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The political psychology of the Czech nation: while the Czech republic has the necessary democratic "hardware" installed (democratic institutions), we are still struggling to install the right "software" (social capital, democratic mentality, and civic society).

A little less than a century ago, the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, expressed that two generations or sixty years would pass before the newly-constitued democratic state of Czechoslovakia saw real democracy. Does the same hold true today for our twenty-year-old democracy?

The publisher of Pritomnost and this journal, M. J. Stransky, once provocatively noted that "Czechs do not want democracy." He articulated this sentiment throughout our first free decade in articles that he published in Pritomnost. Now we stand at the end of our second democratic decade, and we must recapitulate again. Do Czechs want democracy or not? Though many of Stransky's arguments still apply today, they still do not convince me that the situation begets such an overwhelming conclusion.

Do we have the right soil for democratic growth? How deeply is our totalitarian past rooted in our democratic present? What are our future prospects?

Some time ago now, my colleague I. K. Feierabend and I attempted to "diagnose" Czech pro-democratic tendencies. We sent probes into the psychology of democratism in Central and Eastern Europe, and compared representative samples of (several thousand) Czechs with Slovaks, Bulgarians and Belarusians. We sought to assess people's familiarity with the mindset necessary for democratic functioning: a) civic political culture b) civic ethos (the morals of civic society) and c) civic nationalism.

Civic Political Culture

Civic political culture mainly relates to a group's insight into political events, political convictions, active participation in interest groups, respect of laws, and ability to resist feeling estranged during difficult times. First and foremost, political culture applies to the people of a state, not to elected politicians. In accordance with these criteria, the Czech representative sample did fairly well. Czechs answered as one would expect from sophisticated and democratically-thoughtful citizens. Their democratism was defined by realistic reservation--it neither reflected the Belarusian's uncritical enthusiasm for democracy nor the disappointed estrangement found in Bulgarians and Slovakians.

Sociological research has affirmed the Czech's reserved sobriety towards democracy. The Public Opinion Research Center (CVVM) discovered that Czechs share a strong dissatisfaction with how democracy functions in their country; this does not mean, however, that they do not want it. Concurrently, (in similarly high numbers) Czechs agree with Churchill's opinion that democracy is the smallest of all evils. This conflict is motivational in nature, and still gives hope for the future.

Our study proved another fundamentally Czech characteristic: moral and immoral inflexibility. Czech inflexibility manifested as the inclination to rebel against the government and the reluctance to respect laws (even ones established under democracy). Evidently, Czechs did not acknowledge the responsibility that is required by living under the rule of law.

Civic Ethos and Decency

A major aspect of pro-democratic culture is civic ethos: civic virtues and morals. In Anglo-Saxon culture, this is referred to as civility. It includes decency (in the deeper sense of the word), honesty, trust, understanding the balance between freedom and responsibility, and tolerance to those who differ in social status, ethnic origin, lifestyle, etc.

In our research, Czech responses depicted a fairly benevolent, tolerant and trustworthy society. Czechs were more trustworthy of their fellow citizens than people in Belarus and Bulgaria were of their respective country mates. Czechs also showed greater personal responsibility, less inclination towards state paternalism and yes, even more diligence. They exhibited a high level of tolerance towards women's emancipation and homosexuality, but not towards people of different social groups. And even though Czech citizens did not exhibit great respect for law, they expressed a wish for stricter laws regarding certain social groups.

Categorized as "tolerant, liberal, and free-living" in our poll, we found that the sentiment "live and let live," or perhaps "live and have fun" prevailed amongst Czechs. This sentiment is typically found in better-educated and more well-off groups. The people of Slovakia, Belarus and Bulgaria did not share this philosophy; from a statistical perspective, it was rather irrelevant in those countries.

Czechs also exhibited signs of being dismissive in nature and having passive addictiveness. Studies have shown that this negative mindset is a symptom of post-communist or post-totalitarian syndrome, and our research confirmed that. In clinical psychology, this symptom is referred to as learned hopelessness. The sentiment is usually found in less-educated and poorer people because they are physically unable to adapt to new conditions brought on by free society. This attitude was more prominent in Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Belarus, but still significant in the Czech Republic.

Civic Nationalism

The third pro-democratic disposition is civic nationalism. In this regard and as we expected, we found that Czechs mainly identity their "Czechness" with aspects of national culture--primarily language and least significantly religion. In contrast, a similar study conveyed that American students associate their identity with civic values: mainly freedom, equality, and democracy.

Nationalism and (Dis)belief

Many people are disturbed by Czech agnosticism or atheism, and see it as a handicap in the development of democracy. Our results prove that conservative (Christian) values and model democratic citizenship are strongly connected. We discovered a similar, though weaker connection between model democratic citizenship and the societies that are "tolerant, liberal, and free-living." After all, atheistic humanism does exist, and despite the lack of devotion to the Church and God, Czechs do exhibit a form of spirituality which is defined by eco-spirituality and moral involvement.

