Book reviews of: Seymour Martin Lipset's American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword Part 1
The American Creed, The Weekly Standard February 26, 1996
In a rude time, the notion of American "exceptionalism" has been spun on its axis on campuses and in other closets of higher social criticism. In such precincts, America is portrayed as exceptional usually for its racism and sexism, its economic and social inequities, the scope of its flaws.
It is useful, then, when a modulated voice penetrates the clamor. Seymour Martin Lipset's American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword offers a perspective grounded in history and based on honest empirical comparisons with other developed countries. "There can be little question," Lipset writes, "that the hand of providence has been on a nation which finds a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt when it needs him. When I write the above sentence, I believe that I draw scholarly conclusions, although I will confess that I write also as a proud American. But I should hasten to add, not as one who thinks his country is better than other democratic societies, but as one who believes that the greatness of free polities lies in their institutionalization of conflict, of the continued struggles for freer and more humanely decent societies."
America is exceptional in its genesis, born from a revolutionary event and, as part of that origin, possessing a "Creed" embodied in the Declaration of Independence and a "political religion" that developed from it. This is a stark distinction from countries that define themselves "by a common history as birthright communities, not by ideology." From the seedbed of the American Creed -- liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire - - has flowered a society competitive, meritocratic, anti-statist, religious, and committed to equality of opportunity.
This would all seem the stuffofa primer. But Lipset insists that contemporary trends and social phenomena be viewed in historical context. Preoccupied with the present as most of us are (for reasons of practicality, contrariness, or laziness), our failure to contemplate the past can lead to civic sourness -- the assumption that things are bad because we don't actually consider how bad they have been before.
What is less evident is that so many trends we mutter about -- crime, drug abuse, permissiveness, and divorce, on the short list -- are the waste matter of precisely those characteristics that make America "qualitatively different. " Lipset contends that the positive and the negative are frequently opposite sides of the same coin. "Individualism as a value," he writes, "leads not only to self-reliance and a reluctance to be dependent on others, but also to independence in family relationships, including a greater propensity to leave a marriage if the marital relationship becomes troubled." And America's higher divorce rate goes back to the 19th century, not to the day before yesterday. Lipset, now a professor at George Mason University, appears to have read every study, survey, sample, and poll since social science was a pup, and he marches and counter-marches this material like a Marine Drill Instructor.
There is one "great exception" to the Creed -- the experience of American blacks. Affirmative action and its corollary "quotas" in the past quarter century represent a rupture in the fundamental belief in equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of results. "It is the egalitarian element in the American Creed that helped to create the consensus behind the civil rights revolution of the past thirty years," Lipset writes. "But the more recent focus of the civil rights movement, with its emphasis on substantive equality and preferential treatment, has forced the country up against the individualistic, achievement-oriented element in the Creed."
Here, Lipset ventures into the prescriptive. Invoking the military's success at integration, he writes that this "argues in favor of a large-scale national service effort." This would offer blacks career training and incentives for success -- acculturation (though he does not use so freighted a term) to individualism and meritocracy. This policy lurch, rare in the book, is more appropriate for faculty argle-bargle than legislative corridors.
Despite the group-rights virus, Lipset concludes that the extent to which American exceptionalism "is still unique is astonishing." But if the Creed endures to this degree today, what of its prospects? Lipset notes a pessimistic current in public opinion over the past three decades. He is convincing, though, that critics have exaggerated many of the problems the nation faces "in the quest to demonstrate decay," and that the press has consistently mischaracterized national economic achievement.
Still, an alternative to the perceived "value crisis" is needed, and Lipset calls it "moral individualism." A "community in democratic pluralistic America is grounded in the individual as a thinking, moral actor, not in group solidarity." At this point, Lipset arrives -- as do so many other critics -- at television's supposed contribution to a loss of institutional trust through distortion, inherent and otherwise, in news and "entertainment." Lipset here summons Robert Putnam, he of the "bowling alone" thesis, the " privatizing" of America and the consequent decrease in "civic engagement."
But an increase in the malaise about politics and disdain for government, Lipset writes, may also reflect the growth of dependence on government since the 1930s: "Most people in the West, even those in the less statist United States, have come to rely on the state to solve most problems and to provide jobs, security for the aged, and medical care, as well as good schools. Socialism and communism have collapsed, but heavy reliance on what Robert Dahl describes as an increasingly complex and incomprehensible government has not."
How account then for the continued stability of the American system? Most Americans are not unhappy about their personal lives or prospects, he writes; if anything the opposite is true. "They still view the United States as a country that rewards personal integrity and hard work, as one that, government and politics apart, still works."
