Remembering Seymour Lipset, 'most cited' political scientist

Lipset was perhaps the most revered analyst of American society and democracy since Alexis de Tocqueville.

You may never have heard of Seymour Martin "Marty" Lipset, but he spent his whole career thinking about you. Lipset was perhaps the most revered analyst of American society and democracy since Alexis de Tocqueville, although in a characteristically understated move, he opted to decorate his office not with a portrait of the French intellectual but one of Carl Hubbell, the New York Giants pitcher who struck out five future Hall of Famers consecutively in the 1934 All-Star Game. Lipset, the son of Jewish refugees from czarist Russia, died Dec. 31 in Virginia after years of medical troubles following a stroke. He was 84. "All serious political scientists were reading him during his career - certainly everybody in the '60s, '70s and '80s was reading him," said Williamson Evers, a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and former Stanford doctoral student of Lipset's. "He was, at one point in his career, the most cited political scientist in America." Lipset lent his expertise to Jewish causes as well. He was a longtime adviser to the Council of Jewish Federations - now the United Jewish Communities - served on the Faculty Advisory Committee of the United Jewish Appeal, and was a vocal supporter of Israel. His research with Earl Raab, a lifelong friend, explored racism, prejudice and political extremism. Their 1995 collaboration, "Jews and the New American Scene," predicted the high rate of intermarriage and waning religious observance among American Jews, coupled with the growth of the Orthodox movement resulting in a smaller yet more fervent Jewish community in the years to come. Lipset spent decades as a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California Berkeley and Stanford until moving to the Washington, D.C., area in 1990. He was a Hoover senior fellow at the time of his death. Lipset was born in Harlem in 1922, and at the overwhelmingly Jewish City College of New York he ran with the anti-Stalinist, Trotskyite crowd that spawned a generation of New York City Jewish intellectuals. One of Lipset's CCNY classmates who hung out with that group was Raab, later the executive director of San Francisco's Jewish Community Relations Council and a frequent collaborator with Lipset on studies of American Jews. Raab witnessed the germination of Lipset's career, as the young sociologist pondered why socialism never took off in the United States as a mass movement. Lipset, who wrote dozens of books about American democracy, became consumed with "American exceptionalism," the study of how America differs from other nations. As well as illuminating domestic scholars, Lipset's work became a Rosetta Stone for foreigners confused by American ways. "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," journalist Martin Walker wrote in a London Guardian review of Lipset's 1996 book "American Exceptionalism." "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." Lipset's first wife, Elsie Braun, and the mother of his three children, died in 1987. He met his second wife, Sydnee Guyer, during his years at Stanford when she was a director at the JCRC. "As I got to know Marty and met people from all over the world, it was extraordinary how many people said, 'I got my book published because of him' or 'I got into a university' or 'I got into a think tank,' she recalled. "He really wanted others to prosper and didn't feel diminished by their success. He was an extraordinarily sweet man." Lipset also had a sense of humor. At one party he was introduced as Marty Lipset, the name he preferred to use in friendly company. Another guest told Lipset that he knew Seymour Lipset. Rather than calling the name-dropper on his obvious lie, Lipset replied "So do I!" The two had a polite conversation, with the stranger never realizing that he was, in fact, talking to Seymour Martin Lipset. Lipset's daughter, Cici, of Palo Alto, Calif., praised her father's honesty and intellectual nonconformity, as well as his ability to re-analyze his own work and admit he had changed his mind. Longtime colleague Larry Diamond, like so many, compared him to de Tocqueville. "I think we've lost … one of the most important social scientists of the last 50 years," said Diamond, a senior Hoover fellow. "I think there was no one who worked to comparatively study different countries and societies around the world who understood American society better than he did." Along with his wife, of Arlington, Va., and daughter, Lipset is survived by two sons, David, of Minneapolis, and Daniel, of Boston; and six grandchildren.