Nelson Polsby, RIP

Lior Strahilevitz offers a former student’s tribute to Nelson Polsby, who died Tuesday night.

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.

His WaPo obit provides more background.

Nelson W. Polsby, 72, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley whose books and commentaries illuminated how political institutions evolve, died Feb. 6 at his home in Berkeley. He had congestive heart failure.

Dr. Polsby, the author or editor of more than 20 books, was an authority on presidential elections, the relationship between Congress and the presidency, and how federal policies, programs and reforms develop.


Dr. Polsby was frequently cited by political reporters and wrote opinion pieces in the mainstream media that used humor to make politics accessible. In condensing the four-decade transformation of the South from a Democratic to Republican political stronghold, he argued that it all came down to residential air conditioning making the heat bearable to Northerners year-round.

He also had an interest in comparative British and American politics, leading to the book “British Government and Its Discontents” (1981), written with Times of London columnist Geoffrey Smith. His other works included “Presidential Elections” (1964), written with Berkeley colleague Aaron Wildavsky; “Political Innovation in America” (1984); and “How Congress Evolves” (2004).

The announcement of his death from the Berkley Media Department has other details, plus this photo:

Nelson Polsby Photo

Rest in peace.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.