In his 1959 book “Some Social Requisites of Democracy,” American sociologist and democratic theorist Seymour Lipset advanced a model of what made certain democracies stable and others unstable. He argued that two factors determine the stability of a democracy: their economic development and their legitimacy. In this blog, I will demonstrate that Lipset’s theory of democratic stability helps us to understand how ideological extremism took hold in American politics.
Within his discussion of the intricacies of economic development, Lipset explains that masses of uneducated poor will lead to an unstable democracy, as these lower classes can be easily seduced by the political extremes and thus push for revolution that upends democracy. Indeed, his theory of working class authoritarianism is one of his most enduring contributions to political sociology. He explains that the most stable democratic class structure is shaped like a diamond, rather than an elongated pyramid with masses of poor workers. “A large middle class plays a mitigating role in moderating conflict since it is able to reward moderate and democratic parties while penalizing extremist groups.” Their longer time-horizons and greater adherence to democratic norms explain this centralizing behavior. Thus, the middle class becomes a political buffer, warding off the extreme parties championed by the lower classes.
This part of the theory caught my eye, given the current instability of American democracy. Although the US is a majority middle class, with around 50% of Americans falling in that economic range, we have nonetheless seen the rise of an extreme demagogue in American politics: Donald Trump. Do these developments disprove Lipset’s theory, as the middle class failed to gatekeep this extremist candidate? I don’t believe so.
Although Lipset’s diamond class model may have existed in the mid-20th century, that diamond is now squished, with more Americans shifted to the top and bottom. In spite of this shift, some thinkers argue that middle America is doing better nowadays, citing the fact that although the class is shrinking, those within it are earning 34% more than they did in 1970. However, I disagree with this argument. Sure, the middle class may be earning more than they did 50 years ago. But given the mammoth ballooning and hoarding of wealth at the top of class structure- made possible through tax cuts and exploitation of the middle and lower classes’ labor- the middle class should’ve seen more growth.
If we use the realist theory of relative gains as a metaphor here, what the middle class isn’t gaining, they’re losing. And I’d say, with stratospheric levels of wealth being produced by the middle and lower classes yet hoarded at the top, the middle class isn’t as well off as we believe it is. Their relative gains are negligible in comparison to that at the top, and they mean even less with the prices of necessities like housing, healthcare, and education expanding ludicrously. Can this simultaneous shrinking and disempowerment of the middle class prove Lipset’s theory of class stability? That if the middle class had seen their wealth expand properly- instead of being hoarded at the top- and been subsequently empowered, their ranks would have remained bulky, allowing them to perform their function of repelling extremist demagogues such as President Trump?
We can’t accept this conclusion quite yet, given one important fact: middle class voters are the ones voting for Donald Trump (and, yes, I just explained that the middle class is contracting, but we’re talking 61% down to 50%, still half of America). It’s not that they were simply unable to gatekeep the President; they were the ones actively inviting him in. Throughout the leadup to the 2016 election, people blamed the working classes for the rise and legitimization of Trump as a political candidate, which would confirm Lipset’s theory of working class authoritarianism. However, both scholars and journalists alike have since pointed out that the average Trump supporter appears to be middle class.
Does this blow Lipset out of the water? Again, I don’t think so. When looking at reasons why people voted for Trump, two themes seem central: economic wellbeing and fear of the unknown. Trump’s talent for fear-mongering is well-documented, and it might be our explanation here. Did the decreased purchasing power of the shrinking middle class leave them vulnerable to Trump’s fear tactics, as the uncertainty of the near future appears increasingly threatening instead of hopeful? Maybe, subconsciously, the fact that most Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck and couldn’t financially handle a medical emergency, making their near future incredibly uncertain, leaves them pliable to Trump’s rhetoric. Perhaps a number of conservatives who normally would have been disgusted by Trump’s inane behavior felt compelled by his focus on the fear and uncertainty of the modern world, thanks to their hypersensitivity to threats. I believe this to be the case. Trump is a master of preying on the vulnerable, who are looking for a better understanding of this confusing, scary world or something to blame their plights on. And in 2016, those vulnerable were the middle class, who failed as a barrier against extremism and elected him to the presidency.
Now, this isn’t a condemnation of Lipset’s theory. In fact, I think it confirms it in some ways. As mentioned at the start, Lipset’s stable democracy requires a robust, growing middle class, as their time-horizons are far longer than the lower classes and stay away from extremist ideologies. This is not how I see the American middle class. Although these individuals fall within a range set around the median American income, the mean income is rising further and further above their heads. If wealth hadn’t been hoarded at the top, causing levels of wealth inequality that haven’t been seen since right before the Great Depression, the middle class would be in a far better position and far less vulnerable than they currently are.
Yet the reality of this financial vulnerability places them functionally in the lower classes and, as Lipset argues, vulnerable to extreme politics. Instead of punishing Trump for his extreme rhetoric and views, the middle class were seduced by him, ultimately due to the hoarding of wealth at the top of the class structure that left them in a worse position than they were in the 20th century. Thus, as we wonder how our democracy fell to its current disgrace, and as billions continue to be added to the top 1%’s pockets, if we fail to make reforms that assist the bedrock of our democracy, the worst may be yet to come.