Seymour Martin Lipset (March 18, 1922 – December 31, 2006) was a political sociologist, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. He remains famous for his theory of the relationship between economic development and democracy, in which he argued that democracy and capitalism are the perfect match, particularly in the United States. He also published influential writings on trade unions, public opinion, and social structures. His work helped shape the study of comparative politics. Influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville, Lipset became fascinated by "American exceptionalism," studying the many ways in which the United States differs from other countries. While he recognized that class struggles could lead to revolution, he disagreed with Karl Marx that this was the inevitable fate of capitalism, arguing that American society was unlikely to be destroyed in that manner. Lipset's view of the United States, and the significance of Israel, can thus be seen to provide a social scientific description that supports the religious view of these nations in Divine Providence.
Seymour Martin Lipset, known as "Marty," was born on March 18, 1922, in New York, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He graduated from City College of New York in 1943, where he was an active Socialist, later becoming national chairman of the Young People's Socialist League. However, he left the Socialist Party in 1960, and described himself as a centrist, deeply influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville, George Washington, John Stuart Mill, and Max Weber.
Lipset received a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University in 1949. Before that, he was a lecturer at the University of Toronto (1946-1948). In 1950, he became an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University, and, in 1956, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He stayed in California for almost ten years, until 1965, when he accepted the position of George Markham Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, which he held until 1975. His final post was at Stanford University, where he served as the Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science and Sociology (1975–1992). From 1990, he also held the Hazel Chair of Public Policy at George Mason University.
Lipset was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He was the only person to have been president of both the American Sociological Association (1992–1993) and the American Political Science Association (1979–1980). He also served as the president of the International Society of Political Psychology, the Sociological Research Association, the World Association for Public Opinion Research, and the Society for Comparative Research. He was also the president of the Paul F. Lazarsfeld Society in Vienna, Austria.
Lipset was active in public affairs on a national level. He was a director of the United States Institute of Peace. He was a board member of the Albert Shanker Institute, a member of the U.S. Board of Foreign Scholarships, co-chair of the Committee for Labor Law Reform, co-chair of the Committee for an Effective UNESCO, and consultant to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Humanities Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the American Jewish Committee.
He served as president of the American Professors for Peace in the Middle East, chair of the National B'nai B'rith Hillel Commission, and the Faculty Advisory Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal, and co-chair of the Executive Committee of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East.
Lipset's first wife, Elsie Braun, died in 1987. With her, he had three children: David, Daniel, and Cici. Seymour Lipset died in 2006, in Arlington, Virginia. He was survived by his second wife, Sydnee Guyer, whom he met in Stanford and married in 1990.
Lipset’s major work was in the fields of political sociology, trade union organization, social stratification, public opinion, and the sociology of intellectual life. He remains chiefly famous, however, for his writings on democracy in comparative perspective. He made a comparison between democracies in the United States and Canada, analyzing the differences between the two. He argued that because the United States was founded through revolution and struggle for independence, its democratic system and its attitudes toward democracy are different from its northern neighbor.
Lipset became fascinated by the idea of "American exceptionalism," becoming an expert on the ways in which the United States differed not only from Canada but other nations. His 1996 volume on the topic addressed issues such as why America never developed a successful socialist movement, evidences such intense religiosity compared to most other Christian nations, and Americans are so active in philanthropy and volunteer organizations.
Lipset believed that healthy democratic systems rest on a fine interplay between forces pushing for conformity and those challenging the status quo. Those forces keep the balance within the democratic system. If a state moves too far in one direction or the other, democracy will suffer and is likely to fail. Lipset saw such healthy balance in the American political system consisting of Republicans and Democrats. He claimed that American democracy was formed in the revolution, and thus has the features of both strong centralized leadership and revolutionary tendencies. Americans learned through their history to balance the antagonistic forces of equality of opportunity and an acceptance of the inequality of condition. It is thus unlikely that any other system but capitalism would succeed on American soil.
In his political ideas Lipset was greatly influenced by two thinkers: John Stuart Mill and his theory of countervailing powers within democracies, and Max Weber's views on modern society. Lipset held that modern democratic systems, with their complex bureaucratic apparatus, make their citizens rather unaware of how the democracy actually functions, alienating them from their own roles as political players. Citizens subsequently became uninterested in politics and the democratic system ceases to function properly.
Lipset believed that the democratic system in its existing form and capitalism were the perfect match and should survive. He did, however, warn of the class divisions within the capitalist system that could destroy civil society. He agreed with Karl Marx that tensions between classes could lead to revolution, but he argued that such an outcome is highly unlikely because of economic growth. As long as the economy prospers, and as long as they see a bright future ahead, people will be satisfied enough to continue to support the system in an unchanging form. Lipset thus rejected Marx’s claims that revolution was the immediate outcome of class struggle and an inevitable fate of the capitalist society.
Lipset's research with Earl Raab explored racism, prejudice, and political extremism. Theirpublication, Jews and the New American Scene (1995), predicted the increased intermarriage and reduced religious observance among American Jews, which, together with the growing Orthodox movement resulted in a smaller, yet more fervent, Jewish community. Lipset also lent his expertise to Jewish causes and was a vocal supporter of Israel.
Lipset received numerous awards for his work. He was the winner of the MacIver Prize for Political Man (1960) and the Gunnar Myrdal Prize for The Politics of Unreason (1970). His book, The First New Nation (1963), was a finalist for the National Book Award. He was also awarded the Townsend Harris and Margaret Byrd Dawson Medals for significant achievement, the Northern Telecom-International Council for Canadian Studies Gold Medal, and the Leon Epstein Prize in Comparative Politics by the American Political Science Association. He has received the Marshall Sklare Award for distinction in Jewish studies. In 1997, he was awarded the Helen Dinnerman Prize by the World Association for Public Opinion Research.
Lipset was one of the greatest political scientists in American history. His work on comparative democracies and his theory of the relationship between economic development and democracy made him world-famous and ensured his legacy. His work had shaped the study of comparative politics; his books being cited more often than that of any other contemporary political scientist or sociologist. He taught and inspired several generations of leading political scientists and sociologists.
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