Image of cultural map of the world
Cultural Map of the World according to Inglehart. Image ©

Koyos-Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, used under license and adapted from the original.

March 2019

Alison Baily reviews Ronald Inglehart’s book on ‘cultural evolution’. She considers the state of democracy in the world today and the impact that cultural change is playing in its emergence and survival.

On Self-expression

This year, some of the world’s biggest democracies are going to the polls. National elections are taking place in Nigeria, India, South Africa and Indonesia, while EU voters will be electing a new European parliament. Altogether, over a third of the world’s population will choose their leaders at the ballot box this year. However, it’s a nervous time for supporters of democracy. Earlier this month, Freedom House described democracy as in retreat across the globe. New democracies have slipped back, facing challenges to the rule of law. Populists are disrupting established politics in older democracies. Other states are cracking down at home, and seeking to interfere in democracies abroad. Recent developments have challenged the idea that the world is steadily becoming more tolerant and democratic.

Recent developments have challenged the idea that the world is steadily becoming more tolerant and democratic. Yet a new book provides evidence to bolster the view that momentum still lies with the democrats and human rights advocates

Yet a new book provides evidence to bolster the view that momentum still lies with the democrats and human rights advocates. Taking the long view, American political scientist Ronald F. Inglehart’s research charts the radical change in social values of recent decades and explores their implications for politics and society. In Cultural Evolution: People’s Motivations are Changing and Reshaping the World (Cambridge University Press, 2018), he argues that the unprecedented period of increased prosperity and security which advanced economies experienced following the Second World War has led to a radical change in values in younger generations, and that this change drove the transition to more democratic systems which accelerated after the end of the Cold War. He finds evidence that similar changes in values are now occurring in less free countries, and that this is likely to lead to more democratic government in those countries in the longer term, as younger, more democratically-inclined generations replace the older ones in positions of leadership and power. 

Looking at extensive data on how populations’ values have changed in over 100 countries between 1981 and 2014, Inglehart tracks the rise of what he terms ‘self-expression values’, He finds, in societies which experience extended periods of economic development and peace, that successive generations show increased support for values such as gender equality, diversity, and freedom of expression. He argues that these conditions enable new generations to grow up taking their survival for granted, and that this leads them to place more emphasis on free choice - and on democracy. Over the longer term, these values begin to dominate society, replacing the more traditional and authoritarian worldviews of the older generation, which had been shaped by an earlier time when survival was more precarious. 

This inter-generational shift in values is echoed in the findings of a recent survey of youth opinion in the G-20 countries carried out by GfK for the British Council. Powers of Attraction reveals a remarkable level of agreement among educated young people in the world’s largest economies on the importance of what Inglehart calls ‘self-expression values’. The results showed that, even in the less democratic countries of the bloc, there is strong demand among the younger generation for values of ‘equality and diversity’, ‘cooperation and tolerance’, ‘peace’ and ‘care for the environment’. 

And Democracy?

The book’s analysis provides a new and important contribution to the long-running scholarly debate on the role that economic development plays in fostering democracy. By drawing on the substantial dataset provided by the World Values Survey, Inglehart presents stronger evidence for the theory that cultural change is a major factor in the emergence and survival of democracy. Looking at societies which have transitioned to democracy during the period covered by the data, such as South Korean, Poland and Taiwan, he demonstrates that the existence of self-expression values are a strong predictor of a society’s readiness to function as an effective democracy. He argues that successful democracy is not just about economic development, more democratic elite attitudes or the simple holding of elections. It also depends upon conditions within wider society. Populations with high levels of ‘self-expression values’ are likely to express a stronger preference for more democratic forms of government that puts pressure on their governments to reform. They are also likely to have the levels of social trust, education and civic skills needed to organize and engage effectively in democratic processes. Their governments should also bear in mind the increasing evidence that such progress is associated with greater soft power: those countries most trusted and attractive to others are those with the highest levels of democracy, political rights, and strong civil society. 

Inglehart’s theory finds some reinforcement in the outcome of the 2011 Arab uprisings, where the one county to make a full transition out of authoritarian rule was Tunisia, the country with one of the region’s most educated populations and highly developed civil society sectors. 

While Inglehart acknowledges the setbacks of recent years, he provides some cheer for supporters of democracy. He argues that the social preconditions for democratisation are emerging in a number of countries and are likely to create pressure to introduce more participatory systems of government in the longer term. His most interesting example is China, where he says the population are showing increasing support for ‘self-expression values’ which could lead to pressure to liberalise over the next generation. He points to a number of countries such as the Philippines, South Korea and South Africa where values data indicates a clear long-term trend towards fuller democratisation. Even in Islamic countries, in many of which democracy lags significantly behind other parts of the world, Inglehart argues that self-expression values are in line with the norm for their current level of economic development. 

Inglehart’s theory finds some reinforcement in the outcome of the 2011 Arab uprisings, where the one county to make a full transition out of authoritarian rule was Tunisia, the country with one of the region’s most educated populations and highly developed civil society sectors

Interestingly, Inglehart sounds a note of warning that declining levels of security created by rising inequality and the growing power and governmental use of artificial intelligence may take liberal democracies back down the authoritarian path. He sees populist movements in Europe and the United States as the first signs of this. However, he does not reveal how this is reflected in the data, or how it squares with the consistent high levels of support for self-expression values among young people in these countries. This may be something he does in his next book, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism, out soon, which focuses on the role that cultural values are playing in the turbulence affecting established liberal democracies. 

However, Inglehart stops short of suggesting that globalisation is on course to create a ‘global village’ where everyone with a university education has the same liberal values. He argues that national culture and associated religious values are still the strongest indicator of values. A chart maps the values of different nations, and shows how those with similar religious and culture heritage recorded similar values in recent surveys – for example, countries with a Confucian heritage, such as Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, are clustered clearly in one group, while English-speaking countries sit in another; those from Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Europe and the Islamic world feature in their own distinct values groups. This suggests that the move towards greater emphasis on self-expression values will take a different shape in each country, with implications for the kind of democracy or more representative government that emerges. 

It will be many years before Inglehart’s optimistic prognosis for emerging democracies can be validated; but what is clear from his research is that the attitudes and values of young people will be a significant influence on the outlook for democracy and social change. His advice to international actors in favour of democracy is to focus on fostering self-expression values by supporting economic development alongside international engagement, civic education and a strong civil society. It has been a difficult few years for supporters of democracy around the world, but this analysis suggests there may be good cause for optimism for the future.

Cultural Evolution: People’s Motivations are Changing and Reshaping the World, Ronald F. Inglehart, Cambridge University Press, 2018

Alison Baily, Senior Policy Analyst, British Council

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