This writing is an attempt to explain, from a cultural point of view, why Democracy is not a World Universal “thing”.

Democratic elections in Pakistan, Russia, Afghanistan, Burma? The list is far from complete.

In the western world we seem to be obsessed by spreading our Democracy. We deploi peace missions and other diplomatic initiatives to spread our Western contemporary “religion“.
My point here is, that that will not work. Here’s why not.

What is (Western) Democracy?
Without trying to come up with a suitable definition or one pulled from Wikipedia, I’d like to keep it simple and view Democracy from a Cultural point of view.

In actual fact, Democracy boils down to this: The ability/possibility for One man to cast his/her One vote.
In addition what is important here is that this One man, is not coerced, forced or otherwise manipulated by anyone else in determining his/her One vote (in the broader sense of the word this is called Vote Rigging).

So fundamentally our (view and practice of) Western Democracy hinges on Individuals voting for themselves.
This word “Individuals” is important here. It emphasises, again, One man, One vote.

Prof. Hofstede came up with 5 dimensions defining national culture (describing general trends in societies). One of these dimensions is called Individualism (the others are Power-distance, Masculinity and Uncertainty avoidance).

This Individualism is crucial into making (Western) Democracy work. Because Hofstede’s dimension Individualism answers the question: “to whom are you loyal?”. On the two extremes of this dimension there are two answers possible: “my loyalty lies with me first” (= highly Individualistic) versus “my loyalty lies with the group first” (called Collectivistic). I do need to stress that individuals in Collectivistic societies do have an opinion of their own. It is just secondary to the opinion that the group holds.

High scoring cultures on the dimension Individualism use/have a Democracy that the Western world is trying to spread so bad.

Examples of high scoring Individualistic cultures are: North America, Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe. That’s it! And… that’s all! All other countries in the World (!) are Collectivistic (with a score of less then 50 on Hofstede’s dimension).

This means that, to the majority of the world (about 80%), the Western concept of Democracy does not mean the same thing as in the minority of the world (the self proclaimed “first world”).

In collectivistic societies people are loyal to their group, more then to themselves. This means (in short) that One man, One vote, translates into “I’ll vote for the One my peers (in-group) votes for“. There is nothing good or bad about either Individualism nor Collectivism. It is just different.

The danger lies in the fact that the Western world thinks it can take the blue-print of its own Democracy and simply spread (or better force) it around other parts of the world. More often than not, much to the resentment of the local population.

To summarize: Democracy in Iraq is an illusion. It always will be.

Ending it here with the, not so surprising, historical quote from Winston Churchill: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Don’t forget, Mr. Churchill was British, one of the most Individualistic countries in the World.

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Chris Smit

I'm passionate about Cultural Difference. I have been helping organizations save time and money when they work Internationally for the last 19 years. I have had the fortunate opportunity to hold lectures, workshops, and consulting projects on this subject World Wide. It has made me understand my own culture much better, and appreciate the differences around the world.
I have a Master's Degree in Organisational Psychology and have lived in the USA, the Netherlands and, currently, in Belgium.
Thank you!

Chris Smit
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