Partial Visions: Culture and Politics in Britain, Canada, and the United States

Richard M. Merelman

Warning: Canadian popular culture may be hazardous to the country's democratic health. Or, so, one might simplistically infer from Merelman's closely-argued case about the state of liberal democracy in Canada, the United States and Britain, based upon their respective popular cultures. Central to the study is the concept of conflictive democratic participation (CDP) that the author, an American political theorist, characterizes as a distinguishing feature of democracy.

The title refers to the selective popular culture data revelatory of dominant cultural configurations that at some point affect the CDP level in all three countries. Merelman appropriates the language of symbolic anthropologists who insist collective representations constitute cultures, and fastens onto four he regards as among the most prominent in the popular culture of liberal democracies: the family, the corporation, the polity and the world of consumption. Popular culture as a touchstone of mass opinion offers four parallel and accessible sources of empirical data: television situation comedies, corporate publications, social studies textbooks and magazine ads. The largely uncharted nature of this exploration for a political scientist may account for some of the apparent tentativeness, but Merelman is not dissuaded from asserting that popular culture creates a system of discourse that reproduces and links elements of liberalism together in accessible and attractive forms of narrative.

Merelman claims that the greater frequency with which CDP is depicted in or advanced by popular culture, the healthier democracy becomes. He musters a feeble hurrah for democracy in disclosing that the United States exhibits the least amount of CDP, Canada some, and Britain the most. His analysis of the data--a truly prodigious amassing of mid-1980s material in the four categories from the three countries--leads Merelman to lament that CDP virtually fades from view in the United States, is hardly better in Canada although the cultural raw materials for it exist, and is most apparent in Britain due, in part, to its strong and clearly distinguishable political parties that promote class tensions and adversarial group relations.

In the American case, too many narratives accentuating group harmony and personal lifestyles, e.g., happy sitcom endings and magazine ads promoting individuality over a social life, dilute the democratic virtu of CDP. If anything, house organs of major corporations and high school social studies texts recounting U.S. political history blur group differences and dampen conflict. In Canada's case, Merelman suggests that navel-gazing about an unique Canadian culture and identity threatens to vitiate CDP, hence liberal democracy.

Communications and political science students unfamiliar with symbolic anthropology and popular culture will find much here that is understandably dense; however, Merleman is an able guide, and a careful reader will be rewarded with articulate and engrossing, if not compelling, arguments. Merelman's recourse to anthropology doubles as a critique of the political culture studies in political science which to date, he claims, have done little more than to add incrementally to the body of political knowledge. At the same time, his is also an inclusive perspective arguing for the reconciliation of those earlier studies within his alternative approach.

Merelman's perceptive and knowledgeable sections on Canada deserve special mention, less for their keen discernment than for their overly-sensitive concern that it not be seen as an extension of the United States. If it is true that we become what we behold, his analysis of mass Canadian TV fare or exposure to magazines may be overstated. Top-rated Canadian sitcoms during the period under study were more apt to be The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Dallas, and Cheers than The Beachcombers or Danger Bay, and every bit a part of Canadian popular culture. Similarly, the widespread availability of slick U.S. magazines meant that exposure to their advertisements were common to large numbers of Canadians and Americans alike. These points raise questions about whether Merelman's choice of collective representations really reflects deep distinctive cultural configurations or whether the selected indicators of popular culture actually reveal much about collective representations. But, the partial visions of the title address this: deciding what to study is embedded in the study itself, a hazard intrinsic to the social sciences.

On balance, Merleman's smoke-obscured readings of random and flickering shadows cast on the proverbial cave walls make for an intriguing monograph on culture and politics that will affect the way political culture studies in political science are conceived and carried out hereafter.



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