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Book reviews of: Seymour Martin Lipset's American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword Part 2


Part 1
Part 3

Author Confirms Staying Power of U.S. Exceptionalism NPR March 15, 1996

Sociologist Seymour M. Lipset discusses the history of what Toqueville called "American exceptionalism," an ideology which differs dramatically from European systems derived from their monarchal pasts.

NOAH ADAMS, Host: Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset has revisited the notion of American exceptionalism in a new book titled just that. American exceptionalism is a phrase coined by the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville to describe the unique society he observed on this side of the Atlantic in the early 19th century. Unlike Europe, it was a society with no feudal past and no national church. Citizens were joiners, but also individualists, and they were moralists. Exceptionalism embraces the idea that Americanism is our civil religion, imbued with a sense of national mission. Seymour Martin Lipset addresses the question, 'Are we still so exceptional?' And he concludes, to an astonishing degree, we are. We remain a breed apart from Europeans, Japanese and even people so close to us as Canadians.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET, Author: One of the elements in American values has been anti-statism. Jefferson said that government governs best which governs least, and this disdain for the state, this continues today. We are the most anti-statist country around. I give the story in my book, which is a very true and interesting one, that about twenty years ago, Canada and the United States decided to go metric, and they announced that the metric system - meters, kilometers, instead of yards, inches, and pounds, would be the system in both countries. Well, if you go to Canada, you see you can drive 100 an hour - this doesn't mean miles, it means kilometers. If you pick up a Canadian newspaper, you'll read the temperature in Celsius. And what happened was, essentially, Americans were told to go metric, and they didn't. Canadians were told to go metric and they did. And it's almost that simple - Canadians are much more law-abiding. They come from a country that kept the monarchy, that has a great deal more respect for the state. We're a disobedient people.

NOAH ADAMS: We never actually developed the notion of conservatism as Europeans understand conservatism for example.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Right. Yeah, conservatism in Europe is very different from America. What it is meant is a kind of monarchal, aristocratic sense of noblesse oblige, preservation of hierarchy, but communal responsibility for the poor, for the society as a whole. Conservatives were people who stood for aristocracy, for monarchy, for mercantilism, for protectionism, rather than the competitive individualism, which characterizes American conservatism. What American conservatives call conservatism, Europeans always called liberalism - bourgeois liberalism. It was anti-statist, and the term libertarianism, as we use it now in the states, corresponds much more to what Europeans have thought of as liberalism.

NOAH ADAMS: Now, but among the evidence that would be garnered by those who see our country in a terrible state of moral decline and crisis, would be, say, the crime rate, and American crime rates are, in fact, much higher than those of other countries.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Right. I suggest in terms of the notion of a double edged sword, which is part of the title of my book, that our emphasis on meritocracy of achievement, on getting ahead, on social mobility, also contributes to the crime rate. In America, we tell people they have to get ahead by hook or by crook, and if they can't get ahead by hook - whatever that means - then they try to get ahead by crook. And so that the more emphasis you place on mobility, on success, the more you put emphasis on people to try to cheat, to try to succeed crookedly.

NOAH ADAMS: How, though, can you say, stay true to Toqueville and his image of America, even updating it and adjusting it, when you look at voter turnout rates that are so low in this country?

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: You know, I can't give precise answers for all of these, but I suggest a curious, inverted way, if you will, that populism contributes to low turnout. You know, we have over 500,000 positions in the United States that are subject to elections. This is infinitely more than any other country. Americans, when they go to the ballot, are asked to vote on dozens, plus many referenda. In California there could be sixty or a hundred referenda on the ballot. And the very fact that people are called on to vote so often, I think this helps discourage them from voting.

