Special Orders  

The 1997 Julian J. Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture in Representative Government

Excerpts from Three Lectures on Democracy


 Seymour Martin Lipset

Lecture One: Conditions for Democracy 

Aristotle differentiated between democracy (popular rule), oligarchy (domination by traditional elites), and tyranny (authoritarianism that is mass-based). He hypothesized that the latter two forms, oligarchy and authoritarianism, were most likely to occur amidst a poorer, highly stratified polity, while the former, democracy, was facilitated by a large middle class. Subsequent political thinkers owe a debt to him for the now common discussions of the effects of class distribution on the nature of politics.1 

A move to democracy is not simple. Countries which previously were under dictatorships generally find it difficult to establish a stable democratic system, since aspects of their institutions, traditions, and beliefs may be incompatible with the workings of a free polity. New regimes inherently begin with little or no legitimacy. 

In the past two decades, democracy has spread throughout the world for the first time in human history. It is hard to recall, but just a few years ago the overwhelming majority of the members of the United Nations were not democratic. By 1996, Freedom House reported that 118 of the 191 countries have competitive elections and various guarantees of political and individual rights, a figure which is more than double the number from twenty-five years earlier.2 

Despite the proliferation of democracies, it is still important to inquire why free polities are taking root in some nation states and not in others and why they took place in some earlier than elsewhere. I have dealt with correlates of democratic governance since my first research on the subject in 1959.3 An even earlier work dealing with the general conditions for democracy within private associations and nation states emphasized the role of voluntary associations and a civil society in much the terms that have become widespread in recent years.4 

Since the late 1950s, scores of scholars have confirmed the relationship between economic factors and the level of democratization, and most recent events continue to bear this out.5 Samuel Huntington, who gave the Rothbaum Lecture in 1989 and produced an important work on the Third Wave, groups countries into six civilizations: Anglo-European, Latin American, Slavic-Orthodox, Islamic, Confucian, and African. He found a significant correlation between income and democracy within five of the six--with Islam being the sole outlier.6 While it is misleading to present income, gross domestic product, or industrialization as invariant predictors of political outcomes, the findings make it clear that economic well-being comes close to being a necessary condition for democracy.7 The poorer a polity, the less amenable its leaders or governing elite will be to giving up power, their only source of status and wealth. 

Levels of education, though correlated with income, are independently associated with popular rule. Findings suggest that with each additional year of education, national freedom scores as measured by Freedom House rise by a startling 6.6 percent.8 Some years ago, two sociologists, Alex Inkeles and David Smith, conducted interviews with random samples--a total of 6,000 men--in six developing countries. And they found that: "In large-scale complex societies no attribute of the person predicts . . . attitudes, values, and behavior more consistently or more powerfully than the amount of education received." 9 

The effects of income disparity are also deserving of attention. Holding levels of income constant, democracy has a much greater possibility of developing and enduring in countries in which inequality has been narrowing over time. As Aristotle implied, there is less class conflict or radical efforts to redistribute income as the middle class expands. Third Wave democracies--recent ones like Chile, Spain, Portugal, Korea, and Taiwan--illustrate the point. 

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century world, democratization had its best chance for success in the United States. There the links between the polity and the economy were much more limited and truncated than anywhere else, thus satisfying another major condition for democracy. The elites did not get their economic advantages from a powerful controlling state, but rather from the land and other possessions. The United States had by far a larger middle class, mainly small property holders, than any other country. Its Protestant sectarians, Puritans, Pilgrims, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, Reformed and others--more important there than elsewhere--gave the country greater emphasis on literacy and education. 

Democracy requires a supportive culture, the acceptance by the citizenry and political elites of the principles underlying freedom of speech, media, and assembly; rights of political parties, rule of law, human rights, and the like. Such norms do not evolve overnight. Colonial histories, religious traditions, electoral systems, the shapes that institutions take in response to the cultures in which they develop, help create the fabric of democracy. 

Changes are most effective politically if they occur gradually. Attempts to move suddenly from authoritarianism to democracy have repeatedly failed. Virtually everywhere that democracy has been institutionalized, the process has been incremental and has been marked by guarantees for opposition groups, and critics. Rights have generally emerged in the give and take negotiations of politics. Over four decades ago, in a study of democracy in private organizations, I noted that democratic norms and rules developed largely through the struggles of various groups--religious, ideological, sectional, economic, professional, and so on--against one another, but particularly against the group which controls the polity.10 In many cases, the opposition forces that struggled for rights for themselves were not themselves committed to democratic ideology, but in the context of conflict they helped institutionalize democratic rights and form democratic norms. 

