Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

S. M. Lipset and the fragility of democracy

Seymour Martin Lipset passed away eleven years ago. If he had lived, he would have celebrated his 95th birthday on 18 March. Today, his prolific scholarship remains as timely and influential as when he was an actively engaged author. Google Scholar reports 13,808 citations between 2012 and the beginning of 2017. All of Lipset’s papers have been collected at the Library of Congress and soon will be available to researchers. One cannot think of other contemporary social scientists of his caliber who remain as relevant.

Two years before Lipset’s passing, the Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture called ‘Democracy in the World’ was jointly inaugurated by the National Endowment for Democracy and the Munk School of Public Affairs at the University of Toronto. The annual lecture, delivered in both the United States and Canada, is subsequently published in the Journal of Democracy. The 13 lectures delivered thus far reflect and extend Lipset’s concerns with the conditions needed for the emergence and sustaining of democracy, and do so by moving outside the Anglo-American and Eurocentric world to Russia, China, Latin America, and the Arab world (e.g., Pierre Hassner’s “Russia’s Transition to Autocracy” (2007), Abdou Filali-Ansary’s “The Languages of the Arab Revolution,” (2012), and Anthony J. Nathan’s “The Puzzle of the Chinese Middle Class.” (2016).

In all the discussions of the difficulty of establishing democratic governance and its fragility in newly democratized states, there had been little concern with anti-democratic drifts in Western Europe, the Anglo-American countries, and particularly the United States. But recently, new fears have arisen, as nationalist movements opposed to immigrants and globalization have grown in these countries. Larry Diamond, writing shortly before the outcome of the 2016 US election, discerned the growing decline in support for pluralism and democratic procedures. His discussion refers back to Lipset’s analysis, co-authored with Earl Raab in 1978, of “procedural extremism,” where diverse perspectives become defined as illegitimate and their expression is shut down.

Political scientist: Seymour Martin Lipset by Hoover Institution. Fair Use by Wikimedia Commons.

Not only has Lipset been called on to explain current challenges to democracy, but his past writing has also been invoked to understand why particular population groups have been mobilized to support those challenges. Donald Trump’s rise to political power and election as President is now linked to Lipset’s concept of working class authoritarianism, published in Political Man (1960). From news analyses to empirical academic studies (presciently, Hetherington and Weiler 2009; MacWilliams 2016), authors attribute a considerable part of Trump’s attraction of working class voters to the latter’s authoritarian views.

Lipset’s affection for Canada and his use of that country as a contrast to the United States, thus illuminating critical characteristics of both countries, continues to inspire others to mine differences and similarities between the two and to test Lipset’s explanations for why differences continue to exist. For example, Moore et al. (2016) examine differences in attitudes toward crime and justice, and conclude from parallel surveys done on each side of the border that Lipset’s (1990) hypothesis about value differences has strong empirical support. Lipset’s model for the close study of two such similar countries remains inspirational and was recognized by the Canadian Politics Section of the American Political Science Association, beginning in 2011, when the Section inaugurated its book prize award and named it in his honor.

Lipset’s work on political parties and social stratification are additional areas that continue to provoke new questions and new research. Bornschier (2009) reviews work on the continuing relevance of the concept of cleavage to party formation in both old and new democracies. He concludes that, by putting “primary emphasis on the enduring character of collective political identifications resulting from large-scale societal transformations as the defining element of cleavages,” the concept retains its broad efficacy.

Similarly, Achterberg (2006) examines the continued relevance of social class in understanding voting behavior in 20 western countries. Using party manifestos and data from the World Values Surveys, he concludes, in an elaboration on Lipset, that societal changes and the emergence of new issues have not caused class voting to disappear but to undermine its dominance.

Happy birthday Marty—friend, mentor, inspiration. Rest in peace—your work lives on.

Featured image credit: Ottawa – ON – Parliament Hill by Wladyslaw, CC BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Dennis Gale, Stanford University

    Thank you to Mildred A. Schwartz for her blog piece on Seymour Martin Lipset. Like thousands of others, I had the good fortune to study under Prof. Lipset as a grad student. His course on Political Extremism opened my eyes to the backwaters of American political expression in the 19th and 20th centuries. More to the point, Lipset “recontextualized” my comprehension of the American democratic experience. Later pursuing a career in academe, I drew on his insights and writings time and time again.

Comments are closed.