The social capital as the key building block of

The Role of Social Capital in an Emerging DemocracyStable democracies exist in many different forms, each with their own unique features. Although many political theorists have tried to pinpoint the one characteristic that ensures a stable democracy, there is no general consensus. Some theorists point to the idea of social capital as the key building block of a successful democracy. Social capital is defined as the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively (Dictionary.com).  According to Morris P. Fiorina, “…few have questioned the basic premise that civic engagement is a good thing…” (Fiorina 417-418). It is widely accepted that political engagement generally serves to benefit a population; however, the debate focuses on whether or not a strong political culture should be established first in a newly surfacing democracy. Theorists argue that due to the high rate of political participation, populations with an immense amount of social capital will perform better and remain successful, and therefore it should be the primary focus of a developing democracy. The opposing argument concerning how to foster a stable democracy is that newly developing democracies need to first establish other crucial political factors, such as firm political institutions and a stable economy, before focusing their attention on attaining a strong political culture. Although the integration of a strong political culture is an important step to ensure a prosperous democracy, implementing it should not be the primary goal of newly democratizing nations; instead, flourishing democracies should primarily focus on establishing a reliable form of government.Political scientist Robert J. Putnam spent much of his career attempting to discover the magic variable that explains successful democratic development. Putnam argues that “Regions with many civic associations…seem to nourish more effective governments” (Putnam 99). This conclusion was derived from a case study he performed in Italy, in which he analyzed the relationship between the performance of regional governments and the social and political life within the region. Putnam generalizes his findings in Italy and alleges that most governments will fail to properly function if social capital is not extremely prevalent throughout the population. However, is the positive correlation between civic engagement and government performance that was evidenced in Italy enough to definitively state that social capital is the driving force behind creating a sustainable democracy for any country? The answer to this question is most likely no since Putnam’s research fails to acknowledge the possibility that Italy’s political success was a product of other factors that existed prior to the addition of social capital. For example, Putnam fails to emphasize that Italy had centuries of social trust, cooperation, and civic networking built up between the government and the population, which resulted in civic engagement being established as a norm. Attempting to apply this theory outside of Italy, Putnam states that, “Effective collaborative institutions require interpersonal skills and trust, but those skills are inculcated and reinforced by organized collaboration” (Putnam 180). Therein lies the major flaw of Putnam’s theory, in this quote he states that collaboration is derived from trust, but also states that trust is essentially derived from collaboration. He does not specify how one would begin to implement social trust in an entirely new nation. In Italy, the social trust had been embedded in society for centuries, so the continual civic engagement was constantly reinforcing cooperation. The fact that Putnam did not acknowledge the groundwork that led to the success of social capital in Italy shows the limitations of case studies. His study was an in-depth analysis of one country, not all countries have this foundation of social trust to build off of, and not all other democracies are structured like the one that was found in Italy. One way to establish social trust is to implement government policies that are advantageous to the entire population to ensure the development of a solid government foundation. Although social capital may have played a role in the success of the Italian government, there is not enough evidence to point to it as the key to ensuring a sustainable democracy in other countries, nor does Putnam provide a clear answer as to how one would establish it in a country that lacks a pre-existing norm of social trust. Another flaw that Putnam neglects to discuss is the problem with underrepresentation. Political scientist Morris P. Fiorina highlights this major point and argues that civic engagement is only truly valuable when the people engaged are representative of the entire population, “…but when engagement is largely the domain of minority viewpoints, obvious problems of unrepresentativeness arise” (Fiorina 403). When little civic engagement is present, the country is left susceptible to the opinions of extremists, or those whose political preferences lie outside of the status quo. Fiorina theorizes that those who participate must be intrinsically motivated to do so because most citizens are aware that their individual vote carries little power and has no real influence on the big picture. Voters essentially treat participation as an investment, “The more individuals value the benefit…the more likely they are to participate. The more costly is participation…the less likely they are to participate” (Fiorina 418). By Fiorina’s logic, people must value the outcome of an election in order to initiate engagement. This example furthers the idea that political culture arises from a steadfast government, and not the other way around. Governments cannot force democratic participation. Instead, they must appeal to the population and ensure high levels of participation in order to create a fully representative political culture. Theorists such as Putnam, who argue that political culture should be the first step in fostering a stable democracy, do not acknowledge this critical flaw, or as Fiorina describes it, the dark side of civic engagement (Fiorina 403).In addition to Fiorina’s argument that voters are motivated intrinsically, economist Bryan Caplan makes the argument that typically, “…voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational-and they vote accordingly” (Caplan 2). Caplan continues, discussing the idea that the average voter rationally chooses to be ignorant because the individual realizes that his or her vote is essentially insignificant (Caplan 3). Although there are high levels of civic engagement, only an extremely small portion of the