Relevant to this discussion is the peculiar finding that democracy has correlated more highly with former British colonial status than with any other structural variable, even the economic factors. Behind the British and non-British comparison is the fact that many former British-controlled areas--such as our own and Canada before the American Revolution, Australia and New Zealand in the nineteenth century, or India, Ireland, and Nigeria in more recent times--had elections, embryonic parties, and the rule of law while they were still colonies. Their pre-independence political life provided a kind of socialization process, helping to ease the transition to freedom.11 The colonies of other imperial powers (France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Spain) lacked such experiences prior to independence. 

Core religious identities and structures have been powerfully related to regime types. Historically, democracy has not done well in countries dominated by Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Confucianism; conversely, Protestantism and democracy have been associated positively. These differences have been explained in large part by (1) the much greater emphasis on individualism in Protestantism, and (2) the closer links between religion and the state in the other four religions. 

The inverse relationship between democracy and Catholicism has largely disappeared since the Third Wave incorporated many Catholic countries, especially almost all those in Latin America, into the democratic orbit. Catholicism changed after World War II in ways that positively affected the potential for democracy. It has become more accepting of religious and political pluralism, has forbidden the clergy to engage in electoral politics, and has grown more approving of social reform to reduce inequality. 

The Muslim world, however, has remained largely outside the Third Wave. Almost all Islamic polities are still authoritarian. Not surprisingly, Robert Barro finds a significant negative relationship between democracy and the Muslim variable, even when standards of living and other explanatory structural factors are held constant.12 Orthodox Christian lands, which include Russia and the former countries of Yugoslavia, also have (from this point of view) a bad record. Both cultures, the Islamic and the Orthodox Christian, suffer from their failures to separate the religious from the political.13 

New democracies must be institutionalized with stable political parties sustained by workable electoral and administrative systems which rest on legal guarantees. Stable political systems, even authoritarian ones, cannot rely primarily on force. The alternative to force is what social scientists have called legitimacy--a broadly accepted systemic "title to rule." Legitimacy does not flow naturally from the possession of state power in new systems. It involves a widely held set of beliefs that the political institutions, not the particular administration, are the most appropriate ones for a polity. The fountainhead of legitimacy theory, Max Weber, suggests that there are basically three ways in which authority may possess legitimacy.14 

  • Traditional authority, through always having had legitimacy--the title held by monarchical nations is essentially of this type.
  • Rational-legal authority exists in polities in which those in power are obeyed because of an acceptance of the system of rules under which they have won and held office.
  • New states or post-revolutionary systems which inherently lack traditional or rational-legal legitimacy frequently resort to charismatic legitimacy, which rests upon faith in a leader who is believed to be endowed with extremely great personal worth. For new religions, charisma is assumed to come from God, as in the case of religious prophets; in secular politics it may arise from the display of extraordinary talents, particularly in responding to a major need or crisis.
Traditional legitimacy underlies stable authority in polities which have had a continuing oligarchic system. But many contemporary democracies, such as the northern European and British Commonwealth nations, developed their democratic institutions while retaining traditional sources of legitimacy stemming from having been monarchical societies.15 Charismatic legitimacy which, like traditional, involves allegiance to an individual, is discussed below in the context of an analysis of George Washington's role in the United States. 

Rational-legal legitimacy, the acceptance of the rule of law, is weak in most new systems, since the law has previously been identified by much of the population with the interest of a foreign exploiter or a deposed domestic dictator. Efforts to construct rational-legal legitimacy necessarily involve extending the rule of law and the prestige of the courts, which have to be as independent of the rest of the polity as possible. The best immediate institutional advice for new democratic states is to keep, separate, or create a source of authority distinct from the agent of authority. 

Where legitimacy is weak or low, as it inherently is in new states or post-revolutionary ones, it is best upgraded by prolonged effectiveness, wherein the actual performance of the government is effective in satisfying basic needs, as most of the population and key power groups see them.16 

Tocqueville made the infrastructure of civil society, of voluntary associations, a major part of his analysis of why the United States was the first stable democracy. He theorized that the unique rich associational life in the United States, derived, as he suggested, from the fact that religion was a voluntary institution, not state related, was a key to the country's economic and political success as the then only existing democracy. He argued that voluntary organizations stimulate interest in and facilitate activities in the polity at large as well as help constrain the central state power.17 

On the other hand, the absence of civil society in these terms has been used to account for the continuation of authoritarianism in central and eastern Europe, which did not have a history of strong independent voluntary associations. Such institutions took hold in Poland in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the form of the Solidarity movement which was allied to the Catholic church and played a major role in upsetting the Communist regime there. But the problem of a weak civil society continues to plague the countries of the former Soviet Union as they seek to institutionalize democracy. 

