Nelson Polsby, 1934-2007
Nelson Polsby has just passed away. Nelson was a giant of American political science, a leading academic authority on presidential elections, Congress, political party reform, and a host of other topics. His PhD thesis was one of political science's path-altering works, demolishing the intellectual underpinnings of the community power literature, which was then all the rage in the academy. He was also the greatest teacher I ever had and an extraordinarily sweet, generous, and funny man.
During my freshman year at Berkeley in 1992, I was lucky enough to gain a spot in Nelson's freshman seminar on Presidential Elections. Nelson taught the seminar once every four years, so I was in the right place at the right time. He ran the freshman seminar as though he was leading a graduate student seminar - expecting the best out of his young students, leading us toward genuine insights, and gently demanding intellectual rigor. He brought in some of the leading academics, journalists, and politicos of the day to talk with us, and somehow always managed to keep their egos in check, so that they would talk with us instead of at us. Nelson was a pragmatist, but a charismatic one, and by the seminar's conclusion, we had become his groupies. During the next three years of my undergraduate education, my legal education, and my academic career, I always tried to tackle problems in the clear-headed, intellectually honest way that Nelson did, not always succeeding, but doing far better than I'd have done without him as a role model.
When the seminar ended, Nelson made it clear that I was not to be a stranger during my remaining undergraduate years. Nelson was always happy to sit on his comfy couch at the Institute of Governmental Studies and dispense advice, share war stories, or argue about the day's news. U.C. Berkeley undergraduates are treated like numbers through much of their academic life, so the idea that I could walk into the office of one of the world's leading political scientists without an appointment and be greeted like an old friend always seemed too good to be true. It was Nelson who first urged me to think seriously about the academy, noticing quickly something that took me a while to grasp - that I lacked the disposition to be a trial lawyer.
As a college senior, I enrolled in a graduate seminar of Nelson's - a wonderful class covering the "great books" of political science. Many of those books, like Arrow's Economic Theory of Democracy, Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Putnam's Making Democracy Work, profoundly shaped the way I think about the world. And, as it happens, I was able to recommend one of the more obscure classics that Nelson taught - Roberta Wohlstetter's Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision - to a student just yesterday. This was 1996, and Nelson was the center of a throng of graduate students.
Nelson and I stayed in touch over the years, and we spent a wonderful afternoon chatting in November, the last time I was in Berkeley. He was the same old Nelson, asking penetrating questions about the legal academy and cutting through pseudo-intellectual b.s. while reeling off one liners. The adoring throng of graduate students had dissipated substantially, and the new generation of professors in Nelson's own department seemed to be marginalizing him in faculty decisionmaking. Quantitative political scientists and modelers were ascending, and had been for quite some while. Nelson, a brilliant theorist with an encyclopedic knowledge of political history and a firm grasp of human foibles, found his skillset in less demand. Nelson took all of this in stride, understanding the ebb and flow of academic thought. (Recall his zest for Kuhn.) In a few years, political scientists will probably wonder why no one is doing big picture work in the spirit of Key, Wildavsky, Dahl, and Polsby anymore. Tastes, methods, and fads will change, as they always do, and resources will be lavished on trying to find the next Nelson Polsby. But it will take a long while, because people like him do not come along often, and one of the academy's great mentors is no longer available.