Thus, while religion and democracy can go hand in hand, democracy does not need religion to flourish when the basis of society is grounded in civic virtues (e.g., Scandinavia or the Netherlands). What democracy does require is a moral compass: a system of civic virtues.

Here and Now

While some may claim, "Today we live in the best era of our recent history" (Vaclav Klaus, New Year's speech, 2008) and rely on materialistic arguments, others fear the moral and political degeneration of Czech society. People are also afraid that "nothing has changed:" the same old relationship still exists between the "regular" people and those with power who are bloated with arrogance and ignorant of decency.

Last year, my colleague Mr. Kostal and I inquired through the TNS-AISA opinion polls agency how Czech people perceive societal changes since 1989 (See Graph 1). Only one-third of people indicated that they welcomed the changes.

CVVM systematically observes the position and opinions of Czech citizens, and Graph 2 conveys the development of their opinions over time. It reveals that in the second half of the nineties, a large proportion of the population went through transformational shock. Even CVVM concludes that only about one-third of all citizens prefer the current situation to the past, a further third has mixed feelings, and the last third is comprised of people who prefer the pre-1989 regime or are not able to answer the question (this category increases with the natural drop in elderly).

The source of this sentiment lies in psychological theory. The renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow's theory on the hierarchy of needs helps explain our situation. Before 1989, the population only had access to basic or "deficit" needs, and these were easily satisfied. Today, as society has become freer, more personal opportunity exists to reach and satisfy higher needs. This freedom and individualism means, however, that the government no longer ensures that basic needs are satisfied (to the extent that they were under communism), and this fact has sat quite uncomfortably with much of the population. For example, the government's decision last fall to implement very low doctor visitation fees (where there used to be none) sent Czech society up in absolute arms.

A study conducted last year asked respondents in an open-ended question to share what bothered them most about communism. One-third of respondents spontaneously wrote down the lack of freedom (hypocrisy and snitching, etc.). More than one-fourth of the respondents claimed that nothing before 1989 angered or bothered them. Of course, every year the number of people who've never had direct experiences with communism increases, but the more significant factor in this discussion is the role selective memory plays. Nor, however, can one deny or ignore the fact that the last regime really was acceptable to many people.

The study conveyed that people were a lot more critical of the current era; only a very few did not have anything to complain about. In another open-ended question regarding what annoys them most now, most people spontaneously conveyed their anger towards the behavior of politicians. In direct questions, respondents were bothered by two sets of problems: economic uncertainty and the worsening of human relations (lies and corruption in politics, but also the fear of criminals, arrogance in businesses, discrimination, and general aggression and addiction.

In CVVM polls which compare life before 1989 and life now, people--especially the elderly--are mostly concerned with feeling less secure today (social security has decreased and unemployment rates have increased), and they mostly praise freedom, the ability to travel, and the access to information. CCVM surveys also reveal that human relations are in fact deteriorating: rates of corruption have increased alongside civic and economic crime; politicians act increasingly arrogant; and general envy, intolerance, and greed run throughout all levels of society.

But shouldn't one expect human relations to improve in a free society? Here in the Czech Republic we are currently bearing witness to the abuse of democratic freedoms by extremists from the left as well as the right. Instead of reconciling ourselves with the past and founding respectable institutions, we direct our political will elsewhere and mock the humanist slogan for the struggle against lies and envy as "truth-loving."


Even so, even in the face of all these worries and fears, when asked: "was the change in 1989 worth it despite all this?" a clear majority (almost two-thirds) answers positively.


Czechs have, in this second decade after the Velvet Revolution, shown a reasonable amount of democratic conviction in absence of unproductive illusions or estrangement. But it seems that we are more critical of our present than our unfortunate past; it seems that we have forgotten more than we should, and it is disconcerting that almost one-third of the population is nostalgic for the "old order." But dissatisfaction with democracy and reality is more motivating than disarming. And lest we forget..."It was worth it!"
Graph 1.
Czech Perceptions of the Changes in Society since 1989
(Source: TNS-AISA)

Not Sure, N/A 4 %
Very Satisfied 8 %
Very Disappointed 8 %
Rather Satisfied 25 %
Rather Disappointed 19 %
Not Satisfied, Not Disappointed 36 %
Rather Satisfied 25%

Note: Table made from pie chart.

Martina Klicperova-Baker is a senior research scholar at the Institute of Psychology, Academy of Sciences, Prague.
COPYRIGHT 2009 Martin Jan Stransky
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Klicperova-Baker, Martina
Publication:The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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