stable democracy and unstable democracy

stable democracy and unstable democracy

a distinction drawn by LIPSET (1960) between stable democracies, defined as those polities which have enjoyed an ‘uninterrupted continuation of political democracy since World War I and the absence of a major party opposed to the “rules of the game”, and unstable democracies, which fail to fulfil these conditions. For non-European/non-English-speaking nations, Lipset also distinguished between ‘democracies’ and ‘unstable dictatorships’ on the one hand and ‘stable dictatorships’.

The factors sustaining ‘stable democracy’ according to Lipset are:

  1. POLITICAL CLEAVAGE between main competing POLITICAL PARTIES, institutionalizing broad class conflict between non-manual ‘middle class’ and manual ‘working class’;
  2. the historical replacement of previous main bases of political cleavage (e.g. religious, rural – urban, centre – periphery);
  3. broad ‘consensus’ on the fundamental legitimacy of prevailing political institutions, a ‘secular’ politics (‘end of ideology’), and the absence of major PARTIES OF INTEGRATION opposing the rules of the political game;
  4. a socioeconomic system which is economically effective and delivers high levels of literacy, welfare, etc.;
  5. a fluid ‘open’ class structure and class mixing, which produces CROSS-CUTTING TIES and ‘cross pressures’ acting on the individual which help to moderate class conflict and competition between parties;
  6. a ‘participatory political culture’, including extensive participation in VOLUNTARY ASSOCIATIONS and a general strength of groups of all kinds which functions as a ‘protective screen’ against MASS SOCIETY (see also TWO-STEP FLOW OF MASS COMMUNICATIONS).

Reworking ideas drawn from classical POLITICAL SOCIOLOGY (especially TOCQUEVILLE and WEBER), Lipset also suggested that 'stable democracy’ depends on an élite-mass structure in which representative élites (see PLURAL ÉLITISM) are central to the working of the system, and can also be seen as safeguarding ‘central democratic values’. For Lipset, 'stable democracy’ is not just another political system, it is ‘the good society in action’. The theory of stable democracy in these general terms arose as a synthesis of behaviouralist and structural-functional and systems-theoretic approaches in US POLITICAL SCIENCE and political sociology. It has been influential (although also widely criticized) not only in discussions of western democracies but also in the discussion of POLITICAL MODERNIZATION and ‘nation-building’ in developing and THIRD WORLD nations (see also MILITARY INTERVENTION). Theories addressing the sources of stability and instability in democracies have gained a new lease of life in assessments of the newly emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe. See also ÉLITE, ÉLITE THEORY, MOSCA, MICHELS, SCHUMPETER, VOTING BEHAVIOUR, END-OF-IDEOLOGY THESIS; compare LEGITIMATION CRISIS.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000