Seymour Martin Lipset (1922–2006)

Issue Date April 2007
Volume 18
Issue 2
Page Numbers 185-88
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The world of scholarship on democracy suffered a grievous loss on 31 December 2006 with the death of Seymour Martin Lipset. During his long and illustrious academic career, Lipset was a professor at Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, and George Mason University, and enjoyed affiliations with the Hoover Institution, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Progressive Policy Institute. He was the author of numerous important books including Political Man, The First New Nation, The Politics of Unreason, and American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. He was the only person ever to have served as president of both the American Political Science Association (1979–80) and the American Sociological Association (1992–93).

The most versatile and prolific political sociologist of the past century, Seymour Martin Lipset worked on a breathtaking array of issues—everything from class structure and social mobility to party systems and voter alignments, public confidence in institutions, and the social origins of socialism, fascism, extremism, revolution, and protest. He was a deep believer in the importance of comparative research, and he produced seminal works comparing Canada and the United States and explaining why the United States never had a major socialist party or movement.

Above all else, however, he considered himself a student of democracy, and it is revealing that he chose as the topic of his 1993 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited.” There was no topic that he liked to revisit more, and his final book The Democratic Century (reviewed in these pages in April 2005) marked still another return to this question.

Lipset’s contributions to the study of democracy were numerous and lasting. His 1959 article, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy” (the seventh most-cited article in the century-long history of the American Political Science Review), was one of the most influential statements of modernization theory. It remains to this day a major source and inspiration for the voluminous and still growing literature on the social conditions of a democratic political order. In that article, and in books such as Political Man and The First New Nation written shortly thereafter, one finds some of the earliest, clearest, and most compelling presentations of what have proven to be remarkably enduring propositions about the conditions of democracy.

To recall a few: The chances for sustaining democracy are strongly [End Page 185] related to a country’s level of economic development. This is so because development generates a more democratic political culture, lower inequality, a larger middle class, a less domineering state, and a more vigorous and pluralistic civil society. Poor countries can become viable democracies only to the extent that they develop these characteristics commonly associated with national wealth. The stability—we would now say, “consolidation”—of democracy rests on a deep and widespread belief in its legitimacy, or what Lipset often called its “moral title to rule.” This in turn depends on effective performance, especially early in the life of a regime, and on mechanisms to moderate the intensity of conflict, such as cross-cutting cleavages and electoral and institutional designs that encourage a two-party system (which is why he generally favored presidentialism and the single-member district). The legitimacy of democracy and democratic norms can also be heavily shaped by the nature of founding leadership, which is why Lipset returned repeatedly (including in these pages, in October 1998) to the example of the charismatic but constitutionally restrained leadership of George Washington in the United States.

Although many of these arguments now seem to be pervasive and almost self-evident—as if they were in the academic air we breathe—they were anything but that two generations ago when Lipset began his academic career. Many of his ideas borrowed heavily from previous theorists—Aristotle, Tocqueville, Weber, Michels, Duverger—but he developed and extended them with compelling lucidity, and he redefined the study of democracy by marshalling convincing amounts and varieties of evidence on their behalf.

Marty Lipset enjoyed a special relationship with the Journal of Democracy and its parent organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). One of the very first grants made by the NED, in September 1984, was for the study by Lipset, Juan Linz, and Larry Diamond that eventually led to the multivolume collection Democracy in Developing Countries. It was at the conference of contributors to that project that Lipset’s former student Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, then director of program at the NED, first met. A few years later they became the founding coeditors of the Journal of Democracy and recruited Marty as the first member of the Editorial Board. Marty would again play a crucial role as a member of an ad hoc committee set up by the NED Board of Directors to explore the creation of a research program built around the Journal, which resulted in the founding of the NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies in 1994. Until he was disabled by a stroke in 2001, Marty was a frequent contributor to the Journal and an active member of the Editorial Board. In 2004, the NED launched in his honor the annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World in cooperation with the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. [End Page 186]

Two major memorial events were held in Lipset’s honor. On 13 February 2007 at Stanford University, the Hoover Institution and the departments of political science and sociology hosted a memorial ceremony and reception. And on February 28 in Washington, D.C., the NED, George Mason University, and the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies sponsored a tribute to Lipset’s life and work. The event may be viewed at Other tributes may be found at

Below we reprint excerpts from tributes by two members of the Journal of Democracy Editorial Board: Juan Linz, writing in the newsletter of the Comparative Democratization section of the American Political Science Association; and Francis Fukuyama, speaking at the Washington event on February 28.

