How much does political culture explain?

For decades now, comparativists have debated the usefulness of cultural explanations of political phenomena. In their path-breaking book, The Civic Culture, Almond and Verba argued that there was a relationship between, what they called, a country’s political culture and the nature and quality of democracy. (In fact, the relationship is a bit more complex in that the believed that a country’s political culture mediated the link between individual attitudes and the political system.) Moreover, the political culture was itself a product of underlying and enduring socially cultural factors, such as either an emphasis on the family, bias towards individualism, etc. Although Almond and Verba studied only five countries–the United States, West Germany, Mexico, Italy, and the United Kingdom–they suggested that the results could be generalized to (all) other countries.

How much, however, does culture explain? Can it explain why some countries have strong economies? Or why some countries have strong democracies? We know that cultural traits and values are relatively enduring, so how can we account for change? We know that a constant can not explain a variable.

The 1963 Cover of Almond and Verba's classic work.

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Professor Stephen L. Sass asks whether China can innovate its way to technological and economic dominance over the United States. There is much consternation in the United States over recent standardized test scores showing US students doing poorly, relative to their global peers, on science exams. (How have Canadian students been faring?)

Professor Sass answers his own question in the negative. Why, in his estimation, will China not innovate to the top? In a word (well, actually two words)–political culture:

Free societies encourage people to be skeptical and ask critical questions. When I was teaching at a university in Beijing in 2009, my students acknowledged that I frequently asked if they had any questions — and that they rarely did. After my last lecture, at their insistence, we discussed the reasons for their reticence.

Several students pointed out that, from childhood, they were not encouraged to ask questions. I knew that the Cultural Revolution had upturned higher education — and intellectual inquiry generally — during their parents’ lifetimes, but as a guest I didn’t want to get into a political discussion. Instead, I gently pointed out to my students that they were planning to be scientists, and that skepticism and critical questioning were essential for separating the wheat from the chaff in all scholarly endeavors.

Although Sass admits that there are institutional and other reasons that will also serve to limit China’s future technological innovation, he ends up affirming the primacy of political culture:

Perhaps I’m wrong that political freedom is critical for scientific innovation. As a scientist, I have to be skeptical of my own conclusions. But sometime in this still-new century, we will see the results of this unfolding experiment. At the moment, I’d still bet on America.

Do you agree? What other important political phenomena can be explained by political culture?