FEATURE — Fall 2005


Why Democracies Work or Wither

Much of Professor James Gibson's groundbreaking research over the last decade took place in South Africa; at right is the ballot used in the first free election held there in 1994.

James Gibson, professor of political science, reveals the essential elements for developing and maintaining a viable democracy.

By Rick Skwiot

Respect for law and democratic institutions. Tolerance. Equality. To Jim Gibson, these rank as much more than just abstract principles. He’s found that, in the real world of politics, they can spell the difference between freedom and tyranny, between civil liberties and civil war.

Those who strive to foment democracy—whether in Russia, Africa, or the Middle East—would be wise to listen to what Gibson, the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government, has to say. For, after decades of studying democratic efforts in 25 countries from South Africa to Bulgaria, from Poland to Spain, he’s seen what works and what doesn’t.

In fact, Congress recently did listen to him. In May, Gibson, representing the American Political Science Association, was among a handful of scholars speaking at a Congressional briefing, “The State of Democracy: Engaging a Changing Citizenry.” He told Congressional members what he has been telling his students—as well as researching and writing about—for 30 years: why democracies work or wither.

“Some look at democracy as a set of institutions—courts, congress, laws, a constitution, but I view it differently,” says Gibson. “It’s also a set of cultural values: the actions and attitudes in the hearts and minds of average people.”

Thus, the fledgling Russian democracy has a good chance of success despite its leaders’ totalitarian tendencies, says Gibson, thanks to a foundation of essentially democratic attitudes—like a belief in social equality—brought about in part by universal literacy, both remnants of the Soviet system. Conversely, upstart democracies like Iraq and Afghanistan, where people have little experience of egalitarian principles and many are illiterate, face more difficult struggles.

“Democracy’s an acquired taste,” says Gibson, “that is difficult to understand and appreciate. To succeed, a country must build a democratic culture, and that rarely happens very quickly.”

Building a democratic culture
Drawing from his lifelong study of democratization and civil liberties, Gibson cites five crucial commonalities of successful democracies:

Tolerance, which he defines as “putting up with ideas you oppose, allowing all speakers to speak irrespective of content and all parties to compete and organize in the marketplace of ideas.”

Legitimacy of democratic institutions. That is, people must be willing to accept the actions of the principal democratic institutions, such as the legislature and the courts, says Gibson, even when in disagreement. As an example he cites his own research into citizen acceptance of the 2000 Bush vs. Gore Supreme Court decision. “Americans of all stripes were willing to accept the Supreme Court decision regarding the presidential election,” says Gibson, “for the court had built up an invaluable reservoir of goodwill.”

Belief in the equality of all people, which, says Gibson, “is Islam’s big stumbling block,” citing the frequent exclusion of women from civic life, education, and citizenship. “A democracy has to treat its people equally before the law. No exceptions are allowed.”

Questioning Authority. Just as a lack of respect for its institutions can undermine a democracy, so can “too much conformity,” says Gibson. For example, the unquestioning obedience to authority indicative of some Catholic and East Asian societies hampers the growth there of strong democracies, he argues.

“Education,” says Gibson, “is the essential foundation for democracy—education for boys and girls, for women as well as men.”

Truth and reconciliation
Gibson’s research has followed the march of democracy—and threats to it—around the globe, “wherever it turns interesting.” In 1989, it was Moscow. In November 2000, Washington, D.C. In 1994, South Africa.

Professor James Gibson speaks with doctoral student Marcus Hendershot, who provided research assistance on Overcoming Apartheid: Can Truth Reconcile a Divided Nation?

Much of Gibson’s groundbreaking research over the past decade (marked by some 50 publications and $3 million in research support) took place in South Africa. His work there led to two highly acclaimed books: Overcoming Intolerance in South Africa: Experiments in Democratic Persuasion (Amanda Gouws co-author), which won the Alexander L. George Book Award for the best political psychology book of 2003, and his 2004 Overcoming Apartheid: Can Truth Reconcile a Divided Nation?, which won a 2005 Best Book Award from the American Political Science Association’s Organized Section on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics.

“South Africa has all the cards stacked against it,” says Gibson. “Too poor, too unequal, too heterogeneous. If it succeeds as a democracy, it will be thanks to the truth and reconciliation process,” where blame was affixed for past atrocities committed by both the white ruling class as well as African National Congress supporters during the struggle over apartheid. “It had a transformational effect on the country.”

That willingness to face the past unblinkingly rather than bury it where it might fester figures importantly in Gibson’s theories on democratic viability. In South Africa, his survey of nearly 5,000 citizens, both black and white, revealed one key issue lurking in most political questions: “Race, race, race,” says Gibson, “the black sensitivity to past injustices and the white obliviousness to them.” But that research also suggested a larger question applicable to other societies: “How do we deal with injustices of the past—which includes reparations for slavery or the Holocaust?” says Gibson.

Unresolved historical grievances—and in particular land issues, endemic across Africa and throughout the world—have the potential force to destroy democracies, says Gibson: “It’s everywhere: Israel, Africa, Northern Ireland, the Southwest United States, the Balkans.” When people feel a sense of historical injustice, democracy is threatened.

