The Magazine

Exceptional American

Seymour Martin Lipset, 1922-2006.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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Like many of his comrades at City College, Marty Lipset moved to the right politically over the years, though never to the Republican party. But he was less interested in spirited persuasion than in clear-eyed perception. He recognized that America's strengths were also its weaknesses. "I view the organizing principles and institutions of the United States as doubled-edged," he wrote in American Exceptionalism, published in 1996 and perhaps the summa of his work, "that many negative traits that currently characterize the society, such as income inequality, high crime rates, low levels of electoral participation, a powerful tendency to moralize which at times verges on intolerance toward political and ethnic minorities, are inherently linked to the norms and behavior of an open democratic society that appear so admirable." And he realized that the success of democratic government depended not only on institutional design but also on great leaders--"independent variables," in political science language--which America has been exceptionally lucky in having.

"There can be little question that the hand of providence has been on a nation which finds a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt when it needs him," he wrote. And then he added, "When I write the above sentence, I believe that I draw scholarly conclusions, although I will confess that I write as a proud American." No one has done as good a job as explaining America to itself as Tocqueville did in the century before last. But few if any have come as close as Marty Lipset did in the century just ended.

Michael Barone is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report, coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics, and author of Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan.