Democracy Matters: A Conversation with Seymour Martin Lipset

What is democracy?

By Metta Spencer | 2000-07-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: People are often skeptical about the use of the word "democracy." Why do you think democracy is important and what do you mean by the term?

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: A political concept, it refers to the ability of the citizenry to influence their government. I would argue that democracy is a system in which the electorate has the opportunity to choose between alternative forces competing through political parties in elections. Some people talk about "economic democracy." They may say that a certain country has elections but its economy is not egalitarian and therefore it's not democratic. Equality is not democracy. Equality is equality. You can ask: Does equality lead to democracy? or Does democracy lead to equality? If you want to talk about equality as democracy, you can; nobody's stopping you. But then you need to distinguish between political democracy, social democracy, and economic democracy. I prefer to use the word democracy to refer precisely to political democracy.

SPENCER: But people sometimes say, "Don't tell me Canada and the United States are democratic. Look at the way money controls the outcome of elections, and look at the fact that only 25% of the voters come out for many of the elections - especially in the United States."

LIPSET: Yes, with one exception the United States has the lowest turn out of any developed country. In presidential elections only about 50% of the eligible electorate will actually vote. In Canada it's 75%; in some countries it's higher. The other country that's at the 50% level is Switzerland. What do Switzerland and the U.S. have in common? One thing is that they are both rich. People don't vote as much because they don't care as much.

We could talk about the reasons for participation - people voting more or less - but at least people in democratic states have the opportunity to vote and there is a choice offered. It is obviously true that money has enormous influence on elections. However, money does not determine everything. Take an issue which has been a serious issue in American elections recently - abortion. Most Americans are for legalization and abortion will not be illegalized in the United States.

Or take blacks. American blacks only got the right to vote outside the North in the 1960s and that right to vote has given them a great deal more power. Lots of things have been done for blacks legislatively which would never have happened. There's been a big increase in blacks working for the government and a big increase in the standard of living. Obviously, the situation of blacks is still highly unequal, but it's much less so than before blacks could vote. The right to vote has always been a powerful weapon in the hands of blacks or Chicanos or workers or anybody else.

One thing the Republicans have complained about is the power of trade unions. Trade unions are the biggest membership group. A much smaller percentage of the labor force belongs to American trade unions as compared to Europe, but still it's 14% of the labor force, which comes to 15 million members. That makes labor a very big organization with a lot of money. It is able to affect Democratic nominations and elections. Certainly if you don't have money and you don't have an organization with an effective membership you can't get anywhere. Unorganized causes are hopeless. If you take the gun control issue, the National Rifle Association used to be the only organized group in the game and they ran it all. Now more people are concerned about guns; they organize and they begin to get gun control legislation.

In Canada, the United States, and Europe, farmers secure all sorts of protection from the government which you would not expect, given their numbers or their economic position. But they succeed because they are well-organized. Old people are important in terms of affecting pensions, social security, and medical benefits because they tend to be organized.

SPENCER: When you speak of democracy, are you just referring to the existence of regular elections with multiple parties, or do you include other qualifiers, such as the importance of the rule of law?

LIPSET: The main thing is having parties, but there have to be formal institutions and rules to guarantee fair elections - that the votes are counted, that the parties are able to put out their propaganda before the people- basically that there is a rule of law around the electoral system so that we don't have a corrupt system. A situation existed for a long time in Mexico in which they had parties running but the government controlled the process. They're only now beginning to have a rule of law applied to the electoral system there. There have to be institutionalized mechanisms which make the elections fair and honest. It's important to have groups criticizing each other. The job of a political opposition is to expose things that are bad. In authoritarian systems, evils and inefficiencies aren't exposed.

Democracy And Peace

SPENCER: Is it true that democracy is especially conducive to peace?

LIPSET: Peace researchers often say that democratic countries do not go to war with each other. That's true in general, but if you count as democratic all the countries that have electoral systems and competitive parties, some have had wars with each other in the past. Germany before World War I wasn't a democracy in the sense of equal competition, but it did have elections. The largest party was the Social Democrats, who received about one-third of the votes in 1912. Austria also had competitive elections, although it wasn't totally democratic. On the other side, the British and the French had competitive elections. So you could argue that in World War I countries that were somewhat democratic were fighting each other.

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. Americans have not gone along with the idea of "my country, right or wrong," or "if my country goes to war, I support it." Sol Tax, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, wrote an article in a book called On War, in which he discusses opposition to American wars. He puts Vietnam as fourth, i.e., there were three wars in which the opposition was even stronger than to the Vietnam War.

