The Cultural Foundations of Modern Democracies

Published in: Nature Human Behaviour (2019). doi: 10.1038/s41562-019-0769-1

Posted on RAND.org on December 12, 2019

by Damian J. Ruck, Luke J. Matthews, Thanos Kyritsis, Quentin D. Atkinson, R. Alexander Bentley

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National democracy is a rare thing in human history and its stability has long been tied to the cultural values of citizens. Yet it has not been established whether changing cultural values made modern democracy possible or whether those values were a response to democratic institutions. Here we combine longitudinal data and cohort information of nearly 500,000 individuals from 109 nations to track the co-evolution of democratic values and institutions over the last century. We find that cultural values of openness towards diversity predict a shift towards democracy and that nations with low institutional confidence are prone to political instability. In addition, the presence of democratic institutions did not predict any substantive changes in the measured cultural values. These results hold accounting for other factors, including gross domestic product per capita and non-independence between nations due to shared cultural ancestry. Cultural values lead to, rather than follow, the emergence of democracy. This indicates that current stable democracies will be under threat, should cultural values of openness to diversity and institutional confidence substantially decline.

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