If we have cuddled closer under the collectivist blanket than is healthy, America is still "the most religious, optimistic, patriotic, rights-oriented, and individualistic" of countries, Lipset writes in this thoughtful book. It is also a characteristic of our national ethos to plunge between exultation and despond, about who we are and where we are going -- a volatile combination of utopianism and pragmatism. Lipset's book is a rigorous antidote to those wild mood swings.
The American Creed;Does It Matter? Should It Change? Foreign Affairs 1996, Spring March, 1996 /April, 1996, Pg. 135
American exceptionalism has come to have two meanings. For many politicians, it is a term of praise: the United States, compared to other countries, is unusually good. For social scientists and political philosophers, American exceptionalism presents an intellectual problem: why does the United States differ in significant ways from most other industrial democracies?
That the United States is different is the argument that links the diverse essays in Seymour Martin Lipset's book. "America continues to be qualitatively different" from other advanced industrial nations, Lipset writes. "It is the most religious, optimistic, patriotic, rights-oriented, and individualistic. With respect to crime, it still has the highest rates; with respect to incarceration, it has the most people locked up in jail. . . . It also has close to the lowest percentage of the eligible electorate voting, but the highest rate of participation in voluntary organizations. . . . It is the leader in upward mobility into professional and other highstatus and elite occupations, but the least egalitarian among developed nations with respect to income distribution, at the bottom as a provider of welfare benefits, the lowest in savings, the least taxed, close to the top in terms of commitment to work rather than leisure." Lipset makes the important observation "that various seemingly contradictory aspects of American society are intimately related. The lack of respect for authority, anti-elitism, and populism contribute to higher crime rates, school indiscipline, and low electoral turnouts. The emphasis on achievement, on meritocracy, is also tied to higher levels of deviant behavior and less support for the underprivileged."
Lipset, one of America's most distinguished sociologists, has pondered American exceptionalism throughout his career in a number of books including The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective (1963) and Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada (1990). He stresses the importance of U.S. political culture in the form of "the American Creed" -- defined as "liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire" -- to explain the differences between the United States and other industrial democracies.
In American Exceptionalism, as in his previous studies on the subject, Lipset relies heavily on cross-national comparisons to prove that the United States is an "outlier" compared with a supposed European/East Asian norm. "European countries, Canada and Japan," he writes, "have placed greater emphasis on obedience to political authority and on deference to superiors." His own data, however, undermine his argument. "While America collected 31 percent of its GDP in tax revenues in 1991, other countries such as Sweden (52%), Holland (48%), Belgium (40%), and the United Kingdom (36%) were taxed at higher levels," Lipset notes. Why not put Britain together with the United States in the low-tax category? Similarly, Lipset writes, "As of the early nineties, overwhelming majorities, 87 percent of West Germans, 86 percent of Italians, and 75 percent of Britons, believe in levying higher taxes on the rich to produce greater income equality, as compared to a much smaller majority, only 74 percent, of Americans." The American majority on this issue is hardly "much smaller" than the British -- the difference is one percentage point. The cultural gap appears to be greatest not across the Atlantic but across the English Channel.
More important, Lipset exaggerates the role of the American Creed in explaining why the United States is the way it is. America does have a distinctive political culture, characterized by a high degree of individualism and antistatism. But political culture -- American, Japanese, or any other -- is as much a response to social institutions and public policies as an explanation for them. In a sustained comparison of the United States and Japan, Lipset observes that "Japanese clearly exhibit much stronger ties to their employers than Americans do." Is this a result of some ancient Japanese cultural heritage or a reaction to the practice of lifetime employment that Japanese corporations adopted in the face of labor strife immediately after World War II? Conversely, in this era of downsizing, the attitudes of Americans toward their employers more likely reflect a rational assessment of the insecurity of their tenure than a tradition of American bourgeois individualism going back to the Founding Fathers. In the 1950s this same American culture exhibited a more "Japanese" relationship between large companies and their workers. And a supposedly consensual Japanese political culture was invoked to explain one-party rule and bossism in that country -- until the recent appearance of multiparty politics and charismatic leadership.
Lipset also draws attention to the low and declining levels of voter participation in the United States, as though they were somehow an inevitable result of American political culture. He does not consider that they are a response to the voter registration regulations imposed by early-twentiethcentury Progressives (who wanted lower turnout by the less educated and less wealthy) and to the penalty imposed on third parties by the first-past-the-post electoral system the United States shares with Britain. Reforms such as easy, sameday voter registration, weekend voting, and proportional representation might not bring U.S. voter participation levels up to First World norms -- but then again, they just might.
