Political Behavior, Vol. 23, No. 3, September 2001 ( 2002)
DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL COMPETENCE:
Clearing the Underbrush and a
Though the link between democracy and an appropriately trained citizen is obvious,
the theoretical and empirical nature of this association is murky despite mountains of
scholarship addressing this topic. Part of this problem is that the term “democratic
competence” has been stretched almost to the point of uselessness. This constant add-
ing of desired traits—many of which are ideologically driven—misdirects effort away
from such complexproblems as the relationship between individual attributes and
collective capacities. Moreover, recent research has often been guilty of using data of
uncertain relevance to demonstrate a competence that seems largely an analytical
artifact. We conclude by offering an approach that stresses “old- fashioned” traits such
as patriotism that seem necessary to the existing, and quite democratic, status quo.
Key words: democracy; political competence; citizenship; civic education.
That democracy cannot exist amid a citizenry incapable of executing its
conditions is now axiomatic. Today’s growing impetus for worldwide demo-
cratic governance has made this connection especially urgent. If the dismal
lessons of exporting democratic infrastructure teach us anything, it is that
institutional reform fails miserably without a receptive populace. This is hardly
recent news. Well over a century ago American educators, faced with surging
immigration, correctly grasped that democratic habits were hardly spontane-
ous. These vital inclinations had to be tediously inculcated, not left to chance,
and this demanded a colossal undertaking. This instructional legacy continues
to thrive: perfunctory pledges of allegiances, legally mandated US history
classes, obligatory classroom elections, and untold other rituals are all justified
as building “proficient democratic citizenship.”
Robert Weissberg, Department of Political Science, University of Illinois–Urbana, 702 S.
Wright Street, 361 Lincoln Hall, Urbana, IL 61801 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
0190-9320/01/0900-0257/0 2002 Plenum Publishing Corporation