A Review of Making Democracy Work, a book by Robert Putnam

by Howard Fienberg

for professor Andreas Pickel (PO450: Democracy and Democratic Movements)

Robert D. Putnam explicitly states his aim in writing Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy in the introduction. Putnam seeks to understand the conditions for developing "strong, responsive, effective representative institutions." (Putnam 6) As such, the case of Italy represents an "unparalleled opportunity" to make "a comparative study of the dynamics and ecology of institutional development." (6-7)

Putnam makes an intense comparative study of Italy's regional governments, and comes to some interesting conclusions. While much of the "established theory and research link effective and stable democracy to socioeconomic modernization," (Maraffi 1348) Putnam concludes that "economics does not predict civics, but civics does predict economics, better than economics itself." (Putnam 157) He actualizes on what he has dubbed 'civicness,' or a sense of civic community. He finds that the creation and sustenance of it is provided by a "dense network of secondary associations." (Putnam 376)

These secondary organizations are the main source of social capital, which are characteristics of social association, "such as trust, norms, and networks" which facilitate the workings of the society as a whole. (Putnam 167) While mass-based political parties engender these as well, Putnam chooses to focus on the secondary organizations precisely because they "represent historical interactions among equals" as opposed to the hierarchical links of parties. (Levi 177) Within the "long-term persistence" of this varied civic community, Putnam "accounts for the variation in the possibility and capacity of representative institutions." (Levi 177)


Taking a step back, one sees how this work fits into the larger field of democratic theory. Putnam has hit upon something which turns much of modern wisdom on its very head.

Economists and political scientists flood developing countries advising them to try Big Bang liberal democracy: install the institutions of democracy and capitalism, and the people will follow. Particularly in the former communist countries, one sees a backlash, and certain failures, of this system. Poland, for instance, has been the most orthodox in its adoption of democratic and capitalist reforms. The people have been accepting great loads of what they have been told is short term pain, but of which they are tired. This has seen expression in the recent election of a former Communist to the position of President, replacing Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity movement which dislodged the old regime and instigated the reforms.

One wonders if the Eastern European states developed a certain civic community under communism. There was certainly social capital which lent legitimacy to the regimes over time, because it was not just the threat of invasion from the Soviet Union that kept them that way.

Ralf Dahrendorf, in his Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, finds a proportional relationship between the application of force and suppression and the tendency towards violent unrest and revolt among the subject populace. Therefore, he smugly states, with the advantage of hindsight, that communist rule was bound to be overthrown eventually; all it took was the right amount of suppression to push the populace over the edge to revolt. Dahrendorf emphasizes the need to develop civicness in the aftermath of communism. This assumes that none of the countries had a history of civicness, even before communism. This may be seen to be untrue, at least for a nation such as Czechoslovakia, which maintained a decent liberal democracy between the world wars. However, it bears the ring of truth for most of the rest of Eastern Europe, which has been ruled by a succession of dictatorships of one sort or another since time memorial.

Perhaps what is called into account here then is not civicness existing in these states in general, but to what degree, for communism did instill a certain civic virtue in its subject populace. That virtue was, however, often limited, and regionally varied. What has been called the Northern tier of Eastern Europe has latched onto liberal democracy much more strongly than the rest, and this regional disparity would certainly seem to reflect the varying degrees of civic community, along the lines of Putnams' theorizing.

Certain of the problems of Southern Italy that Putnam uncovers bear stark resemblance to those of Eastern Europe. Foreign manipulation is one of the most important, for the civic virtues under totalitarianism would not have been possible without their support from abroad. "For centuries foreign ruling elites" ran Southern Italy. (Donovan 197) These elites sowed distrust and conflict among the populace, "destroying horizontal ties of solidarity in order to maintain the primacy of vertical ties of dependence and exploitation." (Putnam 136) This prevented any true civic virtue from developing.

Indeed, "this particular study of local government has implications that extend considerably beyond Italian borders." The conclusions he reaches will find a warm reception from modern developmental theorists, whom are on a search for reasoning behind "such variegated and uneven development," why Western development motifs do not seem to succeed when enacted in different environments. (LaPalombara 549)


Italian northerners stereotype that Italy, from Rome south, is really part of Africa, and hence, still underdeveloped. Conceivably, "compared to the North, the southern regions are no better off today than they were in 1970." (Putnam 184) The explanations promoted by Putnam are, however, not without opposition.

Leonardo Morlino calls much of Putnam's methodology into question. Putnam's concept of civic virtue "seems very Tocquevillean and American-centric" to Morlino; he offers an alternative which could conceive of civicness as characterized by "full acceptance of the principle of legality and the rights and obligations of citizenship." (Morlino 177)

Morlino also has difficulty with some of the historical relationships which are made. Not only is there a problem with the civic traditions of the 1860-1920 and the Fascist period, but there is complaint that Putnam oversimplifies the complexities of Southern feudalism and the communal republicanism of the North.

Marco Maraffi has difficulty with the evidence used in Putnam's study since, "after all, Italy's regions are fairly weak institutions, not comparable with, say, the American states." (Maraffi 1349) Perhaps one could conclude that his American-centric viewpoint has equivocated the two.


Overall, Roger Putnam's book tends to "reinforce the conviction of those in Italy who believe that ... the regional reforms of the early 1970's have been largely a failure." (LaPalombara 550) At the same time, he is servicing the larger debate on democratization by forwarding his own views on civic virtue as a motivator for the success of democratic institutions. While some criticism is leveled against his theories, reviewers tend to respect and value his conclusions, if not wholly accept them.

Works Cited

Dahrendorf, Ralf. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe . New York: Times Books, 1990.

Donovan, Mark. "Making Democracy Work [book review]" West European Politics . vol. 17, January 1994. (195-7)

LaPalombara, Joseph. "Making Democracy Work [book review]" Political Science Quarterly . vol. 108, Fall 1993. (549-50)

Levi, Margaret. "Making Democracy Work [book review]" Comparative Political Studies . vol. 26, October 1993. (375-9)

Maraffi, Marco. "Making Democracy Work [book review]" American Journal of Sociology . vol. 99, March 1994. (1348-9)

Morlino, Leonardo. "Italy's Civic Divide." Journal of Democracy . vol. 6, January 1995. (173-7)

Putnam, Robert D., Robert Leonardi and Rffaella Y. Nanetti Making Democracy Work . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.


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