“Some look at democracy as a set of institutions—courts, congress, laws, a constitution, but I view it differently,” says Gibson. “It’s also a set of cultural values: the actions and attitudes in the hearts and minds of average people.”

But Gibson thinks that truth and reconciliation commissions, such as the one that helped heal South Africa’s historical wounds, may be the answer to resolving other peoples’ grievances.

“But you have to be willing to blame all sides for atrocities, instead of the sort of victors’ justice you had after World War II. All must be held to the same standard of human rights,” says Gibson. “This may be South Africa’s single most important lesson for Iraq. They must be willing to take on not only Saddam Hussein’s atrocities but the Americans’ as well.”

However, the greatest threat today to democracy is not age-old disputes, says Gibson, but illiberal democracies.

The Making of  a Civil Libertarian
James Louis Gibson’s interest in democratic principles—equality before the law, political tolerance, respect for the institutions of democracy—blossomed in his formative years growing up in the South and Atlanta. When he witnessed society falling short of those ideals, he got involved in the civil rights movement.

His sensitivity to minority rights may have been a result, in part, of his often feeling an outsider as a youth. “My father was in the military, and we moved frequently,” says Gibson. “So I came to value tolerance.”

His scholarly work on tolerance dates back to the late 1970s. After graduating with honors from Emory University in Atlanta in 1972, he went on earn his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Iowa in 1975 and landed a job as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It was there that the seeds for his studies of political tolerance, which later bore more fruit in Russia and South Africa, were planted.

When neo-Nazis marched in nearby Skokie, Illinois, it tested the tolerance not only of the many Jewish residents but also of the democratic institutions. And it gave Gibson the material for important early research that led to a series of articles and a book, Civil Liberties and the Nazis (1985). In Skokie, Gibson found that political elites and leaders do not always safeguard democracy and individual rights.

“Tolerance is so fragile, much more fragile than intolerance,” says Gibson. “Our founding fathers worried about the ‘pernicious effects of intolerance’ on the part of the people and sought to counteract it by building institutions that neutralized intolerance.” Maintaining political tolerance is a never-ending struggle.

After decades of studying democracy and tolerance abroad, Gibson this past summer re-focused his efforts on the American political scene that first keyed his interest in democracy, launching a major national survey on intolerance in this country. Stay tuned for the results.

“It’s fairly easy to set up democracy without liberalism: majority rule without minority rights. This is a problem everywhere. Africa is typical: Leaders shut down opposition, and democracy degenerates into majority tyranny. You end up with the sort of incomplete and false democracies you have in Latin America. If democracy is to succeed,” says Gibson, “you must have respect for the rights of political minorities. Tolerance is the crucial issue.”

However, other issues rank prominently as well. Such as language.

“Cultural heterogeneity is a threat to democracy, with language the biggest challenge.” The reason why multilingual societies rarely succeed as democracies is obvious, says Gibson: “It’s hard to debate issues when you don’t speak the same language. This can pose a threat to developed democracies as well, in the United States, Canada, and Europe.”

Unequalled scholarly achievements
Gibson’s contributions to the world of public policy have earned him the attention of the U.S. Congress and the support of South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote the foreword to Overcoming Intolerance in South Africa. And Gibson’s scholarly accomplishments also put him in the top ranks of American political scientists.

Overcoming Intolerance in South Africa was described as “a major leap forward” by Stanford University’s Paul M. Sniderman in a February 2004 review in the Journal of Politics, citing as profound (and profoundly pessimistic) the finding that it is easier to talk people out of a tolerant political position than out of an intolerant one. “By any standard,” says Sniderman, “this is a major finding.”

Earlier this year, Gibson received the prestigious 2005 Decade of Behavior Research Award, presented by a consortium of 86 social-research entities formed to advance behavioral science. In nominating Gibson, the American Political Science Association noted that his research “provides important insights into how democracy functions in the minds of everyday citizens … Reaching far beyond contemporary scholars in the last decade … his large corpus of empirically based research instructs societies on the importance of context in the maintenance and promotion of democracy.”

Additionally, Gibson has won five best-paper-of-the-year awards from the American Political Science Association. 

“Jim stands out because he has had major influences in many areas—including public opinion generally and tolerance in particular,” says Christian Davenport, director of the Radical Information Project and associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. “He’s also influenced research on courts, state repression, human rights violations, and, more recently, transitional justice. This would be extremely impressive if it was done in simply one area, but he has done this in two distinct sub-fields: American politics as well as comparative politics.”

Duke University’s Paula D. McClain, professor of political science, concurs on the importance of Gibson’s work in South Africa, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

“Jim’s goal was to see if former authoritarian countries (and racist in the case of South Africa) were capable of developing the primary bedrock principle for liberal democratic systems—the tolerance by the populace of individuals and ideas that differed from their own,” says McClain, also professor of public policy, and African and African-American studies. “His work is central to the study of democratization and the maintenance of democracy.”   

Rick Skwiot is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.

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