and the top civilian officeholders in the government, and between the central government and the local and regional units of government.

Basic political values and norms regarding the second general question, the question as to what government should try to do, include ideas, views, and expectations pertaining to the following closely related and overlapping matters: (1) What is the proper and legitimate scope of governmental activity, and conversely, what are its proper limits? (2) What is and what is not a proper function of government? (3) Which concerns properly belong in the public sphere and which properly belong in the private sphere? (4) Where should the legitimate authority of government end and the legitimate rights of the individual members of society begin? (5) How large and important a role should government play in society and in the life of the individual citizen?

Whether a society's basic political values and norms relate to how government ought to be conducted or what it should try to accomplish, or to both, they are criteria by which the individuals and groups making up the society measure the legitimacy, wisdom, justice, or desirability of political behavior and objectives. The basic political values and norms are standards by which the people can judge or evaluate the goodness or badness of the political activities and goals of individual citizens, private groups, political parties and factions, candidates for public office, and, above all, the persons occupying the institutions and offices of the government. Basic political values and norms are general guides for one's own political conduct and standards for his judging the political behavior of others, including the decisions of the government and the manner in which the decisions were made and are being carried out.

As guides to political behavior, a society's fundamental political values and norms indicate how the individual member of the society is expected to react to particular political events, how he is expected to respond to particular political stimuli. They indicate, for example, how the ordinary citizen is expected to react to public disclosure of malfeasance (misconduct and dishonestty) in government office, the expected public reaction of an incumbent government officeholder when defeated in his bid for reelection, and how the individual citizen is expected to react to his being exposed to what he perceives to be subversive or revolutionary political propaganda.

One might refer to these fundamental political values and norms as "political morals." They are the society's standards of right and wrong political conduct and its definitions of good and bad means and ends of governmental decisionmaking and action. In short, basic political values and norms, components of the society's political culture, function as guides to proper and accepted political behavior within society--and, by the way, guides to the government's behavior in foreign affairs and international relations as well to its conduct regarding internal affairs, or domestic public policy.

Basic political beliefs, as distinguished from basic political values and norms, relate to what the existing political situation is, rather than to what it ought to be, or should be. The basic political beliefs comprising a society's political culture are human perceptions of political reality. A political perception, or belief, is how one sees and interprets the political world around him, how he sees things or forces in his political environment.

In a relatively stable and united society, basic political beliefs--fundamental perceptions of what is, politically--are widely shared among the population comprising the society. They are how most people in the society perceive political events, developments, and processes. The basic political beliefs of the society are perceptions regarding (1) how government actually is conducted, (2) what the rules of the political game actually are, (3) what is the actual location or distribution of political power in the governmental system and/or in the society at large, (4) what is the actual relationship between those in society who govern and those who are governed, (5) whether the exercise of political authority by the government is legitimate or illegitimate, (6) what the outcomes of governmental decisionmaking actually are, i.e., what the government actually does, as distinguished from what it intends to do or what its spokesmen say the government will do, (7) what is the extent to which human problems actually can be solved through governmental decisionmaking and action, and (8) whether or not the average citizen actually has the capacity to participate in politics in a reasonable and constructive manner.

Many of the fundamental beliefs making up an important segment of a society's political culture relate to the general nature and operation of the governmental system and give answers to such questions as the following:

      Are the institutions and processes of government to be
      viewed with pride and trust, or are they to be viewed
      with fear and distrust?
      Does the government exist to serve the people, or is it
      a major predatory force within society, robbing and op-
      pressing the people and denying them any real voice in
      determining who governs society and the purposes for
      which political authority is exercised?
      Is political authority being properly and legitimately
      exercised by the current governing elite, or are the
      rulers violating the law and exceeding their authority
      under the law?  If the latter is the case, is this kind
      of behavior on the part of public officials an aberation
      that can be corrected by peaceful and legal means (e.g.,
      through elections, checks and balances, and recourse to
      the courts), or is it the normal and inevidable mode of
      conduct of any and all persons who hold government office
      and exercise political authority?
      Are the legal rights of citizens being respected and pro-
      tected by those who govern society, or are these rights
      being ignored and violated with impunity?
      Are government officeholders really concerned with pro-
      tecting the persons and property of law-abiding citizens,
      or have they sold out to the criminal and subversive
      elements within the society?
      Are elections conducted honestly and fairly, or are they
      rigged to prevent any genuine political competition and
      to thereby perpetuate the power of the current ruling
      Did the present governing elite acquire political author-
      ity by legitimate means, or did its members illegally rig
      elections in their favor and/or resort to acts of violence
      and oppression to intimidate the voters and eliminate po-
      litical rivals?
      Does the existing government have a rightful claim to the
      loyalty and obedience of the citizenry, or has it forfeit-
      ed its right to popular support and allegiance by its per-
      sistent determination to abuse political authority and rule
      in a tyrannical manner?
      Can peaceful political action be employed to effect a
      change in governing elites, or is it necessary to over-
      throw the existing government by means of armed force and

      If the decisions of the government are to be complied with,
      are they to be obeyed because of the citizen's loyalty to
      and support of a government widely recognized as legiti-
      mate, or because of his fear of punishment and persecution
      if he does not obey the commands of a government widely
      considered to be illegitimate?
      Can the power of government be defined and limited by law,
      or is political power, by its very nature, absolute and
      therefore cannot be effectively limited by constitutional
      and statutory provisions or by the decisions of courts of
      Can political power in a governmental system be divided and
      distributed among separate and largely independent organs
      of government, or is political power, by its very nature,
      indivisible and hence must reside in one person or one co-
      hesive group?
      Can the legislative authority of government be exercised by
      a representative assembly elected by the voters, or must
      all the powers of government--legislative, executive, and
      judicial--be exercised exclusively by a single ruler who
      rules by divine right and who, as the viceroy of God on
      earth, cannot be wrong, his word therefore being the law of
      the land--law which cannot be questioned or criticized by
      any of the ruler's subjects.


Return to Top of Page

Return to Beginning of PSc. 201H Course


Go to Part Two, Section F, Page Two