Lecture Two: Democracy in the Americas 

An understanding of the factors which have fostered or undermined the prospects for democracy in new post-colonial nations may be obtained by a comparative analysis of those which began independent existence around two centuries ago in the New World. The polities in the Americas, North and South, Anglo Protestant and Latin Catholic, all entered political life as colonies of European powers--Spain, Portugal, France, Britain, and, on a minor scale, the Netherlands and Denmark. The United States (and English Canada) succeeded. The Latin American countries (and Quebec which is Latin and American) failed until recently.18 

The political differences between Latin America and Anglo America have been determined in large measure by variations in the cultures of the imperial powers and the way in which they and their citizens behaved with respect to their colonies. The dominant traditional institutions of the Latin South--the monarchy, the church, and the military--institutionalized authoritarian and hierarchical systems of control. The Spanish kings owned the colonies. Power derived from and returned to the monarchy, while the Catholic church maintained an extremely hierarchical structure and tight control over the spiritual sphere of life. The military, also hierarchical, played a major role in conquering and controlling the natives. Those Spaniards and Portuguese who came to the colonies accepted these structures, hoped to secure wealth and return home. 

As in the mother countries, the Latin American colonial experience was much more centrally controlled, hierarchical, and paternalistic, reflecting Spanish and Catholic values as well as the desire of the Crown to exercise absolute control over the administration and revenues of the colonies. In Anglo North America, the Crown gave much of its authority to charter holders (companies), who in turn shared it with propertied settlers, starting a process which encouraged the invention and development of representative institutions. 

Much of the settlement in the British areas was under the aegis of self-governing organized groups, often denomination linked, who received a charter from the Crown to bring settlers to each colony. The dominant religious tradition varied from colony to colony, but many were congregational, not hierarchical. While some who came were sojourners planning to return to Britain, most were settlers seeking to create their own economic establishments, mainly farms. Most sought to build a productive economy through their own labor, not to get rich quickly by extracting mineral wealth. The aristocracy and military elites were minimally present. And as noted, locally elected legislatures had considerable political power. 

The differences between the Iberian Catholic and the Anglo Protestant values and structures helped to produce a greater commitment to statism and hierarchy in the former and eventually a much more classically liberal anti-statist orientation and more egalitarian sentiments in the latter. From a philosophical perspective, Latin American politics stems from Rousseau, with a resultant emphasis on the general will, corporatism, natural law, and leaders who "know" and understand the community. Conversely, the philosophical tradition in Anglo America, drawing on Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and Madison, sees rights as possessed by the individual. In theological terms, Latin America has been doctrinally steeped in the Catholic counter reformation, calling on believers to obey; Anglo America has been shaped by the Protestant Reformation, stressing personal commitment and choice. 

There is no secular doctrine corresponding to the egalitarian, anti-statist, and individualistic American Creed, formulated in the Revolution, for Latin Americans to orient themselves to. There are, of course, important values that are shared by most Latin Americans. There is an emphasis on hierarchy, paternalism, particularism, centralization of power, and community. Extended kinship ties are highly valued, more than merit. North America has placed more stress on personal achievement and hard work, derivative, as Max Weber argued, from the Protestant sects who saw work as a religiously inspired calling. Conversely, work has traditionally been less esteemed in the Latin world, regarded to some degree as a necessary evil.19 These differences account in part for the very pace of economic development in the two cultures of the Americas. 

Failing and unstable democracies have marked Latin America, though much political progress has recently occurred, particularly during the Third Wave of the 1980s. Currently, all the countries to the south, with the one exception of Cuba, purport to be electoral democracies, albeit they vary considerably with respect to guarantees of civil liberties and the institutionalization of competitive party systems. They form the largest number of countries that make up the Third Wave. Almost all of them were authoritarian before 1980. 

Freedom House and The Economist worried in 1996 that Latin America was on the verge of a reversal.20 Much of the pessimistic speculation, however, has not been fear that democracy will end in authoritarian military takeovers as in the past, but rather concern for a gradual erosion of civil rights by elites who fear either the loss of office and property or the effects of increases in crime and corruption.21 

Differences in colonial political developments were linked to economic practices. The purpose of the Spanish and the Portuguese colonies was to channel wealth, particularly mineral wealth, to the mother countries. While the English also desired material gain, the absence of precious metal in North America meant that the imperial authorities paid much less attention to the colonies and had less control than their Iberian counterparts.22 

As noted in Lecture One, no factors are more important than economic well-being and growth in the development of democracy. This relationship can be illustrated in various ways, such as income per capita, distribution of income or commodities, a market economy, the spread of education, and the like. Hence the factors which have inhibited economic growth in the South and facilitated it in the North accounted in large part for the political variations between the two sections of the New World. 