In the Mexican War of 1848, thousands of American soldiers, including West Point graduates, deserted and joined the Mexican army because they thought Mexico was right and the United States was wrong.

The explanation for all this is religion. The United States is the only Protestant sectarian country in the world, and Protestant sectarians are very moralistic and believe that one should do what's right, not what other people want. In World War I there were hundreds of thousands of conscientious objectors who wouldn't take part in the fighting. Even during the Civil War, there was strong opposition on both sides.

SPENCER: Some people argue that the democratic states are the most aggressive ones in the world today ; internationally they, especially the United States, are the most likely to initiate wars, even though they may not be fighting against other democracies.

LIPSET: No, the most violence-prone part of the world right now is Africa.There have been wars between the Hutus and Tutsis, civil and international war in the Congo and the terrible events in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. But in the more developed parts of the world, including the United States, the issue now debated involves peacekeepers - international forces that try to stop these wars. The people concerned with national security feel that one of the military liabilities of the United States is the unwillingness to take casualties. In the Gulf War the military did not want to start fighting until they had so much superiority that hardly anybody on our side would be killed.

SPENCER: Rudolph Rummel, the researcher most famous for the theory that democracies are more peaceable, discusses democracy not only in relation to international war but to "democide" - the killing by states of their own populations. It is quite amazing how much less prone democratic states are to that kind of phenomenon.

LIPSET: Yes, it is hard to use violence against your own people. Democracies have the rule of law, they have courts, so it is much more difficult for them to commit democide than in authoritarian countries. There is something else to keep in mind in this connection: prisoners. The countries that have by far the largest percentage of their population in jail are the United States, Russia, and South Africa. The case of South Africa dates back to the days of apartheid, though it's still true there today. The Russians too have a repressive heritage. Two percent of the American population are in jail. They should be counted among the unemployed, but they are not. There is a punitive attitude in the United States, but sending people to jail is not the same as killing them - although the United States is the only country in the West that still has capital punishment. Most Americans favor capital punishment. It is not something imposed on the country; it's chosen.

SPENCER: You can't say that there's much of a culture of peace in the United States, for all its being democratic. There's a lot of violence.

MEIR AMOR: There was an interesting article in the New Left Review in 1999 by Michael Mann, who argued that Rummel's theory about low levels of democide in democratic states is true, but only because he ignores some interesting and important cases from earlier periods, such as the genocide perpetrated by the American democratic regime against Native Americans - who for their part were at that time a democratic society.

LIPSET: There were lots of wars between the United States and the different Indian societies, but I do not think these constituted genocide in the same sense as with the Shoah or the Armenians. By far the biggest source of deaths among the Indians was not killings by whites but rather the effects of disease. There was the problem of local autonomy. Treaties between the government and the Indians, would be broken - not by the government but by local settlers. There was much less of this in Canada because of the weakness of settler control; there was more populism in the United States. In Canada, control was largely in the hands of Ottawa and the Hudson's Bay Company. When Custer's army was defeated by the Sioux at Little Big Horn in the 1870s, the Sioux, who had wiped out an American battalion, went across the border and surrendered to six Mounties! The reason they did so was that they knew the Queen's treaties were kept.

AMOR: Part of the argument of leftists against the democratic peace theory is that some democratic countries, such as France, England, and the United States, actually export poverty and are able, through colonial practices, to bribe their own working class population. In this way they can have wars waged somewhere else, not within their borders.

Development And Democracy

LIPSET: That brings up the question as to what causes poverty. The answers that the economists give is that the countries that are poor were never rich. They are all now richer than they used to be, but the rich countries became rich, not by taking money from the poor countries but by becoming more efficient, with higher labor productivity. The countries that are poor have much lower productivity. They did not grow. During the 1970's, leftists presented the so-called "dependency theory," developed by the current president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. He argued that Third World nations, particularly Latin American countries, should prevent foreign countries from investing in them because foreign countries take the profits out, reducing the standard of living of people in the Third World.

Though that theory was very widespread for two or three decades, most people have given it up. They have learned that a country needs capital in order to develop. It can get it by exploiting itself or by importing foreign capital. If you don't want foreigners to invest, the alternative way of getting capital is by borrowing. The trouble with borrowing, as against investment, is that when you invest and the market goes down, the investor loses money. If you borrow money and it turns out you have made mistakes in investing or there's a worldwide recession, you still owe the money. So you're in worse shape from borrowing than from investing.