NOAH ADAMS: Often Americans seeking out evidence of moral decline in America, when they find an emblem, someone who serves as an icon of that, will point to the inner city, typically African-American, unwed, teenage mother and say, look, this is the problem right here. You say, actually, that character's role is America is vastly exaggerated.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Well, it's there, but exaggerated, and one it's exaggerated, as Christopher Jencks [sp] has pointed out brilliantly, is that while the percentage of illegitimate children has increased among black Americans, African-Americans, from 20 percent in 1960 to over 60 percent today- That sounds horrendous, and it is horrendous, but the real increase was nowhere like that because a rate combines two things - the illegitimacy and the legitimacy rates, the proportion of all births. And the big change among black Americans is a big decline in legitimate births.

The question is why this decline in legitimate births? And one reason for the decline is the great growth in the black middle class and the nouveau middle class, so to speak, who will have fewer children, so that the very improvement in the situation of the majority of blacks who are either middle class or what I call yeoman workers, who live in stable families and have jobs and so on, that improvement has led them to have fewer children. But a large group of single mothers, have many- have three or four children.

So you have two statements which are true about the black population. One is that they've improved their situation, their economic/social situation considerably, and the majority of adults are living decently, not wealthy, but decently, but that the majority of black children are living in abysmal misery.

NOAH ADAMS: You conclude, by finding not only that the degree to which American exceptionalism has persisted is astonishing, but also that, if there is convergence between us and other countries, it may be as much a fact of other countries Americanizing at this point.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Well, I think this again is true. One could go through a lot of factors, but one again - it's an obvious one or important one - is equality. Toqueville emphasized that equality in America, as he saw it, meant equality of social relationships, that one respected people regardless of whether they were rich or poor, not that there was equality of income or of power, and whereas in Europe, as post-feudal societies, there was much more emphasis on deference, on respect for people because of their family background, their class background. It was more of an ancestral kind of thing. Well, this- these post-feudal elements - they are much weaker. Europe has become a more egalitarian in social relationships. So, that's an area where Americanization has taken place, and the differences haven't disappeared, but they- in those areas they become smaller.

NOAH ADAMS: Well, Seymour Martin Lipset, thank you very much for talking with us today.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Thank you.

NOAH ADAMS: Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset is a professor of public policy at George Mason University. His book is called American Exceptionalism: A Double Edged Sword.

War Games;Newsmaker;Ups & Downs;Heading South The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer March 11, 1996

MR. LEHRER: Finally tonight, a Gergen dialogue: David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Seymour Martin Lipset, professor of public policy at George Mason University, author of American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword.

DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Marty, you've written a book about how and why America is different from many other industrialized countries, and you had an example that helped illustrate that I thought very well about the American experience, the Canadian experience. Twenty-five years ago, both governments announced to the people of their countries that they were going to move to the metric system. What happened, and what does that tell us about America?

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET, Author: Oh, it's a wonderful example, I think. The, both countries, as you say, were told to go metric, to drop miles and inches and go to meters and kilograms and the like, and after 15 years, both countries were supposed to be only metric. Well, you know, if you go to Canada, you see you can drive 100 an hour, that means kilometers, not miles. Canadians--and it's very simple--Canadians were told to go metric, and they did. Americans were told to go metric, and they didn't, you know, under identical, almost identical, conditions. And you know, Canadians respect the state, are obedient. They're the country in a counterrevolution, the country which preserved the monarchy. The United States is the country which overthrew the state and which is anti-statist and disobedient and, and much more lawless.

MR. GERGEN: That's part of the American creed, that the values that came out of the American Revolutionary Period.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Right.

MR. GERGEN: And those values, essentially, as you describe them in the book, were those of liberty, egalitarianism, equality of opportunity, individualism, populism, laissez-faire--I think you identify the five values--

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Right. Those are the values.

