The Nature of Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
The liberal democratic state itself must play a role in the cultural creation of the free
and equal citizens in whose name it rules.
Civic culture provides the resources for civic education. Civic education reproduces and strengthens civic culture.
The cultural creation of free and equal individuals
The form of political association known as liberal democracy makes extraordinary cultural demands on those who live under it. In a liberal democracy, the state is committed to treat all citizens as individuals and to treat all individuals equally. But, in a developmental sense, human beings are never free and equal individuals first. Free and equal individuals, i.e., human beings who effectively regard themselves as such and behave accordingly, are made rather than found. They are produced through the influence of a special kind of political culture.
Human beings first (in a developmental sense) are members of families and communities distinguished by ethnic, class, and religious cultural perspectives. Ethnic, class, and religious communities shape human desire and self-understanding in accordance with some more or less coherent world view or conception of the good life. As such, they introduce values and standards of conduct that establish a system of "preferences" -- i.e., differentials of rank, status, and relative worth. Human beings whose self-understanding is shaped by these standards identify themselves and one another in terms of particular community membership and local ranking systems. In short, the defining attribute of liberal citizenship -- free and equal individuality -- is alien to the perspectives that most immediately shape human life.
This fact defines the basic cultural and educational challenge faced by any liberal democracy. In a liberal democratic regime, the state rules in the name of free and equal citizens. The free and equal citizens who are ruled are ruled in their own name: they rule themselves. But the state itself must play a role in the cultural creation of the free and equal citizens in whose name it rules. It must establish means of public education and encourage forms of culture that can produce and sustain identities consistent with citizenship.
In liberal democracies where citizens fail in sufficient numbers to achieve such identities, thereby remaining bound in their self-definitions to particularistic cultural world views, liberal democratic political institutions can eventually lose not only their legitimacy, but their very intelligibility as well. Thus, the legitimacy and, at the extreme, the very existence, of the liberal democratic state depends upon its success in creating the constituency it serves.
Liberal democratic regimes are unique in this way. Forms of government based on principles intrinsic to ethnic, class, and religious world views do not face precisely this sort of cultural and educational challenge. Such regimes, of course, face other problems, particularly in the modern world, where the long-term viability and effectiveness of governments often depend on their success in establishing educational institutions capable of producing and reproducing a class of technical experts and a skilled labor force. But monarchies, aristocracies, and clerocracies whose authority is based upon ethnic or religious homogeneity or internalized class domination can expect the immediate processes of cultural reproduction operating in family and community life to be sufficient to produce identities consistent with the authority of the regime.
In such regimes, governments rule in the name of the ethnic, class or religious values that govern human desire over the entire course of human life. The differentials of rank, status, and relative worth that legitimate rule are consistent with and flow from the values that shape identities within the educational processes and forms of culture already operative in family and community life. In such regimes, public educational institutions do not bear the burden of first creating in those who are ruled the cultural self-understanding consistent with the principles underlying governmental authority. Nor are special, countervailing forms of political culture required to sustain that self-understanding.
In liberal democracies, however, special countervailing forms of education and political culture play an absolutely vital political role. A liberal democratic state defines its citizens as free individuals who are only incidentally members of particular ethnic, class, and religious communities. The hierarchies generated by such communities are irrelevant to the state in its treatment of citizens. Public education, then, must produce persons who in fact, in their own self-understanding, at least insofar as they act within the public sphere, see their membership in such communities as in some sense subordinate to their membership in the broader civic community.
Civic culture as the basis of civic education
This means that public education in a liberal democracy must have the effect of relativizing the hierarchies and ranking systems generated by particularistic cultural communities, so that the identities of citizens are not wholly or exclusively governed by the principles or values underlying those hierarchies. Of course, public education in liberal democracies today also serves other ends -- notably, the creation of technical experts and skilled workers needed in a modern industrial economy. But the basic political work of public education in a liberal democratic regime is the creation of citizens, the creation of persons who identify themselves and one another as free and equal individuals. We call this basic political work of public education civic education.
Of course, civic education, to achieve its goals, must draw upon cultural resources available in the larger society. Most of the cultural resources available in any liberal democracy are not necessarily supportive of the goal of civic education. The goal of civic education is the inculcation of the normative standpoint -- the ideal attitudes, dispositions and values -- proper to citizenship. However, the particularistic ethnic, class, and religious communities making up the larger society seek to reproduce and advance their own particularistic life ideals and conceptions of the good. These communities tend to generate global outlooks or totalizing world views that are supportive of their own particular ways of life. These world views find expression in all sorts of popular cultural media.
Each such community offers in principle some more or less coherent way of addressing the most general issues of human life -- sex, friendship, work, suffering, sin, death, and salvation. These global visions of life, embodied in various cultural representations, communicate the ranking systems, virtue concepts, and standards of achievement that distinguish one particularistic cultural community from another. Cultural representations of this sort make up the greatest part of the cultural resources available in a liberal democracy. However, such cultural representations are not necessarily supportive of the values proper to citizenship and therefore do not necessarily serve the ends of civic education. To create and sustain in its members the standpoint proper to citizenship, therefore, every liberal democracy needs a countervailing culture -- a culture supportive of citizenship, a set of ideas that can be embodied effectively in cultural representations for the purpose of shaping civic identities. We call this sort of culture civic culture.
Civic culture provides the resources for civic education. Civic education reproduces and strengthens civic culture. When civic culture and civic education function effectively, large numbers of people who have the formal status of citizens in a liberal democracy actually develop the attitudes, dispositions, and values proper to citizenship. Liberal democracies can exist only if these numbers are sufficient to meet whatever political challenges that arise.
Of course, the generation and reproduction of civic identities and values are supported by secondary cultural, social and economic forces that operate independently of the dominant form of civic culture operative in any particular liberal democracy. In America, for example, a market economy of small producers, geographical mobility, and an individualistic form of Protestant Christianity all contributed different degrees of support to the creation and maintenance of civic attitudes during the nineteenth century. But all such secondary social and economic factors can effectively promote civic attitudes only within the interpretive framework of a civic culture whose central ideas can be given clear and coherent public articulation.
Such ideas necessarily have a limited life span. They have a genealogy and logic that ties them to specific historical circumstances and audiences. When the ideas central to any particular form of civic culture lose their currency or credibility, the civic culture based on them soon loses its capacity to form habits of citizenship. This sort of critical cultural situation faces the citizens of North Atlantic liberal democracies today.
Page last edited: 01/20/02
Copyright © 1997 - 2002
Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
Hosted by Interland