Latin American economic structures and stratification systems continued to differ substantially from those of Anglo America after independence. As noted by Domingo Sarmiento, a great Latin American politician and thinker who was president of Argentina from 1868-1874 and visited the United States in the 1840s, Latin American rural life was hierarchically organized on large holdings while North American agrarians mainly lived on family farms.23 Sarmiento tried and failed to break up the latifundia into North American style agriculture. 

Different value orientations and colonial experiences have led to two distinct types of societies, which have continued on divergent paths. The North American structures and values have been more conducive to democracy than those of its southern neighbors. The United States has continued to try to fulfill the ideals of the revolutionary American creed--liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire.24 As noted, Latin America never was able to formulate a creed, although there are a few countries, such as Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica, whose histories have yielded democratic traditions and civic institutions. 

As Aristotle emphasized, a major correlate of sustained democracy is a strong middle class. Latin America remains poorer, less educated, with a pyramidal class structure (more people at the bottom) rather than the diamond-shaped one (more people in the middle) that is more characteristic of the United States and northern Europe. 

Unlike the North American bourgeoisie, who did not emerge socially subordinate to an aristocracy (there was no aristocracy to set models for them or to make them feel inferior), those in the South adapted to their image of the ways of a landed aristocracy. The style and behavior of the native-born Creole upper class, the owners of latifundia, the estates, were emulated by businessmen. Successful members of the bourgeoisie often bought farms (estates) for their prestige value.25 

Latin American culture, as noted, was developed under the centrally controlled hierarchical Catholic religion at the height of the Counter-Reformation, and following the reconquest of Iberia from the Moors, the end of an eight century long war. Hence, the values of Portugal and Spain, transported to new heathen land in the Americas, incorporated those of the Church and Army Militant, the values of war, authoritarian control, and religious enthusiasm. In contrast, North America was settled mainly by Protestant sectarians who faced community and state persecution. As Tocqueville noted, the separation of church and state, which ultimately emerged, supported by the sectarians, has been very beneficial for the development of free polities in North America.26 The sects, with their emphasis on individual reading and interpretation of the Bible, were largely governed congregationally; hierarchies did not have religious or secular authority over their congregations or members. Their practice and structure were more conducive to secular democratic practice than those of the centrally controlled hierarchical Catholic church, which required parishioners to follow the dictates of the clergy, who took on responsibility for their souls, and could pardon their sins. Individualism, strict moralism, and voluntary associations were not part of the church culture, as they were of the sectarians. 

To be accepted as legitimate, democratic processes must be seen as "the only game in town" by all who participate in the polity--the military, parties, trade unions, interest groups, business. This means that, excepting fringe or radical minorities, no one should anticipate gaining or keeping authority through the use of force or revolutionary violence.27 It is not necessary to like the way a particular administration is functioning, but political actors must see the processes of democracy as predictable in their consequences. Constitutional frameworks may produce different outcomes in varying cultures. Most of the Latin American states tried to follow the model of the U.S. Constitution with little success. The first republican institutions in Latin America led to internal warfare, which was largely a result of power grabs by different groups. Prolonged effectiveness and predictability are necessary conditions for a new system to attain rational-legal legitimacy. 

Democracy in large polities is meaningless without stable and institutionalized electorally competitive political parties, as Schumpeter emphasized.28 They provide some immediate identification for the voter, they channel and express interests, they reflect and shape social, political, and economic structures, and perhaps most important of all, they check one another, exposing on one hand, and offering alternative policies for people to choose between on the other. But in order to do this, "major parties . . . must have an almost permanent significant base of support," which will enable them to survive mistakes or bad times.29 Parties in the United States have been able to fulfill these requirements since the Civil War, even though, as compared to those in Europe, they have been very loosely organized. 

Latin American parties, however, failed in almost all countries to become institutionalized. They were unable to mobilize stable followings, to offer genuine alternatives, to mitigate conflict, to forge relations among different parts of the society, and to diminish corruption. The latter has always been high in traditionally patrimonial and highly particularistic societies, such as Latin America has been. 

