Making Democracy Work

The Main Thesis

Among three approaches to explain institutional performance,[1] Robert Putnam finds sociocultural approach most appropriate in explaining the question of why some governments succeed and some fail. His thesis states that civic life plays greatest role in the performance of a government.[2]

His conclusion is seemingly based on the data he collected in Italy from 1970 to 1986 when Italy established a new system of decentralized politics (regional government). His data shows significant differences in the performances of northern and southern regions. In this context, he shows that two of three approaches in political literature are not able to give satisfying explanation as to why we see variation between the northern and southern.

Institutional design theory argues that institutional performance depends on the institutional design: a well written law, constitution, will bring about high performance. In Italian experiment, however, that is not the case. By 1970, all regions have operated the same new system of regional government. If institution matters, as what institutional theory assumed, they should have equal performance.

While institutional approach can not well explain the differences, can socioeconomic approach do? The data he collected clearly show that northern regions, in economic term, are better off. Sad to say, this approach can not explain, in the Italian experiment, whether economic modernity is the result of high performance or if high performance is the result of economic modernity. The data he collected do not confirm the theory and the only visible answer lies in civic life factor.

Now, the new questions arise: where does civic life comes from? Why are northern regions more civic than southern regions? Because the data he had collected during the adoption of new regional governments (1970-1986) were not able to answer that question, he traced the explanation to the past history. He believed what happen in the previous millennium, a period before modern Italy, had significance influence on the making of civic community. Briefly speaking, he found that southern regions was under Norman kingdom, while northern Italy developed into “communal Italy”, consisting of city-states, where civic culture developed among them.

In this very point, however, Putnam’s becomes ambiguous. In his previous arguments, he has convinced the reader that northern and southern Italy are distinguishable by their quality of civic life, however he can not sustain his further explanation on why some regions are more civic than others.

Further, his historical approach undermines his sociocultural explanation. Civic life, finally, is a product of history. The history he presented to us shows that institution matters: In Putnam’s account, the existence of powerful kingdom in the south was able to prevent the rise of civic culture; and the absent of powerful kingdom enabled northern Italy to develop its civic culture. The kingdom itself was an institution.

In addition, Putnam argued in page 136 that Hapsburg and the Bourbons “systematically promote mutual distrust and conflict among their subjects, destroying horizontal ties of solidarity in order to maintain the primacy of vertical ties of dependence and exploitation”. In this part, it is clearly stated that institution of kingdom does makes culture of distrust.
Another problem is that Putnam does not take into consideration the effect of centralized politics during 1860 – 1970. If a kingdom prevented southern region from rising their civic culture, the centralized government of 100 years presumably ought to make northern cities lost their civic culture — by seventeenth century, communes had faded and led to a kind of “re-feudalization” of the Italian Peninsula.[3] Therefore, Putnam did not explain why civic culture survives so long time and generations, and it is difficult to understand how the lost civic culture can reemerge easily quickly during short period of 1970-1980.

Other Critical Points

1. Isolating Italy and Geographical approach.

Putnam presented map of Italy 7 times in his book. Now, let’s see those maps! None of them present cities and regions neighboring Italy.

The way he presented the map is interesting because we can read his imagination. The isolation
of map reflects his isolated idea of Italy. He presented Italy in the thin air, and it is Italy without a geographical context. Therefore, to answer the question why some regions are more civic than others, he has to find it in the ancient Italy when Italy, actually, had not been “Italy”.

If we look at the Italian map plus its surrounding areas, we will find that northern Italy is close to the heart of Europe, the heart of Renaissance, and adjacent to the revolutionary French society. Widening the map, he can widen his episteme of Italy and then open possible other answers. Such as northern Italy more civic because the influence of French revolution; or because northern Italy has a better access to the European market. Since he limited the map of Italy, he can extend only the time but not the space to explain the data.

Jared Diamond, for example, ably presented an astonishing explanation on the origin of differences among countries in the world by presenting and comparing maps of Eurasia, Africa, and America. Because Eurasia has wider vertical length than its horizontal one, people who live there could develop food production better than people who lived in America and Africa whose horizontal length shorter than their vertical one.

2. Religious Community and Civil Community

Putnam excludes religious community from civic community, but he did not explain why.[4] He explained that in today’s Italy, the civic community is a secular community.[5] However, because he explains the roots of civic community date to 12th to 18th century, why did he exclude religious community? Did religious community have no influence?

If we consider figures of civic community (p. 97) and institutional performance (p.84), and then compare them with figure 5.1 (p. 134), it would show that ex-papal regions have significance high level of both civic community and institutional performance. Compare also with figure 5.2 (p150) where papal regions has medium to high level of civic tradition.

These figures are too significance not to be explained. Instead of considering the relation among those figures, he did not explain the performance of papal regions in the term of civic culture.

[1] Those approaches are; 1) Institutional design; 2) socioeconomic factors; 3) sociocultural factors, Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 9-11.
[2] Ibid. p. 15.
[3] Ibid. p. 135.
[4] Ibid., p.107.
[5] Ibid., p. 109.

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