Lipset’s political man applied to Sweden

Here are som telling examples from Seymour Martin Lipset’s Political Man (1981 edition), that all suggest that Sweden does not fulfill the cultural requirements of a modern democracy.

Lipset discusses conflict and consensus. In his view, democracy needs a healthy combination of both. This suggests that a country with a too strong focus of consensus may be lacking in democracy. Sweden is known for consensus, yet this has never been criticized in such terms.

He claims that historically, in the western world, “the breakdown of a traditional society exposed to general view for the first time the difference between society and state” (p. 2). In Sweden, this difference was officially recognised for the first time in 1990, in the final report of a government inquiry. Actually, it is more correct to say that it was criticised by individual scholars rather than recognized by politicians or the general public.

He discusses Marx’ view of conflict and consensus and finds that his goal was a society of pure consensus, which, for that very reason, did not need any safeguards against the abuse of power, such as checks and balances and a bill of rights. This is exactly the argument that has been used by Swedish social democracy and also the argument that dominated when the current Swedish constitutional charter was decided in 1974.

He claims that support of political parties that correspond too closely to social divisions cannot continue on a democratic basis. There needs to be cross-overs, such as workers who vote for the Tories. It has been claimed that the political parties in Sweden to a very high degree correspond to historically determined social divisions, rather than ideology.

He states that “The belief that a very high level of participation is always good for democracy is not valid” (p. 14). From a Swedish point of view, this suggests that it was problematic that Sweden in the 1970s had levels of voter participation in national elections that corresponded to the levels reported from the Soviet Union.

Lipset discusses industrialization in the Nordic countries, and finds differences between Denmark, Sweden and Norway. In Denmark the process was slow and gradual with little extremism, while it in Sweden, and especially Norway, it was rapid, with political extremism as a result (p. 44-45)

Lipset, Seymour Martin 1981 [1959]. Political Man: The social bases of politics. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press.

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