Fifty-five years ago this month, while idly perusing the newest releases on the front table in Oxford’s storied Blackwell’s bookshop, I stumbled onto a book that became a turning point in my intellectual life, and (more importantly) in our collective understanding of the preconditions for stable democracy.
The Civic Culture, co-authored by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba in 1963, was a ground-breaking examination of the attitudes, values, and political behavior of ordinary citizens in America, Britain, Germany, Italy, and Mexico—the first two (then) typifying stable democracies, the last three (then) not so much. Ever since the devastating collapse of Weimar democracy in one of the best educated, most advanced countries in the world, political scientists had been understandably obsessed with the question: “What can account for democratic stability?”
When I had studied political science and psychology as an undergraduate in the early 1960s, the standard answers to that question involved either formal institutions, like electoral rules, or psychopathology, like “the Authoritarian Personality,” or in the far reaches of Marxism, the class struggle. Using the newly invented tools of survey research, Almond and his brilliant twenty-something protégé Verba offered unprecedented evidence that political attitudes and values—“political culture”—could provide a new interpretive lens for understanding stable democracy.
The Civic Culture, like most groundbreaking science, soon spawned an enormous aggregation of follow-up research—and shortly afterwards, the usual critics. It is no longer at the frontier of political science. What is, more than a half century after publication? But this book marked a crucial turn in the use of rigorous empirical methods to address some of the most urgent political questions of the times—and what could be more urgent, in our times, than understanding the preconditions for stable democracy?
These ruminations are occasioned by the recent death of Sidney Verba at age 86. His life has justly been celebrated for his amazing scholarly productivity, his remarkable administrative leadership at Harvard, and, above all, for his extraordinary personal gifts of gentleness, generosity, humility, and decency. Sid Verba, the son of Jewish immigrants from Moldova, was the ultimate mensch.
In retrospect, The Civic Culture was not even the most important item on Verba’s immense bibliography, though a passionate concern for equality remained the lodestar of all his work.
But at a time in which many are asking how we can stabilize and renew democracy in (ironically) the United States and Great Britain, we should celebrate Sidney Verba’s landmark contribution to our continuing quest to understand the preconditions for democracy. Nowadays it seems obvious that political orders arise out of and depend upon (among other things) values and attitudes deep within them, including tolerance and trust, mutual respect across party lines, civic competence, and civic cooperation. Without the work of Sid Verba and those who followed his lead, this would not be so obvious.