Polsby, Nelson W. 1934–2007

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Polsby, Nelson W. 1934–2007

(Arthur Clun, Nelson Woolf Polsby)


Born October 25, 1934, in Norwich, CT; died of congestive heart failure, February 6, 2007, in Berkeley, CA; son of Daniel II (a businessman) and Edythe Polsby; married Linda Dale Offenbach, August 3, 1958; children: Lisa Susan, Emily Ann, Daniel Ralph. Education: Attended Brown University, 1955-56; Johns Hopkins University, A.B., 1956; Yale University, M.A., 1958, Ph.D., 1961.


University of Wisconsin—Madison, instructor in political science, 1960-61; Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, assistant professor, 1961-64, associate professor, 1964-67, professor of government, 1967-68; University of California, Berkeley, professor of political science, beginning 1967. Visiting member of faculty at Columbia University, 1963, Yale University, 1963, 1967, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1970, Stanford University, 1975, 1977, and Harvard University, 1986-87; fellow of Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, Calif., 1965-66, 1985-86; senior fellow, Roosevelt Center, Washington, DC, 1982-83. Member of committee on public engineering policy of National Academy of Engineering, 1973-76. Member of commission on vice-presidential selection of Democratic National Committee, 1973-74; member of Council on Foreign Relations.


Social Science Research Council fellowship, 1959; Brookings Institution fellowship, 1959-60; Ford Foundation fellowship, 1970-71; Guggenheim fellowship, 1977-78, 1985-86; Wilbur Cross Medal, Yale University, 1985.


Community Power and Political Theory, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1963, expanded edition, 1980.

Congress and the Presidency, Prentice-Hall (New York, NY), 1964, 4th edition, 1986.

(With Aaron Wildavsky) Presidential Elections, Scribner (New York, NY), 1964, 6th edition, 1984, 12th edition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (Lanham, MD), 2008.

Congress: An Introduction, Rand McNally (New York, NY), 1968.

The Citizen's Choice: Humphrey or Nixon, Public Affairs Press (New York, NY), 1968.

Political Promises, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England and New York, NY), 1974.

(With Geoffrey Smith) British Government and Its Discontents, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1981.

Consequences of Party Reform, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England and New York, NY), 1983.

Political Innovation in America: The Politics of Policy Initiation, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1984.

(With Alan Brinkley and Kathleen M. Sullivan) The New Federalist Papers: Essays in Defense of the Constitution, Twentieth Century Fund/W.W. Norton & Company (New York, NY), 1997.

How Congress Evolves: Social Bases of Institutional Change, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England and New York, NY), 2004.


(With Robert A. Dentler and Paul A. Smith) Politics and Social Life: An Introduction to Political Behavior, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1963.

(With R.L. Peabody) New Perspectives on the House of Representatives, Rand McNally (New York, NY), 1963, 3rd edition, 1977.

(With Aaron Wildavsky) American Governmental Institutions, Rand McNally (New York, NY), 1968.

Congressional Behavior, Random House (New York, NY), 1971.

Reapportionment in the 1970s, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1971.

The Modern Presidency, Random House (New York, NY), 1973.

(With Fred I. Greenstein, and contributor) The Handbook of Political Science, eight volumes, Addison-Wesley/Pearson Education (Upper Saddle River, NJ), 1975.

Explorations in the Evolution of Congress, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1998.

(With Raymond E. Wolfinger) On Parties: Essays Honoring Austin Ranney, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1999.


Contributor, occasionally under pseudonym Arthur Clun, to political science periodicals, magazines, and newspapers, including Harper's, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Managing editor of American Political Science Review, 1971-77; book review editor of Transaction, 1968-71; member of editorial advisory board of Political Science Quarterly and six other journals.


Nelson W. Polsby was revered as a scholar who wrote about American political institutions with exceptional insight and common sense. He wrote several analyses of Congress and also wrote frequently about the influences of demographics and other social dynamics on the political process. His textbook Presidential Elections, written with Aaron Wildavsky, has remained widely read since its initial publication in 1964, going into its twelfth edition in 2008.

