Marty Lipset, who studied what makes U.S. tick, dies at 84

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 — though, 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 on New Year’s Eve 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 Ph.D. 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, and their 1995 collaboration, “Jews and the New American Scene,” predicted American Jews’ high rates of intermarriage and waning religious observance, coupled with the growth of the Orthodox movement will result 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 both U.C. Berkeley and Stanford until moving to the Washington, D.C., area in 1990, and was a Hoover senior fellow at the time of his death. He 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 also 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.

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 wrote dozens of books about American democracy but, to put his findings in an extreme nutshell, there are elements of John Locke-style individualism in American society that aren’t present in Europe or even Canada.)

Lipset became consumed with “American exceptionalism,” the study of how America differs from other nations. As well as inspiring 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 and the mother of his three children, Elsie Braun, 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.’ He really wanted others to prosper and didn’t feel diminished by their success. He was an extraordinarily sweet man,” she recalled.

He also had a sense of humor. At one party, he was introduced as Marty Lipset, the name he preferred to go by among friendly company. A fellow guest told Lipset that he knew Seymour Lipset — and rather than calling the namedropper 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, praised her father’s honesty and intellectual non-conformity, as well as his ability to re-analyze his own work and admit he had changed his mind.

And 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.”

Lipset is survived by his wife, Sydnee, of Arlington, Va.; three children, David Lipset of Minneapolis, Daniel Lipset of Boston and Cici Lipset of Palo Alto; and six grandchildren.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.