Schumpeter, in his book on imperialism, which was done in the twenties, argued that the foreign imperialist actually loses money. When the business cycle goes down, the foreign investments get wiped out. One of his examples was in North America, where the railroads and big utilities were financed by foreign investments - by the British or the Germans. Those investments were wiped out by various 19th century depressions. The money was lost but the railroads remained in Canada and the United States. Schumpeter concluded that foreign investments are not profitable. There have been studies of French investments in Indochina concluding that Schumpeter was right. The French put more money into Indochina then they got out. It doesn't mean that individual capitalists don't make money, but investments by countries do not pan out to be profitable because of the business cycle. A study of Italian investments in Libya concluded that Italy lost money.

SPENCER: One of your own early, important studies showed that economic development and democracy are very strongly correlated.

LIPSET: Yes, there are lots of such studies, and I did one of the earliest ones. In fact, Przeworski, who is one of the leading students of democracy, says that every country with a per capita income of $6000 a year is democratic. There's another study which says $8000. The standard pattern seems to be that the more well-to-do countries are all democratic; the poor countries ($2000 or less) are largely undemocratic, and those in the middle are idiosyncratic - it depends. But overall, if you take well-to-do countries, which also tend to be more equal in terms of standard of living distribution, they are more democratic.

For democracy to work requires a high level of education. If a majority of the population are illiterate, democracy will be difficult. But the biggest single democracy in terms of population, which is also a poor Third World country, is India. India has had a democratic system, competitive parties, and so on from the fifties on, with the exception of a year or two when Indira Gandhi tried to destroy the system. Statistical correlations imply that India shouldn't be democratic. What an exception it is - an exception with a billion people!

But, according to Samuel Huntington's study, The Third Wave, countries tend to become democratic in "waves." The third such wave of democratization produced a majority for the first time. Back in the '70s, most nations were not democratic, but suddenly almost all the Latin American countries, and many others, were. But after each wave there has always been a reversal of those developments. One such reversal is going on now. For example, democracy is not being sustained well in Haiti, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru and others. One important group of countries will reduce the correlation - the oil states, which are very rich, yet are almost all dictatorships. But there is one good example of a country that has oil: Norway. It has abundant oil and a strong welfare state.

SPENCER: Your early work on the relationship of development and democracy didn't say much about the direction of causality. One would have concluded from it that economic development was a condition for the development of democracy, but it did not suggest that democracy was a favorable condition for economic development.

LIPSET: There are two arguments on that issue. If you assume the popular consensus that market economies are good for economic development, then democracy is good for a market economy. But on the other hand, the argument has been made that poor countries can't afford high standards of welfare, that to develop they need to accept evils like child labor because they do not have the capital. They do not have the capital internally, so the only way they can develop is by exploiting themselves. In a democratic system it's hard to do that. They have trade unions and political parties which will oppose child labor or long hours and will demand protection against injury and the like. While everybody thinks those are good things, it is argued that very poor countries can't afford them. This has come up most recently in relation to the protests at the Seattle Conference of the World Trade Organization. The protesters demanded international agreements which limit child labor or the hours of work. The Third World countries opposed these policies, claiming that they are bad for them. They say they can't afford such protections because that raises the cost of labor. "Our big advantage in the competitive market is cheap labor and if you require us to raise the cost of labor, you're economically benefiting the rich countries." Trade unions in Canada and the United States say: We have to protect workers in China and in India. The counter-argument is that the workers whom they are really protecting are those in Canada and the United States. If China and India pay their workers more, that will stop the export of jobs to those countries.

SPENCER: Amartya Sen has a new book out called Development as Freedom. He argues that democracy - including civil freedoms, political liberty, and open dialogue - are prerequisites for sustainable development, as measured by the Human Development Index, which shows the well-being of the whole population. He bases his conclusions on empirical evidence from a number of countries, ranging from the former Soviet bloc countries to Africa. However, he pays the most attention to comparing China and India, which seem to run counter to his theory. Authoritarian China is outstripping democratic India. However, Sen attributes this to India's failure in developing human potential - literacy, health care, and the like - while China has made great strides in those reforms.

LIPSET: Until recently there were many people who did believe 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.

SPENCER: Sen also has shown that there has never been a famine in a democratic society. Voters won't allow their government to tolerate it.

LIPSET: Yes. Some of the famines in China and India occurred, not because there was insufficient food, but because of distribution. A government in an authoritarian system can ignore distribution problems, as the Russians did in the thirties, when millions died in the Ukraine.

SPENCER: All this evidence should remind us that it is valuable, in all kinds of different ways, for citizens to be able to influence their own government.

LIPSET: Of course. Democracy matters.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2000

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2000, page 15. Some rights reserved.

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