So impressed was Washington Post Book World critic Edwin W. Yoder, Jr., with Polsby's Consequences of Party Reform, which analyzed the ways in which party reforms have altered the political landscape, that the critic proclaimed Polsby "the ‘Newton of the post-1968 political dynamics.’" Yoder believed the book to be "political science as it ought to be practiced but seldom is—the most searching work of analysis of its sort that I have read in years." Continued the critic: "Our ailing party system, which seems to be dying of the post-1968 ‘reforms’ that were supposed to give it new life, has needed a master diagnostician for some time. In Nelson Polsby it has at last found one."

In his following book, Political Innovation in America: The Politics of Policy Initiation, Polsby analyzed the actual processes by which new programs and policies originate and flourish. Selecting examples since 1945 from "science policy (the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission), from foreign policy (the origins of the Truman Doctrine in 1947), and domestic policy (Medicare, the creation of the Peace Corps, the later community action program of Lyndon Johnson's ‘war on poverty’)," noted Yoder in the Washington Post Book World, Polsby then "describes the dynamics by which lurking seeds of policy germinate and become actual programs, working some lasting and fundamental change in the political landscape." In the New York Times Book Review, William Schneider summarized Polsby's argument, explaining that "innovation is now becoming routine in American politics because we have two groups of mutually dependent professionals—‘policy entrepreneurs who specialize in identifying problems and finding solutions’ … and politicians who are constantly in the market for new ideas." Political Innovation in America, remarked Yoder, is "as we have learned to expect of Nelson Polsby, a witty and instructive read."

In How Congress Evolves: Social Bases of Institutional Change, Polsby argued that political institutions often evolve in response to larger social changes. Examining the dynamics through which the bipartisan conservative coalition in the South eroded in the 1960s, leading to a sharper division between Democrats and Republicans, Polsby noted the influence of several factors: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enfranchised large numbers of African Americans who tended to support liberal Democrats; the corresponding exodus from the Democratic party of conservative white southerners, who switched to the Republican party; and—surprisingly—the widespread use of air conditioning, which made the south an attractive region to which disaffected northerners—who had no traditional Democratic affiliation—could move. Writing in History: New Review of Books, contributor John W. Malsberger called How Congress Evolves an "impressive model for scholarship that combines the methods of historians with those of political scientists."

Polsby was also coauthor, with Alan Brinkley and Kathleen M. Sullivan, of The New Federalist Papers: Essays in Defense of the Constitution. Commissioned by the Twentieth Century Fund, the book explains why the Constitution should be respected as it stands, rather than being subjected to further amendments supported by either right-wing or left-wing activists. "Students, politicians, and the citizenry at large should all be grateful for these New Federalist Papers," wrote Lloyd N. Cutler in a Washington Monthly review. "They will help us to appreciate the basic values of our enduring Constitution—the most significant political achievement in the long history of what the framers would have called ‘mankind.’"



Historian, spring, 1999, Kermit L. Hall, review of The New Federalist Papers: Essays in Defense of the Constitution, p. 659.

History: Review of New Books, summer, 2004, John W. Malsberger, review of How Congress Evolves: Social Bases of Institutional Change, p. 136.

New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1984, William Schneider, review of Political Innovation in America: The Politics of Policy Initiation.

Perspectives on Political Science, spring, 1998, David J. Siemers, review of The New Federalist Papers, p. 125.

Political Science Quarterly, fall, 2006, Alan Ware, review of How Congress Evolves, p. 510.

Polity, fall, 2000, George Thomas, review of The New Federalist Papers, p. 151.

Reference & Research Book News, August, 2007, review of Presidential Elections, 12th edition.

Washington Monthly, September, 1997, Lloyd N. Cutler, review of The New Federalist Papers, p. 48.

Washington Post Book World, May 8, 1983, Edwin W. Yoder, Jr., review of Consequences of Party Reform; March 18, 1984, Edwin W. Yoder, Jr., review of Political Innovation in America.

Yale Law Journal, May, 1998, Ryan M.T. Iwasaka, review of The New Federalist Papers, p. 2327.



New York Times, February 9, 2007, Martin Douglas.