Political Scientist Seymour Lipset, 84; Studied Democracy and U.S. Culture

Seymour Martin Lipset taught at Stanford, Harvard and George Mason University.
Seymour Martin Lipset taught at Stanford, Harvard and George Mason University. (Family Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 4, 2007

Seymour Martin Lipset, 84, a leading scholar of democracy and one of the most influential social scientists of the past half-century, died Dec. 31 at Virginia Hospital Center of complications of a stroke.

Dr. Lipset first explained the connection between economic development and democracy, an insight that earned him immediate attention and made him one of the most-cited political scientists. He also studied the nature of political extremism, how the core American values of equality and achievement keep class conflict in check and what other countries have to teach the United States.

"Those who only know one country, know no country," he wrote. Yet the United States, born from a revolution, differs from other nations that came to democracy by other routes, he said.

Dr. Lipset's eclectic interests in the peculiarities of U.S. political culture -- and his clear prose -- proved irresistible to journalists, policymakers and academics. Reporters sought him out to explain everything from major changes in politics to why jokes about gays have become verboten.

In 1996, journalist Martin Walker of the Guardian newspaper of London called Dr. Lipset "one of America's most useful intellectuals."

"More than any other figure, with the possible exception of John Kenneth Galbraith, he plausibly explains to us baffled aliens why you Americans are so very odd," Walker wrote in a review of Dr. Lipset's book "American Exceptionalism" (1996). "He tackles the really interesting questions that seldom seem to occur to the rest of you; why America never developed a serious socialist movement; why you exhibit almost Iranian levels of religiosity; why Canada is so different; and why you so hate turning out to vote but so enjoy joining voluntary organizations."

Author of more than 20 books and editor of two dozen more, Dr. Lipset was the only person to have been president of both the American Sociological Association and the American Political Science Association. One of his early books, "Political Man" (1960), sold more than 400,000 copies and was translated into 20 languages. Another, "The First New Nation" (1962), was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Dr. Lipset "inspired, taught and mentored several generations of leading political scientists and sociologists," Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said two years ago when the National Endowment for Democracy and the Canadian Embassy launched a lecture series in Dr. Lipset's name.

Diamond praised Dr. Lipset's strong belief in "reason, moderation, tolerance, pragmatism and restraint as the bedrock values of democracy and decent society . . . [and his] constant search for equilibrium -- between consensus and conflict, between ideological extremes, even between political parties."

The excesses of American culture are inextricably tied to its ideals, Dr. Lipset wrote. "We are the worst as well as the best, depending on which quality is being addressed. . . . Those who focus on moral decline, or on the high crime or divorce rates, ignore the evidence that much of what they deplore is closely linked to American values which presumably they approve of, those which make for achievement and independence."

Born the son of Russian Jewish immigrants in New York, Dr. Lipset graduated in 1943 from City College of New York, where he was an anti-Stalinist leftist and later became national chairman of the Young People's Socialist League. He left the Socialist Party in 1960 and described himself as a centrist, deeply influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville, George Washington, Aristotle and German political theorist Max Weber.

He taught at the University of Toronto before receiving a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University in 1949, then did further research in Canada, contrasting the political culture of Saskatchewan with adjacent North Dakota.

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