Seymour Martin Lipset – Political Man

Every book gives clues to its influences. Most books have a primary influence. Sometimes there are a few key references. But most books look to a single key work for inspiration and it is not hard to identify this source. Sometimes it is referenced in the title. Fukyama’s End of History and the Last Man makes a clear reference to Hegel and Nietzsche. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy is a reference to Barrington Moore. Other times there is an introductory quotation from an earlier work. But every important work has used some past idea or theory as a reference point for their own ideas.

Seymour Martin Lipset opens his classic work Political Man with a series of quotes from Aristotle’s Politics. This is an important choice. It sets the tone for the rest of the work. It is surprising because there are only two other references to Aristotle in the rest of the work. In fact, one is made largely in passing. But his ideas form the foundation of the entire work. Lipset is clearly obsessed by Aristotle’s assessment of humankind, “Man is a political animal.” For Lipset this makes perfect sense because there is no clear division between the social and the political.

Every political scientist reads the article “Some Social Requisites of Democracy.” It is a rite of passage as an undergraduate. Although it takes some serious reading before its significance is recognized. Its easy to overlook its importance on a first reading. Lipset uses a very simple correlation to show democratic governance is linked to economic modernization. Today this idea is nearly taken for granted. Yet despite its simplistic approach scholars frequently cite this article today.

The article was republished with few changes as the second chapter of Political Man. But the inclusion of this article within a larger book changes the context of his analysis. Too often Lipset’s article becomes reinterpreted as a form of economic determinism. There is a perceived implication that economic modernization is the same as political modernization. Huntington’s later thesis Political Order in Changing Societies works to decouple this misconception. But Lipset’s larger work Political Man shows this was never his intention. Indeed, the title of his article implies economic development is simply one factor among many necessary for democratization.

The larger work examines the wider social context of politics. Because the work was written in 1959 the work has many assumptions that have since become transformed. For example, Lipset discusses a very different gender gap in the politics of his time. Apparently, women were considered more conservative than men. And the final chapter is titled “The End of Ideology?” He gives an account of a conference where everyone believed politics had settled the major political issues of the day. Political debate was expected to focus on policy details rather than larger ideological debates. In contrast, Frederick Hayek felt this ideological complacency was unhealthy. He believed democracy became irrelevant without a clear choice between different political visions. Today, the electorate gets a clear choice, but the consequences of polarization have had plenty of unintended consequences. This is an ironic twist for a laissez-faire economist who warned of the unintended consequences of government intervention.

Lipset’s Political Man is a classic work of political science. It is a key influence of later works on civic culture including Putnam’s Bowling Alone or Fukuyama’s Trust. His account of fascism is a necessary read as populism continues to gain traction around the world. It is a wide-ranging work which can find its way into the footnotes of almost any paper whether it is written as an undergraduate, graduate or as an academic. There really is no need to cite his earlier paper if you have read his longer book. Sometimes I wonder whether those who cite the paper have read Political Man, but it is difficult to believe they have not. Add this to your reading list if you have not found the time to read it already.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: