Few social scientists, and even fewer political scientists, have done as much to improve American life as James Q. Wilson, who died last week at age 80.
His name is familiar to three decades of college students who studied the American government textbook he co-authored, though one wonders whether they would recall it without the distinctive middle initial.
And I think a case can be made that that Q was a clue to the character of the man. To outward appearances, Jim Wilson was an ordinary middle-class American with middle-class values and middle-class tastes as unremarkable as those of thousands of other Jim Wilsons across the land.
But as a scholar, writer and human being, he was one of a kind, with a probing mind, a capacity to sift and weigh evidence, and an ability to reach conclusions that even the harshest of critics found hard to refute.
And one whose careful prose did not always make to conceal a puckish sense of humor. A man as distinctive as the Q.
In the many remembrances that followed the announcement of his death, few if any have mentioned that he grew up in north Long Beach, Calif., in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet it is something he liked to bring up in conversation and in some of his writings.
The north Long Beach that he recalled was a modest place, pretty much lower middle class, at the edge then of a metropolitan area pulsating with growth and brimming with hope for the future. They weathered the Depression, helped win the war and enjoyed the boom of postwar America.
From north Long Beach, Wilson went on to the University of Redlands and graduate study at the University of Chicago. His first books were on subjects far removed from his own experience: "Negro Politics," published in 1960, at a time when there were only four black members of Congress; "City Politics," co-authored with his mentor Edward Banfield; and "The Amateur Democrat," a study of affluent reform Democrats in Manhattan.
In each, he tackled a subject that would explode into prominence within a few years, with the antipoverty programs and urban riots of the 1960s and with the leftward movement of many affluent voters so visible in the last two decades.
Wilson was a conventional liberal Democrat then, but one with increasing doubts that politics and government could achieve the extravagant goals that politicians and reformers were promising.
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