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  • Seymour Martin Lipset (1922-2006)

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...


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