- Alfred C. Stepan (1936–2017)
On September 27, the field of comparative democratic studies lost one of its most brilliant, prolific, and seminal scholars of the last half-century, Alfred C. Stepan. The longest-serving member of the Journal of Democracy Editorial Board (one of only two members still serving from the founding Board of nearly 28 years ago), Stepan authored or coauthored more than a dozen articles in the Journal. These were groundbreaking works, often previewing longer essays or books, on such important themes in comparative politics as the relationship between religion and the state, the relationship between Islam and democracy, and the origins and diverse forms of democratic federalism.
Stepan's frequent collaboration with Juan Linz (another founding member of our Editorial Board) was the most productive and influential intellectual partnership in the history of democratic studies. Their four-volume edited book The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (1978) focused on what Stepan called, in his case study of Brazil, "the quality and style of political leadership"—the actions and choices, decisions and nondecisions that tilted a stressed political system toward failure. Two decades later, in Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation (1996), they presented the field's most systematic theory and conceptualization of the process of democratic consolidation, as well as the most comprehensive, case-based analysis of the paths of democratic transition and the tasks of democratic consolidation in three regions: Southern Europe, South America, and postcommunist Europe. That book's reflections on the relationship between state and nation in multinational democracies, particularly the need to accommodate multiple and complementary political identities, led to their highly original 2011 book (with Yogendra Yadav), Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies.
A former U.S. Marine and former journalist, Stepan had an abiding commitment to understanding countries from the ground up. As a special correspondent for the Economist in West Africa and Latin America, he filed a story about an impending coup in Brazil shortly before it unfolded in late March 1964. As he reflects in the introduction to his 2001 collection of essays Arguing Comparative Politics, he could sense "the growing centrality of the military in domestic politics" in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay before the coups of the mid-1970s wiped out democracy in all three of those countries as well.
Stepan acquired intimate knowledge of a wider range of cases of democratic change than any other political scientist of his generation. Among the fruits of these labors were his early definitive work on Brazil, The Military [End Page 188] in Politics: Changing Patterns in Brazil (1971), and his comparative analysis of the military's role in democratic transitions in the Southern Cone, Rethinking Military Politics (1988), which remains to this day an essential guide for forging civilian control of the military. His 1978 book on Peru, The State and Society, returned the state to a central theoretical role in political development. While based in Budapest for three years, Stepan became intimately acquainted with the challenges of democratic transition and consolidation in Europe's postcommunist states. Subsequently, his keen moral and intellectual interest in democratization and the management of religious and cultural diversity led him to engage with several Muslim-majority countries (Indonesia, Senegal, Tunisia, and Turkey), as well as with India and Burma.
Stepan began his academic career at Yale (1970–83) before moving to Columbia, where he became dean of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and Burgess Professor of Political Science. He departed for Europe in 1993, serving as the first rector and president of Central European University. From 1996 to 1999, he was Gladstone Professor of Government and Fellow of All Souls College at the University of Oxford. He returned to Columbia in 1999 to become the Wallace S. Sayre Professor of Government, a position he held until his retirement in 2015.
We mourn here the loss of Al Stepan the person as well as the intellectual. A devoted teacher, generous mentor, and inspiring colleague, he brought to all of his personal interactions a warmth, openness, and humanity that surpassed even his towering professional accomplishments. On November 17, a memorial ceremony was held in his honor at Columbia's St. Paul...