Due to the worldwide proliferation of democratic regimes based on citizen participation, political culture has been the subject of study by political science since the 1950’s.

Political culture is the way in which people think and act with respect to the political process and its institutions. This means that to understand a country’s political culture it is essential first to know how the people think: what are their opinions, attitudes, doctrines and values in the political field. Secondly, citizens’ habits in terms of political action must be considered. It is essential not to place more importance on political thought than on political behavior, or vice versa. Both dimensions of the political culture, theory and practice, deserve equal consideration. This dual dimension of political culture does not mean that the ideas cause action, or that political behavior causes the political thought, though certainly there is a dialogue between the two. Political ideas and political action influence each other.

Perhaps more importantly, it must be made clear that the ways of thinking and acting in the political arena do not happen in a vacuum. They are connected to the particular cultural and historical experiences and circumstances of each country. Therefore, political cultures differ from one society to the next, reflecting each country’s own particularities and creating its own institutions. It should be expected that the political culture of each country is unique, although it shares thoughts and actions with societies with similar political histories. From that starting point, one can say that there is something called the Puerto Rican political culture and that it deserves study as a way to understand the particular way that democratic life is organized in Puerto Rico.

What do studies say about the Puerto Rican political culture and its particular characteristics in terms of ideas and habits of political action? How do Puerto Rican citizens think and act with respect to the political processes that touch their daily lives? How is the political culture different from that of other societies with similar forms of government?

Studies have been done in Puerto Rico that help understand the Puerto Rican political culture. By using various research strategies and focusing on multiple dimensions of political culture from sociological, psychological and anthropological points of view, these studies agree in describing a country with its own political personality from which the Puerto Rican people face and deal with their reality. In broad terms, Puerto Rico is characterized by broad political participation, especially in elections, in all social sectors. At the same time, this mass participation takes place, ironically, in the context of a lack of confidence by Puerto Ricans in the political institutions. For example, they support the rule of political parties but simultaneously say they do not trust them. The empirical evidence of the important role that party loyalty plays in the public sphere, however, shows that increasingly voters are making personal evaluations of the candidates based on considerations of family continuity and personal interests and ties, rather than confidence in the parties. Studies also portray a society marked by populist attitudes and the belief that public policy responds to corporate economic interests more than to the general public interest, but this does not prevent all social sectors, including the poorest, from mass participation in elections, with the voting demographic dominated by older people and women.

But while electoral participation is valued, there is little evidence of confidence in other forms of direct political participation that are common in other democratic states, such as the right to petition the government, citizen (community) initiatives, strikes and boycotts. The authoritarian tradition the island has experienced since the days of the Spanish empire (and later by the administrative institutions imposed by the United States) explains, in part, why Puerto Ricans are interested in participating in the election of governing officials (through the vote) but not in challenging or questioning their authority once elected. Many believe that a good attribute for a governing official to have is the ability to impose authority on the island’s political life and institutions.

Another contradiction is that the political culture in Puerto Rico is marked by a tolerance for social injustice (which contributes to daily violence and exclusion) while at the same time valuing the individual rights and social services the state provides, such as education, health care, housing, security and labor. The value placed on welfare state practices is typical of poor countries, which place a priority on the stability of primary public services. However, this political culture also shows characteristics of rich countries, where the populist tradition sees social mobility as an efficient way to attain individual prosperity. The aspiration of social mobility, based on individualistic attitudes, predisposes Puerto Ricans to obey establishment authorities and weakens, in turn, the idea of direct political action as an imperative for creating a more just and cohesive world. This swing of the pendulum between dependence on the social services of the welfare state on one hand, and the aspirations for social mobility on the other, creates confusion and contradictions in the Puerto Rican political culture. The short-term and long-term effects of this disturbed and uncertain panorama are difficult to predict in terms of party affiliation trends, electoral behavior and the true odds of democratic maturation in the future institutional development of Puerto Rico.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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