Democracy Service Medal Tribute to Seymour Martin Lipset

Delivered by Carl Gershman
December 6, 2004

In establishing the annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto are together acknowledging what has long been commonly known – that Professor Lipset, our dear friend Marty, is the preeminent scholar on democracy in the world today. By his own account, set forth in an autobiographical essay published 8 years ago, he came to this subject in a characteristically unconventional way, starting out as a young socialist activist and eventually making his way into the academy. His early intellectual interests were driven by the need to understand the failure of socialism: Why had revolutionary socialism turned into communist totalitarianism? Why had democratic socialism made its peace with capitalism? And why was the United States the only industrialized democracy without a major socialist party? The YPSL that Marty chaired, and which, I must confess, I, too, chaired several decades later, never quite became a mass movement, to put it most generously.

The need to answer these questions was the window through which Marty first viewed the world, a starting point for what he called “the comparative study of the democratic order.” It led to the publication of Political Man, The First New Nation, and other seminal writings that Larry has described so well. What is remarkable about this work is that it is distinctly American and profoundly international at the same time. Marty came to understand his own country by discovering how its culture, practices, and institutions differ from those in other countries, upon which his comparative approach also shed new light. He explained American exceptionalism, for example, by examining the United States in comparison with Canada. And in the process, he also became recognized as “the Tocqueville of Canada,” as he once boasted with obvious pride. I might add that he loves the idea that the Democracy Lecture we’ve now established in his name is being sponsored jointly by the NED and a Canadian institution.

Marty’s work has been called “the sociology of a patriot,” which indeed it is, because he believes America to be a great and effective country. But the subtitle of his book on American exceptionalism is “a double-edged sword,” meaning that America’s characteristics of individualism and anti-statism produce negative as well as positive outcomes for society. His rejection of triumphalism is a reflection of both his appreciation of the complexities of society and his own personal modesty and intellectual integrity.

Nonetheless, though he is a dispassionate scholar, he has also been throughout his life a passionate democrat, committed to the study of politics as a vocation and to the practice of politics as an avocation. From the very beginning of the NED, when he, Larry, and Juan Linz presented us with a proposal to conduct a 26-country survey of democracy in developing countries, Marty has been an integral part of the NED family. The work done on that proposal became the foundation for the Journal of Democracy and the International Forum for Democratic Studies, and Marty has remained a close colleague and adviser to the NED ever since. Writing about an international democracy conference we organized in 1995, he celebrated the fact that the United States had become once again “the center of a global democratic revolution,” a position it held during the 19th century when foreign democratic activists saw America as a model and a source of political and material aid. In commenting on a ceremony we held at that conference honoring four democratic activists from Russia, Rwanda, and Mexico, he wrote that “to see and to listen to them was an emotional experience.” Significantly, his message was directed to the Congress, which he feared did not sufficiently appreciate at the time the stake the U.S. has in supporting what he called the worldwide “freedom network.”

Marty has never lost the commitment to human freedom and dignity that made him a socialist at the beginning of his career. Having understood the danger of intellectuals trying to change the world, he chose to devote his life to trying to interpret it. In doing so, he has not only remained loyal to the principles of democracy, but has also palpably advanced it cause, mot importantly by elevating the understanding of democracy which is the fundamental source of wise policy and humane behavior. For this reason, the National Endowment for Democracy takes great pride in presenting Seymour Martin Lipset with its Democracy Service Medal.