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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Are Levels of Democracy Influenced by Mass Attitudes? Testing a Central Premise of the Political Culture Approach


Most research on political culture is driven by the assumption that mass attitudes impact on democracy. Despite the centrality of this premise, evidence showing that attitudes affect the level of democracy a society attains and sustains is rare and inconclusive in major points. This article presents the most comprehensive such evidence to date, testing attitudinal variables from three main schools in the political culture literature, as predictors of six different measures of democracy, using data from almost 70 societies. The results are remarkably consistent. Regardless of which measure of democracy is used, emancipative attitudes outperform other types of attitudes, giving the best predictions of later measures of democracy. This finding holds controlling for the impact of structural societal factors, such as economic development, world market integration, ethnic fractionalization, and prior democracy. Further specifications of the causal mechanism show that emancipative attitudes help both to attain and to sustain high levels of democracy. I conclude that a pro-democratic political culture is most firmly rooted in emancipative attitudes.

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