Marty Lipset passed away on New Year’s Eve, after a long period of disability following a stroke in 2001. His friends and former colleagues are busy organizing an appropriate memorial service for him in the Washington area, but in the meantime I thought I should say something about what his life and work meant to me.
I knew Marty only the in later part of his life. He played an important role in bringing me to my first academic position at George Mason University in 1996, where he himself had moved after a long career at Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, and elsewhere. I spent five terrific years as his colleague at George Mason, where we initially occupied nearby offices in the double-wide trailer that was the first home of the Institute of Public Policy. Marty and I taught Public Policy 800, “Culture and Public Policy,” together every year, which was one of the most educational experiences I myself have ever had. PUBP 800 was a course on comparative politics that Marty had earlier developed, based largely on his 1991 book American Exceptionalism. I have taught a version of this course virtually every year since then, and will begin yet another iteration of it this spring at SAIS as the core course Comparative National Systems.
Marty 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 particularly true for Americans, since the United States was such an outlier in comparison to virtually all other developed democracies. The American welfare state was started later than those in other 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-Thatcher years. The United States had a distinctive political culture that combined anti-statism with a belief that people were responsible for their life outcomes as individuals. The anti-statism was the product of America’s birth in a revolution against British monarchical power. The individualism came from the fact that the US, as a land of “new settlement,” did not inherit the status distinctions and hierarchies of older societies in Europe or Asia. For the successive waves of immigrants who settled in the US, status and wealth were more achieved than inherited, which constituted the social underpinning for the ideological belief in Lockean liberal individualism.
The latter train of thought goes back to Marty’s earliest interests in socialism. He started out, like many of his contemporaries who would come to be known as neoconservatives, on the far left of American politics, and later moved rightwards. One of his earliest interests was in the question of why, in contrast to virtually all European democracies, there was no socialism in the United States. One important reason, he argued, was that because American society lacked the inherited class structure of European countries, social mobility through individual achievement was much easier. In the United States, people make a distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, a distinction that bewilders most Europeans who come from much more rigid societies. In such societies individuals have much less power to change their status; the power of the state is required to equalize social outcomes. Only with respect to African-Americans, Marty argued, was American society historically similar to Europe in ascribing status on the basis of birth, which explained why American blacks tended to behave like European working-class whites, voting for redistributive socialist policies managed by a strong state.
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. This allows a social scientist to isolate those factors that are most likely to explain differences in outcome. It thus makes sense to compare Canada and the United States (as he did in Continental Divide), since both are developed countries in temperate climates, with similar cultural and ethnic origins. The important differences that exist between Canadian and American attitudes to authority, the state, risk, and a host of other issues can therefore be attributed to the specifically divergent historical experiences of the two societies. This approach relies heavily on case studies, and is never far from the dense contextual knowledge that is the province of historians and anthropologists.
Under the baleful influence of rational-choice political science, this method has been largely superceded over the past generation either by large-n statistical studies, or by micro-level studies that try to set up controlled behavioral experiments. Both of these approaches have their uses, but are themselves severely limited in what they can tell us. The large-n studies when applied to whole societies in cross-country regressions tend to reduce factors like “Protestantism” or “presidentialism” to single dummy variables, and thus lose sight of the complex contextual factors that are usually necessary to explain a particular outcome. As Marty used to explain in class, all human social behavior is highly multivariate; particle physics, by contrast, was a much simpler field because the independent and dependent variables could be specified much more exactly. The micro-level experiments, at the other extreme, could rigorously demonstrate certain causal relationships (and hence are often useful in public policy analysis), but could not address larger questions, like why Americans are more religious than Europeans, or the origins of the American anti-statism, that are of more abiding interest.
Marty Lipset took the concept of political culture very seriously, another term that has lost favor in the part of the social sciences dominated by economists. Marty used to say that in terms of formal institutions, many countries in Latin America had created political systems very similar to that of the United States (and in some cases deliberately modeled on the US Constitution). But one could not possibly explain the differences in the quality of democracy in North and South America except with respect to the political cultures of the different regions. But Marty was not a culturalist in the way that Sam Huntington is; while he took religion seriously, it was not the bedrock explanatory variable it became for Sam. Marty’s understanding of political culture was more supple and expansive.
This point came through in one of my favorite classes in PUBP 800, the one on presidentialism where he took the lead. Marty always said that the two greatest American presidents of the 20th century were Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, despite the fact that they were in opposite camps ideologically. They were great presidents because they understood that the true power and function of the American presidency lay not in the formulation of correct or technically sophisticated policies, but rather in the formulation and communication of broad political ideas, that both reflected and shaped the beliefs of the American people. Both presidents left translation of these broad ideas to subordinates; they were primarily visionaries and communicators who could build consensus around large, important ideas. One could not understand the true function of the office of president by simply reading the Constitution or enumerating the office’s formal powers, since the way it was used in practice had become more a matter of political culture.
I can only scratch the surface of what I learned from Marty in the short period that I worked with him, and will try to add to what I’ve written here in subsequent installments. There are many other facets of his career and writings from earlier periods that others will have to discuss. It is clear however that we have lost one of the great intellectuals of our time, and it is hard to see who in later generations is likely to fill his shoes.