“Tribute to Marty Lipset”

by Marc F. Plattner

I got to know Marty Lipset fairly late in his career and long after my days as a student. Nonetheless, he wound up having a profound influence on my life. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that the Journal of Democracy would never have existed if it had not been for Marty. One of the very first grants made by the National Endowment for Democracy, in September 1984, was for the study by Lipset, Linz, and Diamond that eventually led to the multivolume collectionDemocracy in Developing Countries. It was in attending the conference of contributors to that project in December 1985 that I first spent an extended period of time with Marty and first met his former student Larry Diamond. Both Marty and Larry soon became closely involved with the work of NED, and in 1988 when Carl Gershman and I first came up with the idea of launching the Journal of Democracy, it was only natural that we reached out to Larry to join me as its founding coeditor and recruited Marty as the first member of our Editorial Board. Marty would again play a crucial role as a member of an ad hoc committee set up by the NED Board of Directors to explore the creation of a research program built around the Journal, which resulted in the founding of the International Forum for Democratic Studies in 1994.

Marty Lipset was both an extraordinary scholar and an extraordinary man. As I have read the outpouring of tributes to him since his death, I have been reflecting on what made him unique. Everyone recognizes Marty’s unparalleled contributions as a social scientist, his pathbreaking studies on a wide variety of subjects, and his incredible productivity. He had an insatiable hunger for knowledge and an unswerving respect for facts. Indeed, some of the stories his students and colleagues relate about him make him sound like the classic “absent-minded professor,” the man so absorbed in his research that he sometimes loses touch with what is going on around him. I would not deny that there was an element of this in Marty. It probably accounts for the fact that, among all the distinguished people I have known, he was the most utterly without pretense. But the puzzle is how Marty was able to combine the rigor and single-mindedness of the scientist with so much worldly knowledge and plain good sense.

I think the answer may be lurking in the title, borrowed from Aristotle, of Marty’s most famous book, Political Man. For in some ways Marty was the most political of men. He himself makes this clear in his wonderful memoir Steady Work, in a paragraph where he notes the influence on him of his parents’ attachment to Judaism and Marxism, but concludes, “I have remained committed to politics as a scholarly vocation and as my main avocation.” Marty was a “political junkie,” for whom the details of campaigns and elections were endlessly fascinating. It is no coincidence that the three journalists speaking here today, among the most eminent in their profession, are connoisseurs of the details of American politics who recognized in Marty not only a great source of information and analysis, but also a kindred soul.

Today politics is increasingly identified with crass partisanship and disdain for the truth, and there is no lack of evidence for this perspective. But this point of view captures only one part of a complex picture. Marty’s life and work remind us of the nobility of politics, and of why Aristotle calls the study of politics the architectonic science. Marty always remained thoroughly grounded in the real world of political conflict and consensus, but he never lost sight of the highest aims of political life. And that is why he was able to teach so much to so many of us.