Institutionalization also refers to the rule of law. The common law system of the United States and English Canada is judge or bench-made law, which relies on a system of precedence, or last case reasoning. Judges create, modify, and interpret laws and thus, common law is thought to have vitality, an ability to sustain change and to more closely represent the moral authority of the community. Latin America is governed by Roman Germanic Law, often called continental or civil code law, inherited from Spain, Portugal, and France and dating back to the Roman Empire. Civil law is very formulaic and rigid and if an issue arises in the polity that is not covered by civil law, then more law has to be made. 

Polling data may illustrate the interrelationship between democracy and the type of legal system. In the common law system of the United States and English Canada, confidence in the judiciary has been high and has usually surpassed that of other government entities. Conversely, surveys indicate that a very significant majority of Latin Americans have little or no confidence in the judiciary.30 

It should not be surprising that Latin America has had much more difficulty than North America in acquiring and sustaining democracy. Latin America inherited a centralized and authoritarian political system while North America benefited from English individualism as well as the ability to "practice" democracy through representative institutions during the colonial period. Differences between Catholicism (more organic)and Protestantism (more individualistic) served to reinforce these paths. As they achieved independence English-speaking North America (south of Nova Scotia) became unified while Latin America became fractured. The Latin American elites' attitudes towards democracy and their attempts to control new groups such as the urban middle class and labor, denying them participatory rights, hindered democratic development. Furthermore, the inability of the Latin Americas to create strong civil communities linked to voluntary religious and secular groups, to educate the masses, and to reduce the strength of patrimonial and particularistic values have all been antithetical to the political norms, long existent in North America, which are necessary for democracy to thrive. 

In spite of the spread of electoral democracy in the 1970s and 1980s, there continue to be realistic concerns about prospects for the stability and maintenance of democracy in Latin America, notably a much greater lack of trust in others and less faith in the institutions of government than in the older stable democracies. Yet, in spite of considerable malaise, this Third Wave does not look like it will end in a reverse wave, as previous efforts at democracy in Latin America have--primarily because military takeovers do not appear on the horizon, the threat of communist disruption or takeover is less viable as justification for anti-democratic coups, and there is an international consensus rejecting statist economic policies. Perhaps the region finally has developed a favorable political culture to provide sources of resistance to another reverse authoritarian wave. 

In Latin America, opponents of democracy are now clearly in a minority, even in countries which by objective standards are deeply troubled. Poll data indicate that authoritarians do not find majority support even among the lowly. And without a major social breakdown, the military will stay in their barracks. 

Lecture Three: George Washington and the Founding of American Democracy 

Political outcomes are not simply the result of the interplay of social and economic factors. Policies presented and implemented by groups and individuals can affect the outcome of the creation of new regimes for good or ill. Within limits, success or failure may be a function of the behavior of political leaders and forces. The first, and for some time, the only successful modern effort to create a democratic polity, the United States, demonstrates the importance of purposive action. 

The history of the United States illustrates the importance of making the right choices. The successful institutionalization of democracy did not simply flow from fortunate socio-economic conditions. The country was blessed by the leadership of a great man, George Washington. His achievements give support to the "great man" interpretation of history. I believe he was the greatest individual in American history. Without him, the post-revolutionary effort to create a stable republic could have failed. Washington himself repeatedly called attention to the precarious state of the polity. 

Washington's enemy, George III of England, acknowledged his greatness, the importance of the model he set in relinquishing power. The king once asked the painter Trumbull, who had just come from America, what he thought Washington would do when the war ended (and by that time, George III knew it was lost). Trumbull's reply was ". . . go back to his farm." George III said, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."31 And that is what he did, twice--first, when the war ended, and later after his second term as president. Following Washington's second withdrawal, the king reiterated his opinion, saying that these actions "placed him [Washington] in a light the most distinguished of any man living" and that he was "the greatest character of the age."32 

I want to discuss Washington as a founder, as the founder of the new nation, as the man who helped the country formulate an identity and institutionalize a competitive electoral democracy--or as some would have it, a republic. To repeat, I will argue that Washington was one of the great men in history, without whom history would have developed differently in important ways.33 

Washington played a necessary role not only because of the charisma that flowed from his leadership of the military forces, but also because of his personality. He facilitated the formation of the culture and institutions that were necessary for a stable and legitimate effective democratic system. 

The post-revolutionary United States, inherently marked by weak legitimacy, faced recurring crises of authority, exhibited in the willingness of important players to violate the rules of the game. There were a number of attempts, from the early nineteenth century to the Civil War, to organize secessions, some of the northern states, others of southern, one of the West. George Washington himself was privately pessimistic about the prospects for the survival of the Union, and significantly he said that if secession occurred he would move to the North.34 

Unlike most leaders of new post-colonial regimes in the Americas in the nineteenth century and in Africa and Asia in the twentieth, Washington was committed to a free polity and understood the problems posed by weak legitimacy. The record would suggest that he was the only person who could have created or sustained allegiance, building respect for the new nation. And he knew it. Although the term would have been meaningless to him, he was a charismatic figure. 