MR. GERGEN: That's right. But what I was struck by, I think a lot of us are familiar with the fact that these values grew out of the American Revolution but you, you argue in your book that it's more than the American Revolution, it's also the Protestant experience.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Yeah. Well, the two, I think, key things that affect our values are the Revolution and the institutions that flowed from it, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but also something which we rarely think about or realize. We are the only Protestant sectarian country in the world, i.e., the overwhelming majority of Americans belong to the Protestant sects, the Methodists, the Baptists, and the hundreds of others. European-- Christianity in Europe, what religious sociologists call churches, as distinct from sects--the Catholics, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, the Orthodox--the churches are state-related. They were all state churches. They're hierarchical, and the relationship of the parishioner to the church is that he's supposed to be obedient. He's supposed to listen to the bishop and the priest and so on. American sectarians are congregational. The minister is an employee of the members, and the sectarianism requires that the members read the Bible, study the Bible, make their own decisions, and, and whatever they come to the conclusion is moral, they're morally obligated to, to do it. So we're a much more moralistic country.

MR. GERGEN: More individualistic in the sense you make your own decisions--

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Right.

MR. GERGEN: --of what your own beliefs are. But once you've reached those, it, it also makes us more moralistic as well.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Right.

MR. GERGEN: I was interested in that. You know, if you see that in our politics, the flak we went through over the allegations about President Clinton and Jennifer Flowers back in his campaign, and you compare that to the picture of President Mitterrand's funeral in France--

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Where his mistress was present with his illegitimate daughter.

MR. GERGEN: Right. Standing there next to his widow.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Right.

MR. GERGEN: And, and his children by his widow. And that was just part of what French culture was accepting.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: And it also flows, you know, continue in a sex-related area, abortion is a terrible issue with the United States, and it's moralistic and people on both sides feel it is a death issue, life and death issue, and we burn down abortion clinics, or some people do. Now, you can go to Rome, where the Pope sits, and get an abortion. Have you ever heard an abortion clinic being burnt in Rome or in Spain? Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Quebec has the lowest birth rate in North America. These are all Catholic areas, and you--and they--many-- most of these people are Catholics, go to church, but they don't- -they don't get moralistic about the whole thing.

MR. GERGEN: Because they, they have this system in which there's more obedience but there's also sense of perfectibility.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Right. The Church believes and the Christian churches in, in original sin, that human institutions and human beings are inherently imperfect.

MR. GERGEN: And therefore, when they--and therefore when they sin, you shouldn't take it that seriously, because that's the way they are.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Right.

MR. GERGEN: Whereas the Protestant sects--

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Insist on perfection, on perfectibility, that you don't, that you don't sin, and, and, of course, the United States as a country has reflected this in all sorts of ways in its foreign policy. You know, we, we have--we don't recognize evil countries. We didn't recognize the Soviet Union for a long time, China. We still don't recognize Cuba, which is obvious. We just recognized Vietnam. Well, Franco recognized Cuba six months after Castro came to power, and he was hardly a Com Symp. DeGaulle and Churchill, both of whom come out of church religions, dealt with the Communists, dealt with the Russians, didn't have the same kind of feeling, because sure Russia was an evil country, but no country's good.

MR. GERGEN: One of your central arguments, I wonder if you could explain it a bit more, is about the double sword quality of our values, that on one hand, our values seem to produce all this dynamism and the innovation and creativity that comes from an individualistic country, but you say there's a double-edge to that sword.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Yeah, because, you know, we're outliers. If you compare all the countries, developed countries, behavior, or the behavior attitude, we're at the extreme. But we're at the extreme in, in many good ways, and we're at the extreme in many bad ways. For example, crime rates, violence rates, whether we have-- we have the largest crime rate. We have more people incarcerated. You know, we're a very large divorce rate, and I think the--we have the lowest rate of people voting, and I think these negative aspects are inter-linked with the positive ones. You know, I develop the argument in the book that they come out of the same kinds of things. For example, if you take crime, we place this great emphasis on opportunity, on getting ahead, and getting ahead regardless of social origin, regardless of family background. Well, that means if you don't get ahead, it's your fault, because we assume that this is an open society. Societies which come out of a feudal tradition, where there's more emphasis on inherited stratification family don't place the same feeling of failure, don't put the same onus of failure on individuals who don't get ahead. Hence, in a certain sense, one, the American society tells you to get ahead by hook or by crook and if you can't do it by hook, then do it--then you do it by crook.

