Harold Wilensky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Comparing Rich Democracies: Conversation with Harold L. Wilensky, Professor Emeritus of Political Science; October 29, 2002, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Comparing Rich Democracies: Theory

Let's talk about this thirty-year gestation and its result in this work. book coverWhy the focus on rich democracies, and what is the set that you chose to study and work on?

I've been interested in advanced industrial societies all my career. I knew that I couldn't really learn about the whole world. Although people do write about the whole world, I think it's pretty superficial. If I could just find out something about the countries that are like the one I live in, I would be very happy. To continue to overcome my American parochialism, I launched this project on the politics of taxing and spending, the welfare state, and a variety of other things.

My students and I produced books and articles over that thirty-year period. It was a project. The NSF helped (the National Science Foundation), and the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation -- lots of funding. You need a lot of money; you need a lot of time to do this. Berkeley was very helpful in giving me the time, and they were very helpful in giving me money. This is necessary if you are to understand modern life.

I've been teasing out the question of what's distinctly modern about modern life in the courses I've been teaching and in my research. For example, "Modern Society" in the Sociology Department. In Political Science, I've been teaching "Comparative Political Economy"; "Comparative Public Policy"; and "Labor, Professions, and Bureaucracy," done comparatively. So I've been into that business for a very long time.

You say in your introduction that a good theory of social change means addressing five questions: "What is changing? How much? How fast? In what direction? What are the engines driving change?" Tell us a little about the profile of the countries you selected. There were nineteen of them.

It's a universe of nineteen rich democracies, each country with a population of 3 million or more. New Zealand has 3 1/2 million, so you get an idea of the size. The rest have more. These countries are in the upper sixth of the world's distribution of income per capita. That's the measure. And they're light years different from others. The rich have more money than the poor, and I mean a lot more -- thirty times the amount of money per capita. We're talking about big differences here. And these are differences that make a difference in the social structure, the culture, and the politics of these countries.

Let's walk through, point by point, what you then set about doing. What you were trying to do was "play convergence theory against mass society theory and theories of corporatism in an effort to explain similarities and differences among rich countries, as they become richer." I want to unbundle that sentence, so first, I'm going to ask you to tell us, briefly, what convergence theory is and what it leads you to look at.

Now, that's a long part of this book, the three theories you've mentioned. I applied them in the rest of the book. So just briefly, convergence theory and modernization theory are theories of advanced industrial societies. They examine questions like, "As rich countries got richer, and are becoming richer still, do they become more alike in social structure, culture, and politics? If so, what exactly are these convergent characteristics?" You will find a number of convergent characteristics. The welfare state exists with seven or eight programs that are universal among these nineteen countries. The richer you get, the more you're going to fund them and tax people for them -- pensions, health insurance, all of it. That's just the start.

There are differences, of course. Welfare state spending does vary, and you can talk about the efficiency and the generosity and all of those things, and you've got differences. But to begin with, you've got the seven or eight programs. The rise of higher education -- mass higher education -- is a characteristic of all of them. The United States is in the lead in that, in the excellence, the diversity, and the enrollment ratios. We are most advanced, but everybody else is following.

So that's a characteristic of modern society. That will produce a bunch of experts and intellectuals, and that's another characteristic. A fourth characteristic is the media of mass communication and entertainment. They will rise in power and dominate the culture and politics, eventually, as they are doing in the United States today, though here again, you find differences. For example, the broadcast media are more dominant in the United States. It's one of the distinctive features of the United States compared to our sister democracies: we allow the most deregulated broadcast industry on earth.

The second thing is that we allow the broadcast media to act as gatekeepers for political communication. Our politicians are elected; who elected the broadcast media managers, for God's sake? Politicians have to communicate with constituents. How can they do it in a country so complex and big as this without media access? Well, other democracies give them media access and free time. Every time in Congress you get free media time on a bill to reform campaigns, it gets bounced out quickly. A lot of people are fighting for it, because they know the core of the problem here is access to media.