Charismatic authority can be seen as a mechanism of transition, an interim measure which presses citizens to observe the requirements for national stability out of affection for, belief in, the country's leader until they learn to do so out of loyalty to the collectivity or satisfaction with its enduring achievements, its prolonged effectiveness. 

Charisma, however, is inherently unstable, precisely because it is so personalized. A charismatic leader, therefore, must try to avoid public opposition and criticism, which are bound to arise if he is identified as the active formulator of government policy. To be effective over time, he must be seen as the source, not the agent, of authority. Underlings, who may be blamed and discarded, should be the acknowledged implementors. He must therefore transcend partisan conflict by playing a role akin to that of constitutional monarch, who symbolizes and takes responsibility for the system, but seemingly is policy neutral in his public posture. 

The new American republic, like many post-revolutionary systems, was legitimized by charisma.35 The reaction of many of the other Founders attest to this, as do the comments made by many intellectuals and artists during the first half century of the Republic. As but one not untypical example, Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale during and immediately after the Revolution, declared in 1783, "Oh, Washington, how I do love thy name! How I have often adored and blessed thy God for creating and forming thee, the great ornament of humankind!"36 

Washington's role as the charismatic leader, under whose aegis democratic political institutions could stabilize and be accepted, was not an unwitting one. As his biographers have emphasized, Washington was deeply concerned with acting properly, with doing what was right, with setting a model. He understood that people looked to him for lessons on behavior, on how a new republic should operate. Clinton Rossiter concluded, "Washington's great gift to the presidency and to the Republic was dignity, authority, and constitutionalism."37 Biographer Edmond Morgan observed, Washington "recognized that the character of the government and the respect accorded it would be measured by the respect he himself demanded and commanded."38 

As commander-in-chief of an illegitimate rebellion, Washington set a model for what was to follow in the new nation. His greatest task as commander of an army whose men were not accustomed to giving deference to superiors, but which also had limited resources and won few battles, was to keep it viable, to command respect for its officers, and to maintain morale. "[R]ecognizing that hierarchy was weak in America, [he] carefully nurtured support for authority."39 If he were to exhibit any weakness or behave in ways which might undermine the soldiers' faith in him, all would be lost. He lived with his troops. He rejected opportunities to take leave for a few days to visit his home in Mount Vernon. He refused compensation for his services. But he also insisted on respect for his person, for his office. 

Washington always made sure to obey the political authority, to set the principle of civilian supremacy, which almost no other new nation or otherwise post-revolutionary regime was able to establish. A big problem in Latin America and in other newly independent and/or post-coup countries has been that the military does not respect civil authority. It is not a natural thing for the military or other powerful stratas to obey when they see their interests or status threatened, but Washington, who led the army, recognized the tremendous importance of subordination to civil authority. 

In his farewell address to his military career, Washington made clear, as I have noted, that he had no interest in any future public positions, certainly not as king, which many wanted him to become, but equally not as head of the republic. A disdain for office did not mean a lack of interest in the shape of a new nation. Washington understood that to have an effective polity, it would be necessary to have a central government, an executive, which was not called for in the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. (Most of the Founders were libertarians, disdained governmental power.) Hence, he included, in his resignation address to Congress, a strong argument for such a government. 

The changes Washington advocated were adopted at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He had been reluctant to attend it even as a delegate, because he thought this would be seen as a violation of his pledge to stay out of public life. But Shay's Rebellion, an armed uprising by western Massachusetts farmers in the fall of 1786, shocked him and convinced him to take part in the convention. 

He went to Philadelphia and, as everyone knew would happen, he was chosen as its presiding officer. As the chairman of the convention, he never spoke or voted, nor ever tried to publicly use his prestige for factional purposes. In typical Washingtonian fashion, he set an example for the delegates by never missing a single session or arriving late. Yet in all probability, his greatest influence was exerted off the convention floor.40 Everyone knew what he favored. The outcome was what he sought. A more powerful central government with the president as its chief executive, albeit subject to elaborate checks and balances, was approved. Contemporaries and historians agree that the Federalists, the supporters of a strong executive, would not have prevailed but for the assumption, the expectation, that Washington would be the first president. No one feared that he would misuse the power of the office. 

