Keywords: Seymour Martin Lipset; Aristotle; democracy; development; waves of democratization; United States Institute of Peace; Peace Magazine; Amartya Sen; Meir Amor; Samuel Huntington; famine; Ukraine.
I wrote this piece for the Globe and Mail, but instead they chose to extract passages from my longer post of January 4th, which appears in today’s (Saturday’s) paper. I am a little embarrassed by it, since the editor picked out comments that are about me more than about Lipset. Anyhow, that left me with these left-over reflections to post here, which in fact I think point outSeymour Martin Lipset’s most important contributions better than did the longer article.
To me, what counts most among his writings are his comparative studies of democracy. No academic has ever done more to show what factors allow societies to sustain stable democracy. In 1959 he proved empirically what Aristotle had only theorized: Democracy does flourish best in societies with high socio-economic development — especially widespread education.
Democracy has increased globally in three consecutive “waves” — the first between 1828 to 1926; the second from 1943 to 1964, and (as Samuel Huntington has pointed out) the third from 1974 until about 1992. Since the third wave, some 60 percent of the world’s countries remain at least formally democratic.
These three waves of democratization were never consolidated, however, for after each one some of the new democracies always regressed. By 1993, when Lipset gave his presidential address to the American Sociological Association, his paper sought to identify empirically the most promising social conditions for keeping democratic countries from reverting to authoritarian or totalitarian control. It was a rich summary of extensive research. However, despite the strong relationship that contiued to be seen between economic development and democracy, Lipset could not prove which factor was cause and which was effect. That question long remained a topic of debate.
Incontestably, democracy is a peace issue. Full, established democracies simply don’t go to war against each other. (They do, however, go to war against dictatorships, and of course dictatorships go to war against each other.) Logically it follows that if all countries were democracies, there would be no more international wars. (And, surprisingly, warfare actually is becoming less frequent as democracy becomes more widespread.)
For years Lipset served as vice-chair of the board of the United States Institute of Peace. As editor of Peace Magazine, I always emphasize the connection between democracy and peace, so in 2000, a few months before his fatal stroke, Meir Amor and I interviewed him for the magazine. In explaining the conduciveness of democracy for peace, he said:
“Authoritarian countries can go to war easily because, if the dictator or the one party in control wants to do so, they don’t have to worry about opposition. Democratic states have anti-war movements. For example, in every war that America has fought, with the exception of World War II, in which the Japanese attacked, the country has seen a major anti-war movement that continued into the war.”
We mentioned his early work on development and democracy — the question about the direction of causality. I said,
“One would have concluded from it that economic development was a condition for the growth of democracy, but it did not suggest that democracy was a favorable condition for economic development.... Now Amartya Sen has a new book out, Development as Freedom. He argues that democracy — including civil freedoms, political liberty, and open dialogue — are prerequisites for sustainable development...”
“Until recently there were many people who believed that democracy undermined economic development in poor countries. The empirical research challenges that conclusion, but as to whether democracy actually fosters economic development, I do not think that it had been proved decisively one way or the other. However, Amartya Sen is obviously a first-rate economist, and if that is Sen’s considered opinion, I would accept it. He’s as good at analyzing such things as anybody I know of.”
We talked about Amartya Sen's empirical finding that there are never famines in democratic countries, as there have been elsewhere. “A government in an authoritarian system,” he mused, “can ignore distribution problems, as the Russians did in the thirties, when millions died in the Ukraine.”
And so he concluded, “Of course, democracy matters.”
And that’s Lipset’s gift to us all: an immense corpus of research showing in what ways “democracy matters.”