Virginia Tech® home

Pondering the Links between Culture, Freedom and Democracy



Authors as Published

Among the definitions of culture in The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary, one describes the term as denoting, “The distinctive customs, achievements, products, outlook, etc., of a society or group; the way of life of a society or a group.” Inevitably, since democracy rests on the capacities of populations to sustain it, it reflects the culture of those individuals charged with that responsibility. Put differently, culture plays a major part in mediating whether majority rule can realize other cardinal values, including individual freedom and political and social equality.

The current persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar is perhaps a classic example of how shared cultural beliefs among members of a population can result in tyranny. That nation’s Muslim minority population is the target of beliefs and norms, now embraced and publicized by several popular Buddhist monks, declaring members of this group “subhuman” and refusing to acknowledge their right to exist in the nation. These claims have resulted in continuing dangerous episodes of venomous popular persecution and scapegoating of the Rohingya by members of the majority population. That is, cultural beliefs are today undermining the very possibility of a form of self-governance in Myanmar that ensures the rights and freedom of all of its residents. The country instead is depriving a share of its citizens of basic human rights on the basis of cultural attitudes “justifying” such action. These norms, the product of acculturated beliefs as well as orchestrated hate campaigns, have underpinned the unleashing of a widespread social terror that has denied members of the Rohingya population not only their human and political rights, but in some cases even their lives.

This ongoing travesty highlights a reality with which political theorists and proponents of democracy have long wrestled: majority rule does nothing by itself to guarantee the rights of citizens in societies governed by such systems. And patently, as this example also illustrates, widespread norms justifying discrimination and persecution can undermine minority groups’ political rights. Unscrupulous leaders, in their efforts to gain power, can use these cultural dispositions to mobilize populations to tyrannize. Such is certainly occurring in Myanmar today, has occurred in our nation historically at the expense of African Americans and, I have learned recently, has long obtained in Japan regarding how the burakumin (or “base people” or “outcasts”) are treated politically and economically in that nation. There are many other examples of this phenomenon around the world.

Together they underscore both how difficult it can be to ensure the rights of minorities in majority dominated politics, and how easily would-be leaders can mobilize coalitions for hatred to attain political power based on supposed superiorities and enmities of various sorts that inhere in cultures all around the world. Our nation’s Founders offered three distinct sorts of arguments and steps linked to them in designing the American regime, aimed at mitigating what they took to be the inevitability of this sort of (majority tyranny) challenge to democratic self-rule. The Framers originally sought to limit the franchise to those they believed most likely to exercise it with prudence (i.e., property holders). They hoped that these individuals would prove devoted to assuring freedom if for no other reason than the stake in society their property represented. Likewise, the Founders contended that a passion for their place in history or fame would prevent the country’s political leaders from undermining liberty lightly. They also sharply limited the reach of popular passions in elections by permitting direct election only of House members and only by a carefully delimited electorate. Finally, our Framers designed our regime to check possible popular excesses by employing a federal governance framework and by ensuring that the three major branches of government could check the actions of the others that might result in reduced rights or freedom for some segments of the citizenry.

Interestingly and paradoxically, our nation has surely rightly broadened the franchise in the name of democratic values during our history, but that has resulted in the reality that citizens are increasingly left to check themselves to avoid embracing bigotry, racism or hatreds of various sorts to preserve freedom, rather than be checked by institutional means. Moreover, today’s elected officials have little incentive to do other than appeal to the population’s values and emotions, whatever those may be, if they believe doing so will gain them office. That is, officeholders and seekers cannot be counted on to check potential popular excesses that could result in denying some citizens’ rights, as the Framers had once hoped.

The danger of relying ever more directly on the populace to check itself from its own potentially discriminatory and tyrannical beliefs is perhaps obvious. Moreover, today’s citizens face an especially uncertain economic environment as a result of globalization, making it markedly less difficult for those proselytizing for hate and for scapegoating shares of the population to gain adherents for their views. In the United States this sort of argument has lately been focused (as it often has in the past during uncertain or difficult economic times) on certain groups perceived as benefitting unduly from government action, or otherwise purportedly undeserving of citizen rights of various sorts due to their race, religion, ethnicity or national origin. These types of claims are then used in elections and in policy advocacy to brand such individuals as outcasts or worse, and to decry their alleged actions and activities, usually as a justification for denying them rights or standing. This sort of behavior has been directed against immigrants to the United States (including children) in recent years. It has historically been directed toward African Americans in the U.S. and today, too, is often addressed at that population in arguments otherwise presented nominally as aimed at other concerns, e.g., “vote fraud.”

The recent viciousness, small-mindedness and ignorance at play in the politics of immigration here in the United States should serve as a reminder of the need for checks on popular passions in our governance processes. Many elected leaders and advocates have cast immigrants as villains in recent policy dialogue. Much of what has been claimed has been absurd, including the argument that the United States can or should wall itself off from its closest neighbors and can thereby hold globalization and economic insecurity at bay. But that fact has not prevented many people from adopting that argument to alleviate their felt insecurities and desire to blame someone for those.

Our current polarized politics, especially with its willingness to demonize groups or the government on the basis of popular discriminatory impulses, prejudices and norms, suggests the importance of culture to democratic politics and also underscores its dangers. These sorts of arguments routinely rely on emotion, enmity and finger pointing in lieu of prudence and reasoned contentions. They are the bane of effective self-governance and of freedom. The issue now confronting our nation is whether its citizens will prove sufficiently mature to check their own inclinations to discriminate and to scapegoat, and instead to leaven those very human impulses by demanding more of themselves in the name of ensuring the continuing freedom that only they can guarantee. As I write, it is not clear whether substantial portions of the U.S. populace either grasp the enormous significance of this challenge or possess the capacities to address it. As the old aphorism goes, only time will tell.

Publication Date

September 14, 2014