Published on The Washington Quarterly, by Ronald Inglehart, January 23, 2000.
2 excerpts: A growing body of evidence indicates that deep-rooted changes in world views are taking place. These changes seem to be reshaping economic, political, and social life in societies around the world. The most important body of evidence comes from the World Values Surveys (WVS), which have measured the values and beliefs of the publics on all six inhabited continents in 1981, 1990, and 1995. The WVS will carry out its fourth wave of surveys in 1999-2000. It has already surveyed more than sixty societies representing almost 75 percent of the world’s population and covering the full range of variation, from societies with per capita incomes as low as three hundred dollars per year, to societies with per capita incomes one hundred times that high; and from long-established democracies with market economies, to authoritarian states and societies making the transition to market economies. This unique investigation has found strong linkages between the beliefs of individuals and the characteristics of their societies–such as those between peoples’ values and the birth rates of their societies, or between political culture and democratic institutions. Figure 1 shows the societies that have been explored in the two most recent waves of these survey …
… Normally, most people tend to describe themselves as either “happy” or “fairly happy”; and far more people describe themselves as satisfied with their lives as a whole than dissatisfied. Already in the 1990 WVS, the then-Communist societies revealed the lowest levels of subjective well-being ever recorded in research on this subject. In several of these countries, as many people described themselves as “unhappy” as “happy”; and as many said they were “dissatisfied with their lives as a whole” as said they were “satisfied.” This is an alarming finding. Subjective well-being had fallen to unheard-of levels. It is not surprising that, within two years, the economic and political systems had collapsed throughout Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist.
In the 1995 WVS, subjective well-being had fallen even lower in Russia (reaching an unprecedented low level of -12, which means that most of the Russian people were unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives as a whole). In Russia’s 1996 presidential elections, the three leading contenders were Boris Yeltsin, the principal reformist candidate; a hard-line Communist candidate who represented the authoritarian Soviet model of politics; and an even more alarming xenophobic nationalist who promised to reestablish the former Soviet empire. For most of the year, it looked as if Yeltsin would lose. In the end he pulled out a victory, using methods that did not exactly fit democratic norms, but which averted potentially worse alternatives. Our [End Page 226] latest data suggest that democracy is becoming fairly secure in Central and Eastern Europe but that it hangs by a thread in Russia and most other countries of the former Soviet Union.
One interpretation would be that democratic institutions give rise to the cultural syndrome of self-expression values. In other words, democracy makes people healthy, happy, tolerant, and trusting and instills postma-terialist values (at least in the younger generation). I would love to believe this interpretation. It provides an enormously powerful argument for democracy, and implies that we have a quick fix for most of the world’s problems: adopt democratic institutions and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, the experience of the people of the former Soviet Union doesn’t support this interpretation. Since moving toward democracy in 1991, they have not become healthier, happier, more trusting, more tolerant or more postma-terialist. On the whole, they have moved in exactly the opposite direction.
Another interpretation is that the processes of modernization and post-modernization gradually give rise to social and cultural changes that make democratic institutions increasingly likely to survive and flourish. That would help explain why mass democracy did not emerge until a relatively recent point in history, and why, even now, it is most likely to be found in economically [End Page 227] more-developed countries, in particular, those that have high levels of postmodern values. This interpretation has both encouraging and discouraging implications. The bad news is that democracy is not something that can be easily attained by simply adopting the right laws. It is most likely to flourish under specific social and cultural conditions–and today, those conditions are not pervasive in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, and Moldova.
The good news is the long-term trend of the past several centuries has been toward economic development, a process that has accelerated and spread around the world during the past few decades. Economic development seems conducive to the social and cultural conditions under which democracy is most likely to emerge and survive. If the current outlook is discouraging in much of the former Soviet Union, the evidence in Figure 8 suggests that a number of other societies are closer to democracy than is generally suspected. Mexico, for example, seems ripe for the transition to democracy; its position on the postmodern values axis is roughly comparable to that of Argentina, Spain, or Italy. And the Chinese show a surprisingly high score on the values’ dimension linked with democracy. The ruling Communist elite is committed to maintaining one-party rule, and as long as they retain control of the military they can probably hang on to power. But the Chinese public shows a predisposition toward democracy that would probably surprise most observers. As we have seen, economic development is conducive to the spread of postmaterialist values, which give increasingly high priority to freedom of speech and political participation, and is linked with the emergence of relatively high levels of subjective well-being. In the long run, economic development tends to bring cultural changes that are conducive to democracy. These changes are part of a broader process linked with the emergence of postmodern values. (full text).
(Ronald Inglehart is a professor of political science and program director in the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan).