Special Orders  

Seymour Martin Lipset and the Study of Democracy

Larry Diamond
Hoover Institution, Stanford University
Gary Marks
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Throughout this century, and especially since World War II, no theme has more preoccupied the fields of comparative politics and political sociology than the nature, conditions and possibilities of democracy. And no political scientist or sociologist has contributed more to advancing our thinking about democracy--in all its dimensions, both comparatively and in the United States--than Seymour Martin Lipset. 

Among his seminal publications are Agrarian Socialism (1950), which investigates the conditions of radicalism in the United States and Canada; Political Man (1960), an immensely influential analysis of the bases of democracy across the world; The First New Nation (1963), which analyzes democracy and its development in the United States from a comparative perspective; Consensus and Conflict (1985), a wide-ranging study of how democracies are shaped by social cleavages; and Continental Divide (1990), which compares culture, society, politics and economy in the United States and Canada. 

Lipset was an undergraduate at City College of New York and completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1948. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley (1948-50 and 1956-66), Columbia University (1950-56), Harvard University (1966-75) where he was George D. Markham Professor of Government, the Hoover Institution (1976- ), Stanford University (1976-82) where he was Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science and Sociology, and George Mason University (1990- ) where he is Hazel Professor of Public Policy. Lipset has held more than twenty offices in professional societies, including president of the World Association for Public Opinion Research, president of the International Society of Political Psychology, and vice president of the International Political Science Association. He has authored or co-authored 21 books, numerous scholarly articles, and has edited or co-edited a further 25 books. No living political scientist or sociologist is more frequently cited by other scholars. In 1991 Lipset became the only social scientist ever to serve as president of both the American Sociological Association and the American Political Science Association. 

Of course, no article could do justice to the wide-ranging intellectual contributions of Seymour Martin Lipset. His books and articles have sought to elucidate such diverse phenomena as the political and social origins of socialism (or the absence of socialism), fascism, revolution, protest, ethnic prejudice, anti-Semitism, and political extremism; the sources and consequences of class structure, class consciousness, class conflict, and social mobility; the links between historical and social cleavages, party systems, and voter alignments; voter preferences and electoral outcomes; the dense reciprocal relations between values and institutions; the changing character of such diverse and specific institutions as trade unions and higher education (and even unions in higher education!); the determinants and dynamics of public opinion and public confidence in institutions; the role of religion in American life; the political behavior of American Jews; the conditions of the democratic order; and the differences between cultures, especially the contrast (which has fascinated him throughout his scholarly life) between Canada and the United States. Across this sweeping landscape of classical and pioneering issues in the social sciences, Lipset has brought a consistently lucid and striking accessible analytical style, and a breathtaking array of sources and evidence, that have made his works among the most popular and widely used, both by teachers and by researchers. More striking still, virtually every one of these issues he has explored authoritatively, both across nations and with a specific focus on the United States. And he has published with equal distinction as a social historian and as an astute commentator on the politics, culture, and conflicts of our time. Can any living social scientist lay claim to such a broad and broadly honored set of works? 

Yet, within this great and restless diversity of questions, issues, methods and foci, we think there lies a core theme to Lipset's work. That core is the conditions, problems, dynamics, values, and institutions of democracy, both in the United States and comparatively throughout the world. 

One of the richest and most important currents in Lipset's work has concerned the conditions of the democratic order. Very few contributions on this theme have proven more seminal and durable over time than his 1959 article in the American Political Science Review, "Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy" (republished in Political Man as "Economic Development and Democracy"). Lipset's assertion of a direct relationship between economic development and democracy has been subjected to extensive empirical examination, both quantitative and qualitative, in the past 30 years. And the evidence shows, with striking clarity and consistency, a strong causal relationship between economic development and democracy. The relationship is not as linear as Lipset implied. It has been subject to weakening or reversal at middle levels of development. But across a wide range of studies, with a great variety of samples, time periods, and statistical methods, the level of economic development--or, as Diamond has slightly reformulated it, the level of "human development"--continues to be the single most powerful predictor of the likelihood of democracy. Moreover, there is much historical evidence to support Lipset's hypotheses about the causal dynamics involved: that development promoters democracy by generating more democratic values and attitudes, a less polarized class structure, a larger middle class, and a more vigorous, autonomous associational life. It is these intervening variables, Diamond shows in his reexamination both of Lipset's theory and of the evidence, that hold the key to developing stable democracy. 

In this liberal, pluralist approach to the conditions of the democratic order, which pervades his writing on the subject through the decades, Lipset has been heavily influenced by classical political thinkers, dating back to Aristotle. Indeed, he frequently acknowledges this intellectual debt, as with the selections from Aristotle that introduce Political Man. These passages emphasize the crucial link between political order and a rule of law; the dangers of political extremism and unfettered populism; the importance to democracy of limited inequality, a large middle class, and political moderation. These themes resonate powerfully and continuously through Lipset's writings on politics and governance and have significantly shaped his theoretical and philosophical approach. 