MR. GERGEN: Yeah. I understand the argument about why some of the bad trends we see in the society, the high divorce rates, the high crime rates and so forth, are inherently linked to the same values that produce all the dynamism in the country. What that doesn't explain for me is why some of these rates are getting so much worse.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Well, there I think one has to note that, and I think in almost all of them it's happening all over the Western world. It's not just--it's--and, and America has changed in all sorts of ways the way other countries have changed, where we've all moved from having once been overwhelmingly rural, small town societies, to metropolitan, complex societies, and high-tech societies. We all have increased immigration rates, and we all have--we're going through a technological revolution, which forces many people to change their jobs and social relations. All of these produce increased disruption, and since in our case, as in the Canadian case, or the German case, these negative features defeats the quality of a more--less stable society--are going on, so that--but these are not--I think there are very few of these which are uniquely American.

MR. GERGEN: In looking for solutions, it was interesting to me what you seemed to be arguing was we should look for solutions that are consistent with our values, we should not try to go to become a communitarian sort of nation, a nation that tries to serve some of these things through group efforts, but, rather, you spoke of moral individualism.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Yeah. I think this is true, i.e., I think efforts to change us in directions which go against our--you know, the American creed--just won't work.

MR. GERGEN: Yeah. So change is important, but don't try the metric system?

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Right.

MR. GERGEN: Okay. Fine. Thank you very much.

SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Thank you.

‘’American dreams and nightmares’’ The Australian March 21, 2005, Pg. 14

The best book I found for explaining [America’s] peculiarities was American Exceptionalism, a Double-Edged Sword by Seymour Martin Lipset, a US political analyst who calls the country "an outlier" from the world community.

"It is the most religious, optimistic, patriotic, rights-oriented and individualistic (country)," says Lipset. It has the highest rates of crime and imprisonment, the lowest percentage of eligible people voting but the most volunteerism, the lowest taxes but the highest wealth and productivity. It also has the highest rate of university degrees, but until the Supreme Court intervened this year, the US was the only country other than Somalia that allowed the execution of minors.

‘’American values or human rights? U.S. foreign policy and the fractured myth of virtuous power.’’ Presidential Studies Quarterly December 1, 2003, Pg. 772

Seymour Martin Lipset in his book American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword says (1996, 19) "the American creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire." Lipset maintains that "exceptionalism" means "qualitatively different," not "better" (1996, 18, 26), but this is a stipulative definition tailored to the task of investigating the distinctiveness of American institutions and culture. He claims the concept is double edged because America (from the perspective of rational comparison) is better in some things, worse in others. Yet this reasonable attitude downplays the mythical significance of America as a special nation with an exemplary world mission, a conception that has played such an important role in America's ideological self-understanding. It is to underestimate the effects of the popular and persistent rhetoric that insists on portraying, not just American institutions, but the American people themselves as both different and special. Americans have seen themselves not simply as the exemplary bearers of universal civic and political values and thus a witness to the world of the validity of these values, but as a people uniquely qualified by history and circumstance to fulfill and embody them.

‘’Congregations and civil society: a double-edged connection’’. Journal of Church and State June 22, 2002, No. 3, Vol. 44; Pg. 425
American exceptionalism cut both ways. They have what Seymour Martin Lipset calls a "double-edged" quality, contributing to public life in ways that are laudable as well as both uncivil and fanatical. Such voluntary associations as the Aryan Youth Movement ("skinheads") and the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, could hardly have been in Max Weber's mind when, impressed with the sheer scope of its civil society, he dubbed America the "association-land par excellence." Nor could Arthur Schlesinger's wide-eyed ascription, "a nation of joiners," likely have come from observing would-be devotees eagerly joining the so-called Heaven's Gate cult in time for the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet.


The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) May 12, 1996
Every person running for political office this year should have "American Exceptionalism" on his or her required reading list, right below the United State's Constitution.
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