As President, Washington knew he had to endow respect for the office as a condition for the survival of the new polity. Power and respect were not inherent in the position. Jefferson, who was not at the Convention, on first reading the Constitution in Paris, declared that it was made for a "Polish king", i.e., a head of state who had little power, who could be frustrated easily by other power centers.41 He recognized what is true--and many even today do not realize it--that the presidency is a weak office, not a strong one, that it depends on how the president acts out the role; strength, power is not inherent in the way the Constitution defines his role. He was constantly aware that the president had to help form the "character" of the nation, that he had to be a model of virtue, of respect for the laws. 

It was clear that Washington was an indispensable charismatic leader, but his refusal to take full advantage of it--he withdrew from the presidency while seemingly in good health--doubtless pushed the new society towards a rational-legal system of authority. He identified himself with the laws and the spirit of the nation. His brand of charismatic leadership had a crucial stabilizing effect on the nation's evolution. 

If he had continued in office until his death, it is quite possible that subsequent presidential successions would not have occurred easily, that there would have been efforts to contest the results of elections by the defeated side, that succeeding presidents would have tried to retain office indefinitely, as occurred in revolutionary France, or in the new states of Latin America. Washington knew he had to set a model, for otherwise people would think that "having tasted the sweets of office, he could not do without them." His reputation, his image required that he withdraw.42 

If ever there was an example of charismatic legitimization of a polity, it is the way the veneration for Washington sanctified the new republic. The man who would not be king, who was genuinely reluctant to take part in politics, who resisted and feared becoming president, was able to legitimate the new system. 

The charismatic aspects of Washington's appeal were consciously used by American political leaders to create a character and identity for the new nation. In 1800, shortly after Washington's death, the British ambassador to the United States discussed the functions of tributes to Washington in a report to the foreign office in which he said that "the leading men in the United States appear to be of the opinion that these ceremonies [for Washington] tend to elevate the spirit of the people, and contribute to the formation of a national character, which they consider as much wanting in this country." The "near apotheosis" of Washington characterized almost all that was written and said about him in the first few generations of the new nation.43 

The importance of Washington's role for the institutionalization of democracy in the early United States can be summarized in three points. 

(1) His prestige was so great that he commanded the loyalty of the leaders of the different factions as well as of the general populace. Thus, in a new political entity marked by serious cleavage he, in his own person, provided a basis for unity. He was, of course, criticized, but anyone else would have been attacked more aggressively. 

(2) He was strongly committed to the principles of constitutional government and exercised a paternal guidance upon those involved in developing the machinery of government. He stayed in power long enough to permit the crystallization of factions into embryonic parties, a development which, it must be admitted, dismayed him. 

(3) He set a precedent as to how the problem of succession should be managed, by voluntarily retiring from office. 

In most new nations, the charismatic leader has only fulfilled the first of these tasks, acting as a symbol which helps and prolongs the feelings of unity developed prior to the achievement of independence. Neglect of the other two tasks results in charismatic personalities whose disappearance from the scene raises again, as did the achievement of independence, the difficult problem of maintaining national unity among a conglomeration of groups and interests. 

Jefferson, although fearing Washington's prestige would undermine the efforts to develop an opposition party, understood what Washington was consciously doing, epitomizing virtue and deliberately staying above the fray, in spite of his own strong opinions. As Jefferson emphasized, Washington had been "scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military," a model "of which the history of the world furnishes no other example." His great biographer, James Flexner, concludes, "Washington had given the United States an unheard of boon: charisma with hardly any cost."44 Would that contemporary leaders place their repute ahead of the desire to gain and hold office. Would that they give priority to virtue. 

Seymour Martin Lipset is the Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Previously, he served as the George D. Markham Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard and as the Caroline Munro Professor of Political Science and Sociology at Stanford. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a past president of the American Political Science Association and the American Sociological Association. His most recent book is American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996). Three Lectures on Democracy (University of Oklahoma Press, forthcoming) will expand on his 1997 Julian J. Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture in Representative Government. 


1. Seymour Martin Lipset, "Conditions of the Democratic Order and Social Change: A Comparative Discussion," in S.N. Eisenstadt, ed., Studies in Human Society: Democracy and Modernity, vol. 4 (New York: E. J. Brill, 1992), 1. 

2. Adrian Karatnycky, ed., Freedom in the World: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, 1996-1997 (New York: Freedom House, 1997), 586-587. 

3. Seymour Martin Lipset, "Some Social Requisites of Democracy, Economic Development and Political Legitimacy," American Political Science Review 53 (1959):69-165; "The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited," American Sociological Review 59 (1994):1-22; (with K.R. Seong and J.C. Torres), "A Comparative Analysis of the Social Requisites of Democracy," International Social Science Journal 45 (1993):155-175. 

