On Saturday, 11 March 2023, the ninth round of the ACRPS Social Sciences and Humanities Conference came underway with an opening lecture from Dr Azmi Bishara, General Director of the ACRPS and Chair of the Doha Institute Board of Trustees, titled “Remarks on Political Culture”.
Bishara began his lecture by discussing the concept of “political culture” within the civic culture project of Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, where it is defined as the values and attitudes that strengthen or weaken a given political system. Researchers are interested in the distribution of political attitudes and behaviours toward the political system and the role of the individual (the citizen) therein. Bishara defined prevalent political culture as comprising social norms as to public issues and people’s knowledge and opinions of the state, authority, socio-political hierarchy, loyalty, rights, duties, and so on. These may be extrapolated by surveying people’s opinions, whether through a set of questions given to a chosen sample of the population or, now and in the future, by probing social media after collecting, filtering, and sorting large amounts of data – all without assuming a causal relationship between orientations and political praxis (which includes adopting attitudes functionally and publicly): the two dimensions of political culture.
The speaker then shifted to critically engage with many of the analyses that hold that dominant culture in general – the culture of an entire people – or political culture directly can impact the perpetuation of authoritarian political systems. Bishara explained that he disagrees with these analyses for five reasons.
- A people do not hold a single, coherent political culture.
- To connect the nature of the system of governance with culture is purely explanatory; it is difficult to prove an obvious causal relationship between them, and researchers usually relate an extant system of governance to a culture extrapolated from surveys, polls, or interpretative analysis of the dominant culture.
- This explanation may indirectly suggest that the people participate in politics in some way; however, people living under authoritarianism are generally excluded from politics to begin with.
- While social values and customs generally organize people’s relationships within the collective or society, the individual or collective relationship to the modern state is largely imposed by the state and regulated when there is direct contact between them – with the reservation that the modern state, in its weakness relative to the strength of traditional social institutions, is strongly impacted by these institutions.
- To understand the effect of social values and conventions considered part of political culture upon political behaviour is only possible by understanding their interaction with circumstances and interests, including how these factors, the current political system, and its policies affect these values.
Bishara argued that we may categorically reject the notion that the culture of any people has a fixed essence and refute the idea that culture is a single, organic whole represented in each of its parts, whereby the whole can be derived by examining the part. However, we cannot deny a society’s culture at a given time and place; to concede that such a culture exists, with a particular language and perhaps a single religion at its core and surrounded by written and oral heritage, potent symbolism, architecture, and lifestyle, is not to imply that it has a single ethical essence, that it is a homogeneous unit in the present or a constant throughout history, nor that it is distributed among various social groups. It goes without saying, according to Bishara, that the culture of any people is neither homogeneous nor free of value-based conflicts, contradictions, and tensions. This political culture does not originate from a particular cultural essence, but from people with various sub-cultures interacting with dominant social and political conditions, from which it is impossible for a single, cohesive political culture to result. Even when a given political culture is deduced based on a prior definition of political culture given by the researcher and a typology of political cultures based on predetermined criteria as either pro- or anti-democracy or authoritarianism, then verifying their presence among a given people or social group through investigative quantitative analysis, semiotic textual interpretation, or analysis of popular inclinations on social media on the assumption of having overcome methodological challenges – even when we deduce the propagation of a given political culture, Bishara emphasized that we cannot prove a relationship between the whole of people’s actions and this political culture of theirs, especially in daily life. People’s behavioural inclinations cannot be divided into either supporting or obeying the extant regime or opposing it: they may have simply adapted to the environment.
Bishara argued that using the absence of a culture suitable for democracy in Third World countries as an explanation for the lack of democracy – based on an “axiom” that the system in the West is founded on a supportive culture – actually inverts cause and effect by assuming that democratic culture in the West predated the system. Some scholars have earnestly related this to the characteristics and features of northern peoples, starting with pre-Christian tribal councils or Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian culture. On the contrary, Bishara contended that tribal councils and collective decision-making are not particular to Germanic tribes, and that Judeo-Christian heritage, if such a thing exists beyond mechanisms that exclude the Holocaust from Judeo-Christian history, was proposed after democracies had been established. In fact, both Jewish and Christian traditions contain far more anti-democratic elements than democratic elements, the latter of which are often retroactively attributed to them.
One of the key conclusions Bishara reached is that dominant democratic culture, which contributes to the observance of the rule of law, citizens’ rights, and political pluralism, is the product of the gradual development of the democratic system and its emergence through stages such as acclimation and education over the course of more than a century in the West. Although the democratically-humble beginnings of the liberal order cannot be interpreted by any culture that came to prominence before it emerged, its origin can be explained through historical circumstances and paradoxes related to relations, conflicts, and balances between the poles of the king-aristocracy-bourgeoisie triangle that emerged in Britain and France, and due to other conditions in the United States; the subsequent development of democracy elsewhere has not emerged from the invocation of the same cultural, political, and economic environment of these countries, nor has it gone through the same process. The conditions for democratic transition in the modern world may be summarized as state stability and legitimacy, a pro-democracy elite political culture, lack of objection to the transition on part of the army and security services, and perhaps the lack of an anti-democracy regional environment.