Much of the difference in aggregate public spending between the United States and other English-speaking democracies, which Lipset cites to prove American exceptionalism, results from a single factor: the absence of universal health care in the United States. Lipset does not take into account the tax subsidies in health care and other areas which, many argue, constitute an "invisible welfare state" that is relatively generous to the affluent and the middle class, if not the poor, in the United States. At any rate, if the United States could move dramatically closer to the statistical norm of developed countries by passing merely a single piece of legislation, how deep-rooted can American exceptionalism be?
In addition, Lipset's surveys of American attitudes are misleading because they erase cultural differences between regions in the United States. American regional politics -- in particular, the politics of the most exceptional region in the United States, the South -- is more responsible than universally shared American values for the peculiar structure of the American welfare state. From the 1930s to the 1990s, Southern members of Congress, whether conservative Democrats or Republicans, have been the chief impediments to the adoption of European-style social democracy in the United States. Under F.D.R., the very same conservative Southern Democrats who killed social programs that would have empowered poor whites and blacks in their region ensured the adoption of massive, centralized federal agricultural subsidy programs. If the South had won its independence in the Civil War, the northern remnant of the United States, free of Southern congressmen and senators, might well have followed a path much closer to those of Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, American political culture notwithstanding.
Lipset concedes that American exceptionalism has not prevented the United States from adopting many institutions, from federal welfare to an enormous peacetime military establishment, that were once thought utterly un-American. He admits that "major changes have occurred which have modified the original American Creed, with its suspicion of the state and its emphasis on individual rights. These include the introduction of a planning-welfare state emphasis in the 1930s, accompanied initally by greater class-consciousness and trade union growth, and the focus on ethnic, racial, and gender group rights which emerged in the 1960s." Meanwhile, Lipset acknowledges, the "statist" European nations are becoming more liberal in many respects: "The United States is less exceptional as other nations develop and Americanize. But, Oven the structural convergences in economy and ecology, the extent to which it [the United States] is still unique is astonishing." What is really astonishing is that a multiracial, continental country of 265 million people with a history of slavery and segregation should match the characteristics of relatively small, homogeneous European and Asian nation-states as closely as it does.
In Praise Of The Rat Race; The Guardian (London) March 22, 1996, Pg. T17
AMONG the great difficulties we on this side of the Atlantic have in understanding the quadrennial rituals of presidential politics is how the American system spews up moralistic populists, so alien to the European tradition of consensus. This year's Republican primaries produced the phenomenon of Pat Buchanan, the TV talk-show host who, in such highly individualistic and Christian states as Iowa and New Hampshire, was able to preach an exceptional message which touched upon themes of morality in the shape of abortion, economic populism through an anti -corporate/IBM message and anti-Japanese feeling by emphasising protectionism.
But Buchanan's message was no more than an updated version of the libertarian, individualistic and moral strands in US thinking which over the years have given zest to a range of political leaders from Theodore Roosevelt to Barry Goldwater and, more recently, the Rev Pat Robertson and Ross Perot.
The doyen of US sociology, Seymour Martin Lipset, does a great deal to demystify the phenomenon of American exceptionalism - why American society is different and why US citizens think differently to their counterparts in other western countries - in this excellent (albeit slightly academic) new book.
Lipset ponders a number of questions which frequently trouble outside observers of the US state. How is it, for instance, that the US, the most deeply religious society in the world, is also apparently the most crime ridden? How is it that a country in which some of the population is fanatical enough to bomb abortion clinics has a phenomenal number of families headed by single parents? Why is it that African-Americans are perceived by society in general to have performed so appallingly badly, whereas another ethnic group, Jewish-Americans, punch so much above their weight? Most of these issues, and others besides, including the US disdain for organised trade unions and state welfare (a modern appendage), can in the Lipset view be traced back to the foundation of America as a state built on creed (but not a state-organised church), individualism and John Stuart Mill-style liberalism. Take the perceived poor performance of African-Americans: Lipset convincingly argues that black Amer- ica's relatively meagre show is largely due to the fact that until the mid-1960s it never shared in the individualistic culture. It was largely a dependent population rooted in slavery and landlord/tenant relationships.
What rarely is credited is the way in which black America has advanced from share-cropping to individualism, prosperity and the suburbs in the last 30 years, leaving behind a crime-ridden inner-city rump which is no more typical of 20th-century America than the Western culture of crime, killing, gambling and violence was of an earlier period. In the Lipset view, the last thing African-Americans need is affirmative action programmes which promise them jobs and places in universities, and attract the opprobrium of populists like Buchanan. They need the chance, like other Americans, to advance by their own skills and merit, through the extension of education in the ghetto, the provision of on-the-job training and the expansion of apprentice programmes. National Service has been useful for many African -Americans because it has given them the skills to advance individualistically in society. The US needs to understand that its success is because it is different, and not try to loot the 'caring sharing' ideas of other societies.