Of course, as with any great social scientist, Lipset's thinking has been strongly influenced by preceding theorists, including Robert Michels, Talcott Parsons, Karl Marx and, perhaps most of all, Max Weber. But with reference to the conditions of democracy, Lipset's intellectual affinity with Alexis de Tocqueville is also noteworthy. As Lipset observes in his introduction to Political Man, Tocqueville, struggling with the same momentous, nineteenth-century issues and conflicts as Karl Marx, came to very different conclusions. Rejecting the desirability or inevitability of conflict polarization and revolution, Tocqueville "deliberately chose to emphasize those aspects of social units which could maintain political cleavage and political consensus at the same time" (Lipset 1981/1959, 7). This concern for the factors that contain political conflict within a framework of consensus, and so neutralize the demand for violent and revolutionary change, has been an enduring theme in Lipset's writings on democracy and society. Following Tocqueville, it has led him to an intellectual and normative interest in gradual change, political accommodation, and the sources of political legitimacy; in limiting the power of the state; and in independent, voluntary associations as one important means for controlling the state and otherwise developing the social infrastructure of a free society. 

An abiding concern for avoiding the polarization of conflict, the formation of extremist political movements and preferences, or the elimination of all conflict in a state-dominated "mass society," runs through Lipset's writing on the conditions of the democratic order. In Political Man he demonstrates the importance, for these democratic ends, of historical legitimacy, effective performance, social mobility, cross-cutting cleavages, as well as the gradual incorporation into the polity of newly mobilizing social groups. His analyses there of the dynamics of legitimacy and the effects of cleavage structure are among the clearest and most compelling in political sociology. These and related issues of democratic development are further advanced in The First New Nation, which highlights the importance of political leadership and political values, and the determinants and consequences of party systems. 

Few, if any, scholars of the conditions of democracy have been more concerned than Lipset with various forms of conflict and competition. Democracy, according to Lipset, "requires institutions which support conflict and disagreement as well as those which sustain legitimacy and consensus" (Lipset 1981/1959, 439). Lipset is clearly in the Schumpeterian tradition that views free competition among political parties as a defining feature of democracy. 

From the time of his Ph.D. dissertation and first published book, Agrarian Socialism: The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan, which compared the contrasting experiences of left radicalism in Saskatchewan and the American northwest, to his most recent book [American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword], Lipset has sought to explain the unique character of American politics. In this project he has consistently elaborated the view that the United States is exceptional among the English-speaking settler societies. The most striking evidence of this is the unique absence in the United States of a socialist or labor party, the relative weakness of class consciousness and labor organization, and the relative paucity of welfare provision, topics that Lipset has explored in detail in many publications spanning the last four decades. 

Virtually all of Lipset's writings on the conditions and character of democracy in America and throughout the world are comparative. Both The First New Nation and Continental Divide are motivated by the conviction that an understanding of American politics and society involves a comparative perspective that is best pursued by comparing the United States to countries that it is most similar to, i.e. English-speaking developed countries, and particularly Canada. Lipset's classic analyses of the economic conditions of democracy (in Political Man) and the development of party systems (written with Stein Rokkan and republished in Consensus and Conflict) are wide-ranging, cross-national comparisons. In staking out new areas of inquiry and guiding subsequent research, Lipset's writings also demonstrate the scope and power of comparison in the study of society. 

Larry Diamond is Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and by courtesy a professor of political science and sociology at Stanford University. He is the author of Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming 1999) and the editor or co-editor of many books on democratic development, including (with Seymour Martin Lipset and Juan Linz) Democracy in Developing Countries (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1988 and 1989) and Politics in Developing Countries (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1995). Diamond is the co-editor of Journal of Democracy and co-director of the National Endowment for Democracy's International Forum for Democratic Studies, in Washington, D.C. He is a visiting scholar, during the 1997-98 academic year, at the Sun Yat-Sen Institute for Social Sciences and Philosophy of the Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. 

Gary Marks is professor of political science and director of the Center for European Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Topics of his research and writing have included the European Union, the development of the political left in Western democracies, American exceptionalism, and the politics of economic policy. His most recent publications are Governance in the European Union (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1996) with Fritz Scharpf, Wolfgang Streeck, and Philippe Schmitter; and Continuity and Change in Contemporary Capitalist Societies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998) with Herbert Kitschelt, Peter Lange, and John Stephens. 

This essay is reprinted with the permission of Sage Publications, Inc. from Reexamining Democracy: Essays in Honor of Seymour Martin Lipset, eds. Gary Marks and Larry Diamond. Copyright 1992 by Sage Publications, Inc. 


Lipset, Seymour Martin. Agrarian Socialism: The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan, rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971/1950. 

Lipset, Seymour Martin. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. 

Lipset, Seymour Martin. Consensus and Conflict. New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1985. 

Lipset, Seymour Martin. Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada. New York: Routledge, 1990. 

Lipset, Seymour Martin. The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979/1973. 

Lipset, Seymour Martin. Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics, 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. 

Marks, Gary and Larry Diamond, eds. Reexamining Democracy: Essays in Honor of Seymour Martin Lipset. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1992. 

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