Leon Epstein

Pioneering political scientist
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The Independent Online

Leon David Epstein, political scientist: born Milwaukee, Wisconsin 29 May 1919; Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison 1958-88; married 1948 Shirley Golewitz (died 2001); died Madison, Wisconsin 1 August 2006.

For long the weakness of American political parties compared to their British counterparts, and their failure to evolve into European-style mass membership, puzzled students of political science. The United States remains one of a handful of democracies never to have a mass labour or social democratic party and its primary system for nominating candidates has not been emulated elsewhere.

For much of the last century many American reformers and political scientists were perplexed and frustrated by these failures and looked to Britain as a model. The British two-party system provided effective and coherent policy-making - more so than continental Europe - and they argued that America should follow that model. Britain, of course, is no longer a market leader and the dominance of the two parties has declined.

An exception to this thinking was Leon Epstein, who for a time was perhaps the foremost student of party organisations in the world. Based at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he was one of the pioneers in America of the field of comparative political parties. His study of the US was enhanced by his knowledge of other countries, particularly Britain, a country he wrote much about and came to admire.

His achievements were recognised by his election as Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and as President of the American Political Science Association (Apsa), 1978-79, perhaps the highest post in the profession.

Brought up in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, Epstein first enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1936 to study economics. Having graduated in 1940, he took a year completing his MA, and then served overseas. He spent two years in England and at the end of the Second World War studied for a term at Oxford. This began a love affair with British politics. He returned to the US and completed his PhD at Chicago in 1948. His subject was a judicial biography of William O. Douglas, the Supreme Court judge.

Epstein joined the Madison Political Science Department in 1948 and remained there until his retirement 40 years later. He became a full professor in 1958, was departmental chairman between 1960 and 1963, and played a crucial role in making the department one of the leading centres for political science in the US and therefore internationally. The university had a strong tradition in the social sciences and social reform - for example, it did much to develop the US social security system. Epstein was well acquainted with generations of Wisconsin political leaders, including the Progressives. His own politics, as for most of the faculty, were centrist Democrat.

A year's research in Britain, financed by a Ford Foundation grant, led to his first book, Britain: uneasy ally (1954). There followed Politics in Wisconsin (1958) and British Politics in the Suez Crisis (1964). The latter analysed the political system coping with a crisis; he also showed that Conservative critics of the Suez intervention had more trouble in safe Tory seats than those in marginal seats.

His comparative interest was demonstrated in his classic Political Parties in Western Democracies (1967). He argued that American parties should not seek to emulate an ideal European model. They grew out of the exceptional circumstances of the national culture, separation of powers and primary elections. In a democracy parties are representative bodies and the Democratic and Republican parties reflected the diversity of American society. This view was restated in his Apsa presidential address in 1979, "What Happened to the British Party Model?"

His book was published while he served as Dean of Letters and Science at Madison between 1965 and 1969. He enjoyed talking politics over lunch and gave as his reason for turning the post down some years earlier: "Do you know who Deans have lunch with?" This was a demanding job during a demanding period. The radicalisation of campuses across the US, in part because of student protests against the war with Vietnam, meant that university administrators were regularly shouted down when they addressed student gatherings. He kept his cool but it was alien to his idea of university life.

The experience confirmed that becoming a university chancellor was not for him and he returned to teaching and research with relief. His Governing the University: the campus and the public interest (1974) was his effort to restate traditional values while taking account of new pressures in higher education.

Epstein's personal qualities attracted something close to devotion among friends and colleagues. He was thoughtful - both sympathetic and reflective - a good listener and fair- minded. For over 50 years he was married to Shirley Golewitz; they had met while he was studying at Chicago. They regularly attended the Labour Party's annual conferences in Britain. He nursed her during her long illness until her death in 2001.

He was inseparable from Madison and in retirement kept in close contact with former university colleagues, continued to read widely and was still playing a competitive game of tennis until a few years ago. He regularly bought convertible cars, reasoning that, given the local weather, you had to maximise the sunshine.

Always well-organised and clear-headed ("a clean desk man", according to a friend), he left instructions that he wanted no life-preserving health measures, no funeral, no memorial; he even drafted his own obituary.

Dennis Kavanagh