American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword._book reviews New Statesman & Society March 29, 1996, Vol. 9 ; No. 396 ; Pg. 33
The grand old bear of political sociology has come out of his lair again, for the 23rd time, gnawing way at the biggest bones of contention in American society. It is now 36 years since Seymour Martin Lipset's Political Man became staple fare not just for academics and students, but also a book discussed by the broad range of journals in the US written for a serious reading public who want the fruits of social science without jargon, and statistics without regression curves. We have few such figures here in Ukania (more in France and Germany perhaps), and a far smaller market outside the universities.
Lipset writes critical commentary on what is revealed about society from empirical analysis. Political Man was dismissed out of hand in these pages as having no serious theoretical perspective (not being Marxist, I mean), and its use of social research shown to be ideology not science, the ideology (not surprisingly) of American liberalism. There was an element of pretentious laziness in all such critiques. Because all descriptions can be shown to have ideological bias, they all were ignored for a high theory which itself contained a smouldering moralism. Of course, all descriptions are partial, but are some less partial than others?
Perhaps these words are no longer needed in a more complicated and puzzling world. However, note Lipset's subtitle. He specifies the respects in which America is exceptional: "It is the most religious, optimistic, patriotic, rights-oriented, and individualistic" society. But he at once makes clear that the sword is two-edged: the US also has the highest crime rates, the most lawyers, the most wealth, the greatest social mobility. It has the largest proportion of graduates, but the lowest savings ratio. The least egalitarian of developed nations in income distribution, the US remains right at the bottom as a provider of social benefits.
Both pluses and minuses can be linked to "the American creed", which is Lipset's metaphoric "sword". Following Tocqueville, he sees it as the cutting edge of both the realities and the myth of exceptionalism. It derives from America's foundations and its Revolution: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. The link between individualism and crime he regards as obvious, especially when egalitarianism is an animating myth of equal opportunity and ambition, not of social result or condition. Those who don't get there by conventional ways are tempted to acquisition by more direct means, just as those who do get there don't see why they should be taxed to pay for others.
The original force of this creed arose from a great and obvious contrast: that the Americans had neither experienced, as H G Wells once saw, "aristocratic heights" nor "proletarian base". So their politics would fit comfortably into two wings of the older British Liberal Party. There was a malign self-deception in the southern states on slavery, which indeed took the civil war to begin to resolve--a war far more bitter and bloody than the War of Independence.
Lipset is right to see how American history left little room for anything but varieties of liberalism, but such massive exceptions to that consensus need more than a cross-reference to other of his books. He assumes too readily that his readers will know his work already, whereas the importance and accessibility of this book as a summary of "the state of the nation' will attract new readers and a new generation of students.
In the end, what is at question is not the survival of the American creed or dream and its "exceptionalism", but its relevance to a very different world from the agrarian republic. His figures, culled from many surveys, show that most people still expect to be better off in the future. They also show a steady decline over decades in civic engagement, levels of voting and political participation, and a startling growth in cynicism about government and politicians.
This comes at a time when a huge underclass cannot get that fabled first foot on the ladder and when the middle-classes at every level tremble at the fashion, or the stock-market driven impetus, for downsizing. Lipset puts all this forward clearly. But the old radical sees some comfort in correlations between the most anti-state attitudes and charitable contributions: surveys show an exceptional amount of joining and voluntary work in America.
True, but to what ends? And how random and wilful is its incidence? A poor black single parent would do well to live near an Episcopalian church in a rich white suburb, behave herself and say "thank you" nicely; but it would be hard to find a place, as Feste said, "to live by the church". Poverty is a terrible social scourge to which token voluntarismis is no answer; and the political will to begin to tackle it seems almost totally lacking. That's not Lipset's fault: this is a good, packed, interesting and--necessarily, perhaps wisely--inconclusive book.
The Vices of Our Virtues The Washington Post March 06, 1996, Pg. A17
I am proud to be an American; most of us are. Our patriotism is fierce, if often quiet. A recent Gallup poll asked respondents in 16 countries whether they would like to live elsewhere. Americans finished almost last. Only about 11 percent of us would move. By contrast, 38 percent of Britons, 30 percent of Germans, 20 percent of Japanese and 19 percent of Canadians would. Why, then, are we so mad at our leaders and society? One neglected answer is this: America's glories and evils are tightly fused togeth er.