population is well informed, but that small portion is able to correctly make political decisions. According to Caplan, as long as at least 1% of the voting participants are well informed, the participation of uninformed voters has no true effect on the outcome of the election (Caplan 3). Caplan refers to this idea as the “miracle of aggregation” (Caplan 3), meaning that even with an extremely ignorant majority, their votes tend to even out, allowing the small portion of informed voters to swing the election. However, it is important that informed voters remain prevalent within society and maintain the ability to swing the elections. With a stronger magnitude of civic engagement, informed voters are able to maintain a common good. In order to ensure that there are enough informed voters, Caplan stresses the importance of education surrounding political knowledge, “Education substantially improves performance on objective tests about government structure, leaders, and current events…it is more likely that educated people think more clearly and know more” (Caplan 7). With political education, it can be ensured that informed voters remain in society. Similar to Putnam’s case study of Italy, political scientist Sheri Berman analyzes a German town that fell under the influence of the NSDAP party. Berman’s purpose is to illustrate how Hitler utilized democratic tactics just as much as he utilized violence to rise to power. According to Berman, the German town of Weimar Republic was predictably susceptible to the influence of the NSDAP party for numerous reasons. Specifically, Berman cites poor political institutions as the primary reason for the fall of Weimar. Weimar had extremely high levels of civic engagement that were left unsatiated due to the weak government infrastructure. As a result, citizens were forced to construct and join their own social groups to satisfy their deep-seeded desires to belong to a group. Berman noted, “During the interwar period in particular, Germans threw themselves into their clubs, voluntary associations, and professional organizations out of frustration with the failures of the national government and political parties…” (Berman 1). This highlights the onset of destabilization in German society that occurred prior to the NSDAP party. Over time, the population’s value of their existing government deteriorated. Subsequently, German political life splintered and fragmented even further, dividing the society. Following the onset of the Great Depression, German citizens began to demand political and economic reform from their government. However, after the national government failed to react swiftly and effectively, “…a political vacuum opened up in German politics, a vacuum that offered the NSDAP party a golden opportunity to assemble an unprecedented coalition” (Berman 10). Similar Berman, historian William S. Allen analyzed one particular German city. The town of Northeim fell to the influence of the NSDAP party. Like Weimar, Northeim was ruled by a government that was unable to respond to an increasingly agitated population. This led to the citizens of Northeim longing to be a part of something, “Perhaps the behavior of the good burghers of Northeim becomes more understandable when one realizes the extent to which they were committed to nationalism. The excess of patriotic feeling in the town during the pre-Hitler period was the great moral wedge for Nazis” (Allen 297). Allen argues that deep-rooted patriotism, a weak economy, and a struggling political infrastructure served as the foundation upon which the NSDAP party could build their empire. Once the NSDAP party rose to power in Northeim, “The extent of the violence in Northeim was an expression of the radical situation, but it also added to it by making violence normal and acceptable” (Allen 298). Allen continues further, detailing how desensitizing German citizens to violence and exploiting the existing political tensions was crucial in allowing the NSDAP to take over. The Nazi party ensured that high levels of civic engagement were maintained so that their population was kept well controlled and obedient, “To assure mass backing there had to be active participation, even more so after the Nazis had seized power and could require participation” (Allen 206). It is important to note that many German citizens believed they were contributing to the greater good of their country, rather than being forced into complying. In addition, the NSDAP appealed to many because of the Nazi’s flexible use of propaganda to pander to each citizen, “Their propaganda played upon all the needs and fears of the town and directed itself to almost every potential group of adherents” (Allen 298). By maintaining the idea of every participant being patriotic, the NSDAP part was able to effectively brainwash much of the German population in order to gain a political foothold. There are notable similarities in both of the German cities that were discussed. In both instances, the population was cohesive yet lacked a general sense of purpose. Although social clubs and networks were beneficial to much of the population, the extreme levels of civic engagement instilled an inherent desire to rally behind a government that was well-liked and appeared trustworthy. Hitler targeted citizens who felt alienated and wanted to be integrated into a larger community. Robert Putnam reasons that, “…voluntary collaboration can create value that no individual, no matter how wealthy, no matter how wily, could produce alone” (Putnam 183). Although Putnam argues in favor of establishing social capital first, the two German cities that were discussed portray the effects of a population that was so obsessed with their political culture that they were easily manipulated and exploited. Berman argues against Putnam, stating, “Civil society activity alone, in short, could not overcome the country’s social divisions or provide the political cohesion that would have been necessary…For this, strong and flexible political institutions, particularly political parties, would have been necessary.” (Berman 13). If the pre-Hitler central German governments had succeeded in re-establishing political order, then the Nazi party might never have been able to rise to power.Although there have been cases that link a solid social capital and a stabilized democracy, the examples I have provided show that the success of a democracy cannot be based primarily on its level of civic engagement. Although a strong political culture is an important aspect of a democratic government, emphasizing political culture before anything else is not enough to ensure a sustainable, prosperous government.

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