4. Seymour Martin Lipset, Martin Tow, and James Coleman, Union Democracy: The Inside Politics of the International Typographical Union (New York: The Free Press, 1956). 

5. For cumulative summaries of the extant research on the subject, see Larry Diamond, "Economic Development and Democracy Reconsidered," in Gary Marks and Larry Diamond, eds., Reexamining Democracy: Essays in Honor of Seymour Martin Lipset (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992), 110; and Edward N. Muller, "Economic Determinants of Democracy," American Sociological Review 60 (December 1995):966. 

6. Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991). 

7. Adam Przeworksi, Michael Alverez, Jose Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi, "What Makes Democracies Endure," Journal of Democracy 7 (January 1996):39-55, esp. 41. 

8. Henry S. Rowen, "The Tide Underneath the 'Third Wave'" in Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner, eds., The Global Resurgence of Democracy, 2d ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 308. 

9. Alex Inkeles and David H. Smith, Becoming Modern: Individual Change in Six Developing Countries (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 133. 

10. Lipset et al., Union Democracy. 

11. Kenneth Bollen, "Political Democracy and the Timing of Development," American Sociological Review 44 (1979); and Myron Weiner, "Empirical Democratic Theory," in Myron Weiner and Ergun Ozbunden, eds., Competitive Elections in Developing Countries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987), 20. 

12. Robert Barro, "Determinants of Democracy" (unpublished paper, Harvard University, 1996), 19. 

13. Ali Kazancigil, "Democracy in Moslem Lands: Turkey in Comparative Perspective," International Social Science Journal 43 (1991):43-60. 

14. Max Weber, Economy and Society I (New York: Bedminster Press, 1968), 215-216, 217-223, 226-231, 241-245. 

15. Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics, 2d ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 78-79. 

16. Lipset, Political Man, 77-92; Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America and Post Communist Europe (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 76-81. 

17. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1954). 

18. For a discussion of the absence of an institutionalized democracy in Quebec until recently, see Pierre Trudeau, "Some Obstacles to Democracy in Quebec," in Mason Wade, ed., Canadian Dualism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960), 245 and passim. 

19. Seymour Martin Lipset, "Values, Education, and Entrepreneurship," in Seymour Martin Lipset and Aldo Solari, eds., Elites in Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967). 

20. "The Backlash in Latin America," The Economist 341 (30 November 1996):19-21; Adrian Karatnycky, ed., Freedom in the World: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, 1995-1996 (New York: Freedom House, 1996). 

21. "Constructing Democracy and Markets: East Asia and Latin America," Conference Report (Washington, DC: International Forum for Democratic Studies, 1996), 15. 

22. Charles O. Porter and Robert J. Alexander, The Struggle for Democracy in Latin America (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 11. 

23. Domingo F. Sarmiento, "Travels in the United States in 1847," in Allison Williams Buckley, ed., A Sarmiento Anthology (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1972), 196. 

24. Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), 19. 

25. Lipset, "Values, Education, and Entrepreneurship," 9. 

26. Tocqueville, Democracy, 308. 

27. Linz and Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation, 6. 

28. Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy 3d ed. (New York: Harper, 1950). 

29. Lipset, "The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited," 1-22. 

30. Juan J. Linz, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Amy Bunger Pool, "Social Conditions for Democracy in Latin America," Governance and Democratic Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (New York: United Nations Development Program, 1997), 23. 

31. Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 206. 

32. Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (New York: Free Press, 1996), 103. 

33. Forrest McDonald, The Presidency of George Washington (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1974), 25. 

34. James Thomas Flexner, George Washington and the New Nation (1783-1793) (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1970). 

35. William Chambers, Political Parties in a New Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), 35-36. 

36. Gordon S. Wood, "The Greatness of George Washington," The Virginia Quarterly Review 68 (Spring 1992):190. 

37. Clinton Rossiter, The American Presidency (New York: Harcourt Brace & Javonovich, 1960), 88. 

38. Edmund S. Morgan, The Genius of George Washington (Washington, DC: The Society of Cincinnati, 1980), 21. 

39. Richard Ellis and Aaron Wildavsky, "'Greatness' Revisited: Evaluating the Performance of Early American Presidents in Terms of Cultural Dilemmas," Presidential Studies Quarterly 21 (Winter 1991):21. 

40. Flexner, George Washington, 423. 

41. Conor Cruise O'Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution: 1785-1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 

42. Richard Norton Smith, Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 121. 

43. W. S. Baker, ed., Character Portraits of Washington (Philadelphia: Robert M. Lindsay, 1887), 27. 

44. Flexner, George Washington, 423. 

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