How Social Capital Helps Us Improve Democratic Culture

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Creator: Krause, Johansen

Democracy is exhausted — exhausted of tolerating us. It’s been keeping up with us for quite some time now. Though it feels the other way around to us, it isn’t. How things stand currently is just reflective of what we have become and how we have violated a system that enables citizens to lobby for their interests and limits government power. I believe, at present, democracy is merely mooching off its ancestral goodwill and is not really adding anything positive to its existing magnanimity. All because of the hypocritic way we have adopted to pretentiously save it. In reality, we all are shirking away from the hard work it will take to save democracy. Above all, it takes unity. Then some risks and sacrifices. It’s not abstract forces from above or under who will bring about the change. It’s us, in the form of ordinary and extraordinary people.

Going by how democracy is going backward, I doubt if we are becoming more civilized or uncivilized by the day? We cannot afford to unlearn being civilized. If that’s what we have decided, then we have to make robots our representatives soon. Make them learn how to play democracy without being greedy, deceptive, and shameless. Let’s just do away with politicians since it’s been ages, and we are still discussing the same old concern of how unfair things are for the majority of us. I suppose we have time till we reach there. In the meantime, let’s consider what we can do.

Democracy has helped us evolve as a human civilization through ages, from the advent of modern democracy with renewed interest in the Magna Carta, American and French revolutions to Arab Springs of 2011. It’s been a roller coaster with its share of successes and failures. However, now, especially since 2016 in the United States of America, democracy seems to be crumbling before our eyes. It has taken a toll not only on the mutual trust between governments and citizens but also between fellow citizens.

Robert Putnam excellently explained this phenomenon, where he attributes ‘lack of social capital’ as the root cause for decaying democracy. By social capital, he means “trust, norms and networks” that facilitate cooperation amongst people, which help them thrive as a community.[1] According to World Bank,1999, “Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions. Increasing evidence shows that social cohesion is critical for societies to prosper economically and for development to be sustainable. Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions which underpin a society- it is the glue that holds them together.”

Social capital can help arouse the natural legitimacy that democracy deserves. Legitimacy, which is a product of unconditional belief in the ability of the system, is shaped not only by the performance of democracy over the years but also by our performance as citizens. Nonetheless, that is not all about it. It is also a result of a broader culture of democracy, including vibrant civil society, political flexibility, and strong connections shared by people. After all, democracies aren’t just about choosing your representatives. It’s also about being treated equally, where absolutely no one is above you except the law.

David Runciman, in his excellent book How Democracy Ends, explains why we don’t and shouldn’t give up on modern democracy. According to him, there are two main reasons, “First, it offers dignity. The individual inhabitants of democratic states have their views taken seriously by politicians. They get the chance to express them, and they get protection when other people try to silence them. Democracy gives them respect. Second, it delivers long-term benefits. Over time, living in a secure democratic state promises citizens a chance of sharing in the material advantages of stability, prosperity and peace.”[2]

I firmly believe that all we need to do is find the motivation to stick to democracy because it is what makes us civil and benevolent towards our fellow citizens. It teaches us to get rid of toxins that result from the feeling of being superior to others, especially in terms of wealth, and brings us on the table where equals discuss their concerns. We always talk more about the impact of other factors than the effect ‘we — the people’ can have on our democracy. Though I am not denying the importance of those factors at all, all my articles have focused more or less on them; it’s long overdue that we not only discuss the lack of democratic culture but also cultivate it adequately. The absence of the same is moderating the impact of benefits that we could derive from improving institutional determinants like the rule of law, independent media, robust civic organizations, pluralism, free elections, political and economic equality, and so on.

Let’s restore the culture of civility, which has been eroded in past years, for better and more transparent democracy. As much as we need to revive trust amongst each other, we equally need to be skeptical about the scientific validity of the information that we come across. It is critical for developing the culture to resolve conflicts peacefully and one that insists on science. To establish a democratic culture, we need more public engagement and good governance as these two are synergetic and mutually reinforce each other towards sustainable democracy.


[1]Diamond, L. J. (2020). Ill Winds: Saving democracy from Russian rage, Chinese ambition, and American complacency.

[2]Runciman, D. (2019). How democracy ends.

Levitsky, S. (2019). How Democracies Die.

Giridharadas, A. (2020). Winners take all: The elite charade of changing the world. UK [i. e. London] [etc.: Penguin Books.

Stoller, M. (2020). Goliath: The 100-year war between monopoly power and democracy.

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