The media differ here also in the lack of competition from public sector outlets, public broadcasting.

In other countries, the BBC in Britain, for example, and the Japanese equivalent, have 40 percent of the audience. The reason for this is very simple: they're well-funded. There's a license on TV sets. That money goes to fund public television. You buy a public interest in the television content, if you do that, and we don't do any of it. We don't finance PBS or any others, where it's worth much. They mostly get it from a continual fundraising operation with the viewers, and they don't produce at the level that they could produce if you gave them some money.

In all of these countries you're looking at, you're describing an increased breakup of the family, the push for equality among minority groups, gender equality, the rise of mass education, the increasing dominance of the media and mass communication, which we just talked about. The increasing number of intellectuals and experts. Changes in social stratification and the organization of work, and rising social expenditures. So all of these societies are dealing with these issues?

They all evidence these trends. And the outcomes are similar. The upper-middle class is about a fifth of the labor force now in the United States -- very big. Others are moving in this direction. book coverThe richer you get, the more you're going to have. You will also have a middle mass, which in the United States is lower-middle and upper-working classes, which are becoming more and more alike in lifestyle, behavior, political outlook, and everything else, such that they really form a mass of people who behave similarly. They're about 59 percent of the presidential vote. When Nixon went after the middle majority, or "silent majority," when Wallace went after his litany of occupations, when Perot ran, they had that base. And abroad, you find the same thing. These protest candidates who work those themes of anti-taxing, anti-social spending, anti-bureaucratic -- the base tends to be the middle mass, which is more volatile. You find the Reagan Democrats there. You find the David Duke voters there. You find the Wallace voters there. In other words, high school graduates and part-college people, the best measure of all of this, grows as a category. They become strategic in politics. Okay, then you have the lower classes or a variety of kinds of poverty.

Now, you spoke in that sentence of playing convergence theory off of mass society theory. That's another body of theory. Tell us about that and why that becomes part of the way you look at these democracies. What does mass society theory tell us about what's happening to societies in general?

It's a theory that is old and was formulated by almost everybody from de Tocqueville, who described the American scene using theories like that, and on through a series of people who were refugees from the Nazis -- intellectuals like Hannah Arendt and Karl Mannheim, who accented the following: they said, "Modern society is vulnerable to totalitarian movements like Hitler's because of the decline or erosion of mediating associations that lie between the individual and the distant agencies of the state and of mass communication." These mediating organizations are the churches, trade unions, voluntary associations, and professions -- all of those organizations that mediate, that prevent the state from intruding too much on your life. They're buffers against totalitarianism. They are participatory possibilities for the population, so they're very important.

Some of these theories emphasize the breakdown of family and neighborhood -- the "primary groups" -- also. But I show in my book that mass society theory is not a general theory of modern society. It applies to the least corporatist countries, or the most fragmented and decentralized political economies. They're most vulnerable to these mass society tendencies, which are leaving a vacuum because of the decline of the churches, unions, voluntary associations. There's a vacuum left, once they decline. Political parties are, of course, extremely important as integrators, and they decline, at least, in some dmeocracies. So what have you got left? You've got a vacuum of power. Who fills it? The mass media of communication and entertainment. Lawyers and judges -- if you have weak mechanisms of conflict resolution, you will refer many problems to the courts, and lawyers and judges will take over because you can't resolve policy conflicts.

The other force that will fill it is single-issue groups, like the National Rifle Association or Nader's Raiders. They tend to be focused on one or two things, and they are not broadly based. They are not even organizations; they're movements of a computer and a membership list with solicitation. That is not a political party. That is not a union. That is not a church. It is not a voluntary association that has organization. It is a movement without members. Mass society is full of movements without members, and that is a threat to democracy, because the media love them and they will ignore the parties or anything that's left to articulate these political agendas. I'm talking about Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Switzerland belongs there only a little; it has a life of its own. It's really exceptional. But I think that those are the countries that are most vulnerable to mass society, where demagogues can easily manipulate the population.

Next page: Comparing Rich Democracies: Example

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