The things that we venerate about America -- its respect for the individual, its opportunity, its economic vitality, its passion for progress -- also breed conditions that we despise: crime, family breakdown, inequality, cynicism, vulgarity and stress, to name a few. Naturally optimistic, Americans reject any connection between our virtues and vices. We refuse to see that "seemingly contradictory aspects of . . . society are intimately related," as sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset argues in an important new book ("American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword").
But they are, and in an election year, the relationship is highly relevant. Only by grasping it can we keep our perspective on the campaign's inevitable excesses. Already, we are deluged with anguished analyses of our faults and vast schemes for self-improvement. Both exaggerate our problems and our capacity to cure them; some national conditions aren't easily changed.
The American Creed -- our distinct set of values -- blends freedom, individualism and egalitarianism. This mix has fired economic advance. Why do we lead the world in computers? The answer is mostly culture. We love to create, experiment and tinker. We are the land of Apple Computer and Netscape. Every year, more than 600,000 new businesses incorporate. We have the largest global pool of venture capital. But the same emphasis on individual striving, success and liberty can also inhibit social control and loosen people's sense of communal obligation.
Crime becomes just another path to "making it." Divorce rises if marriage seems to imperil self-fulfillment. Because we worship individual effort, we are more tolerant of failure and inequality than other nations. In 1987, a poll asked whether "government should provide everyone with a guaranteed basic income." Only 21 percent of Americans agreed -- about a third of the number of Germans (56 percent) or Britons (61 percent). Naturally, our welfare state pales next to theirs. Nor should we be surprised that:
Among advanced societies, we are the richest -- and the most unequal. In 1995, Americans' incomes averaged roughly 20 percent to 30 percent above those of Europe and Japan. But the richest 90th percentile of Americans have incomes nearly six times higher than the poor at the 10th percentile. In Germany, the same ratio is 3 to 1; in Canada and Italy, it's about 4 to 1.
We have the most successful democracy -- and among the lowest voter turnouts. In the Gallup poll, more Americans (64 percent) were satisfied with democracy than people anywhere else. Canadians (62 percent) were closest; Britons (40 percent) and Japanese (35 percent) were well behind. Yet in nonpresidential elections, less than half of eligible Americans vote.
Although decidedly moralistic, we have one of the world's most violent societies. In 1990 the American murder rate was more than twice as high as Germany's and nine times higher than Japan's.
Contradictions abound. "Concern for the legal rights of accused persons and civil liberties in general is tied to opposition to gun control and difficulty in applying crime-control measures," writes Lipset. Naturally, Americans are among the world's most gun-owning peoples. In 1993, 29 percent of U.S. households had handguns, compared with 5 percent of Canadian and 2 percent of Australian.
To some extent, the proof that our virtues and vices are connected comes from abroad, where the advance of American values has created a natural experiment in social change. The loosening of tight social controls in Russia, China and South Africa has led to more freedom -- and crime. In Europe and Japan, prosperity and the celebration of individuality have coincided with more divorce and crime. Between 1970 and 1991, divorce rates rose 40 percent in Germany and 50 percent in Japan (though both remain well below U.S. levels).
The American Creed was already well established by the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville first described it. Even in colonial times, America was less rigid socially than Europe. Land was a great leveler. In America, most farmers owned it; in England, 60 percent of the population didn't. Still, colonial America brimmed with hereditary privileges and arbitrary power. In a 1992 book, historian Gordon S. Wood of Brown University argued that the decisive break occurred during the Revolution itself, which created a social and intellectual upheaval.
Loyalists decamped to Canada, which (like Europe) remained a more deferential, communal and paternalistic society. But in America, the legitimacy of unchangeable social distinctions collapsed. Jefferson said that men would advance based on "virtue and talent," and not on birth. The Revolution "made the interests and prosperity of ordinary people -- their pursuit of happiness -- the goal of society and government," wrote Wood in "The Radicalism of the American Revolution."
The resulting mind-set often means disappointment and division. All authority is suspect, because it elevates some over others and triggers an inbred distrust of "aristocracy" -- now "elites" or callous CEOs. Popular culture is democratic and, therefore, sometimes shallow and offensive. Talk radio and trash TV are only new expressions of old impulses. Progress is never sufficient, because happiness -- though constantly pursued -- can never be guaranteed. Politicians fall short of the ideals that we (and they) set: one reason why we attack them even while admiring our system.
The election will expose these contradictions but not dispose of them. It's great to be an American, but we are burdened as well as blessed by our beliefs. That defines the American Drama.