Juan Linz: I was torn between writing on Marty’s contribution to the theory of the comparative study of democracy and a more personal memoir. Marty meant so much to me. He was a teacher, a mentor, a coauthor, and above all a friend. . . .

I wish that his central contribution on the socioeconomic conditions favoring democracy should not overshadow his many other contributions to the study of democracy, the reading of his many other books and papers, the richness of his opus. Marty always reflected on the acute problems of his time, and how they could be a threat to democratic-liberal values. . . .

Lipset’s books are filled with footnotes with reference to studies all over the world documenting the point he is making, acknowledgements to colleagues who sent him data, commented on his drafts, and were part of an international community of scholars. They obviously, in turn, benefited from those constant exchanges. Under his direction, political sociology became a cooperative international enterprise. He also made a great effort to respond to his critics in detail. In all this, he counted always on devoted research assistants who learned in the process how to do research and often became coauthors of papers and books. I was one such assistant, for which I am most fortunate. . . .

To finish with something that Marty himself once wrote about a junior colleague, Marty was “a scholar worthy of our admiration and affection and, in my case, of love.”

Francis Fukuyama: The first course I taught at George Mason was Public Policy 800, entitled “Culture and Public Policy,” which Marty had developed based on his book American Exceptionalism. We went on to co-teach this course every year subsequently, and I am still teaching a version of it this very spring at SAIS, so Marty’s intellectual legacy goes on. . . .

One of my early encounters with Marty was a dinner at, I believe, [End Page 187] Marc Plattner’s house. Marty didn’t like to drive, and so my wife Laura and I gave him a lift home. After I dropped him off at his place in Ballston, I remember turning to my wife and saying, “Wow, we had the world’s greatest social scientist sitting right here in our car.” Little did I know that in a few years I would be providing a regular limousine service for Marty. Much of our interaction in those years occurred while I was driving him home from our class, when he would talk about his years at City College, or about the British prime minister, or about his truly favorite subject, departmental politics. . . .

I want to focus on one aspect of Marty’s life and work that many of the tributes to him have tended to ignore, which is the seemingly dry subject of methodology. Marty was a true comparativist. He began each PUBP 800 class by saying that “a person who knows only one country knows no countries,” because it is only by looking across different societies that one can understand what is either typical or unique about one’s own. This was a particular problem for those in the United States, since the country was such an outlier: The U.S. welfare state was started later than those of European democracies, was always smaller in scope, and was the first to be cut back in the conservative retrenchment that took place in the Reagan years. But Americans are the last to know how different they are from everyone else. This is a point that has become painfully evident over the past few years.

Marty Lipset was a master of what political scientists call the “small-n” comparative approach, exemplified beautifully by books like Continental Divide or American Exceptionalism. Since it is not possible to do controlled experiments using entire societies, the only way to establish causality is to compare societies that are sufficiently similar that one can hold a large range of factors constant—in the case of Continental Divide, the United States and Canada.

Under the malign influence of rational-choice political science, this method has been largely superseded over the past generation either by game theory, or by cross-country econometric studies. Envy of the natural sciences has led the social sciences into a dead end, where they have lost any ability to talk meaningfully about the complexity and richness of human behavior, and cannot address large questions of abiding interest like why Americans are more religious than Europeans, or where American antistatism comes from, or why there is no socialism in the United States. As Marty used to explain in class, particle physics is a much simpler field than political science because physics has many fewer independent variables, and these variables don’t have minds of their own. . . .

[Marty] was first and foremost an academic and a scholar, and not a policy advocate or a political partisan. Allowing policy choices to arise out of facts and research rather than the other way around is a Lipset legacy that we would all do well to emulate.