Robin Leblanc - Associate Professor of Political Science, Washington & Lee University
At least since the publication of Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work, students of democracy have argued that, in the proper sort of associational life, citizens adopt norms of generalized reciprocity and learn to trust even those with whom they have weak ties. These notions of trust and reciprocity are presumed to reinforce practices that support good democratic government and combat patronage and, thus, corruption. Better democratic government is the product of a vigorous civil society.
But are we looking at the whole picture? In my examination of small-town, patron-client politics in Japan, I argue that notions of generalized trust and reciprocity are also essential to patronage politics; we simply have trouble seeing them because, in traditionalist politics, generalized trust and reciprocity are produced through social structures we often assume are not fundamental to political life. In the case I examine, widely shared expectations about “masculine” behavior provide a basis for trust and reciprocity that sustains practices of patronage politics among men who have only weak ties to each other. In such a situation, a demand for transparent democratic practice becomes a stance against structures that have long served to generalize community trust. The evidence in my Japanese case suggests that social scientists need gender-sensitized “eyes” in order to fully see the fundamental structures of civil society. More than that, my case suggests that social scientists who want to understand how democratic practices are sustained must look beyond the structure of civil society to the ethical content of community discourse. Democratic practice does depend upon citizens’ enunciations of a democratic ethic.