- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (April 17, 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393316149
- ISBN-13: 978-0393316148
- Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #313,074 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword
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“[A] magisterial attempt to distill a lifetime of learning about America into a persuasive brief . . . [by] the dean of American political sociologists.”
- Carlin Romano, Boston Globe
“Invariably perceptive and revealing.”
- The Economist
“An illuminating new book.”
- David Gergen, U.S. News & World Report
About the Author
Seymour Martin Lipset is the Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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Lipset had omnivorous curiosity and interests. Among his many memberships and honors, he was the only person to serve as President of both the American Sociological Association and the American Political Science Association. In almost every publication Lipset effortlessly tosses out bold and often accurate generalizations that other academics did not mention - either because the relationship didn't occur to them, or because they were afraid to venture conclusions not quantitatively established by "empirical" studies. [Empirical studies are social scientists' term for research that tests hypotheses using statistical proofs.] For example, in his Introduction, Lipset states that the U.S. is the most religious country in Christendom, and the only one where churchgoers adhere to sects. Protestantism has not only influenced opposition to wars, but determined the American style of foreign policy. The U.S. disdain of authority has led to the highest crime rate and the lowest level of voting participation in the developed world, etc.
I found that Lipset's penchant for generalization had to be respected but taken advisedly. This is illustrated by the abovementioned claim that the U.S. had the lowest level of voting participation in the developed world. In fact, this statement only applies to recent years. The Wikipedia article "American election campaigns in the 19th century" points out that elections in the Midwestern states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio, reached 95% voter turnout in 1896. Generally high voter turnouts continued after the turn of the Century.
Lipset's intent in using the term American Exceptionalism is to confirm that America IS qualitatively different from all other nations. He indicates that this quality was first established by the 19th Century French observer, Alexis De Toqueville. Besides the earlier-mentioned points, Lipset identifies a large number of other differences. These include less obedience to authority and deference to superiors, identification with a creed (moralism), rather than ethnic or other commonalities; firm belief that the U.S. is best and unique among nations; distrust of a strong state, aversion to state-provided welfare, weak working-class radicalism, and lack of a significant socialist movement. Elections are more pervasive than in any other nation, etc.
Lipset recognized that the strong American proclivity for moral absolutism could lead to excesses. This is abundantly demonstrated by today's partisan political polarization and Congressional gridlock - unique among advanced nations. Each contending faction declares in ringing pronouncements the rightness of its principles and the hopeless error of the opposition.
Andrew Bacevic's recent book "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism", targets a long list of evils and disastrous policies the author attributes to American moral utopianism and hubris over the past 40 years. He cites chicanery, dirty tricks, "suppression of open discussion and insulation of error against public criticism", blatant corruption, making common cause with dictatorial regimes, and squandering of billions of dollars, all of which were were justified in the name of higher moral goals.
Lipset avoids such "good/bad" characterizations, like most social scientists. From my own studies of the history of U.S.'s political polarization I see a problem with Lipset's exuberant embrace of theories and generalizations. He often fails to test them, look for exceptions, and differences with location and time in assessing social proablems. Wherever I look I find problems with stereotypes. Take U.S. "high crime", for example. The U.S. has not been a "high crime" nation always and everywhere. In 1905 police in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York did not wear guns. Although I have not tried to put together comparative statistics, there are reasons to conclude that criminality was no higher in many East Coast regions of the nation than in the European nations from which most immigrants came. Women are even said to have been able to walk safely late at night in Harlem, NY in the 1930s and 40s. Crime and violence rose steeply toward the troubling levels seen in the past 30 years beginning mainly from the 1960s.
Bacevic documents evidence that American Exceptionalism took on more extreme character after 1960. My observations offer support for this idea in ways not mentioned by Bacevic. Parochialism was paradoxically spearheaded by elite educational institutions and political leaders. For example, before the 1960s virtually all colleges and universities required at least one foreign language for admission, and leading universities required two. U.S. industry and academia had close ties with foreign organizations and developments. But in the 1960s language requirements were eliminated altogether by Princeton, MIT and other elite institutions. From the 1970s on Congress virtually ignored foreign experience in lawmaking. At its best, America had earlier been pragmatic in developing rational systems of operation. It sought to correct abuses. The effect of the huge growth of the U.S. academic establishment after the 1950s, accompanied by disciplinary fragmentation and increasing disengagement from the nation's practical affairs, is almost completely overlooked by Lipset, presumably obscured by his absorption with special associations and relationships.
American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword; book reviews Commonweal September 13, 1996, Pg. 38
There is no dearth of opinions about what ails the United States today. Everyone seems to have a diagnosis as well as a prescription for our reputed moral decline. However, new books by political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset and by legal scholar Ronald Dworkin go beyond merely expounding a set of predetermined conclusions or recommendations and provide readers with analytic tools for use in the assessment of American political culture.
Lipset's title gives a reliable indication of the central thesis of this work, which proceeds in continuity, with a well-developed body of social science literature to which Lipset himself has been a major contributor. The United States is different from other countries because it is founded upon a national creed rather than upon the social bonds of ethnicity and history that normally cement peoples together. Our national sense of self is derived from a broadly shared ideology which includes commitment to liberty, equality, populism, individualism, and antistatism. This consensus does not, of course, eliminate all conflict, but it does constrict considerably the range of mainstream opinion to one or another form of liberalism (in the classical sense of the word). From these same cultural roots stem both faces of U.S. distinctiveness: the laudable (voluntarism, individual initiative, personal responsibility) and lamentable (self-serving behavior, atomism, disregard for the common good).
Lipset takes seriously the adage: "to know only one culture is to know none." Group traits are best highlighted by observing patterns of variation and contrast. This insight serves as an organizing principle of his book, which includes chapters comparing the political culture of the United States with that of our closest kin, Canada, and of our fellow misfit (or "outlier" in terms of social indicators) in the international community, Japan. Lipset's analysis of distinctive U.S. social, political, economic, and historical factors succinctly recapitulates the classic debate (started by Marx and Engels) over the surprising underdevelopment of class consciousness and socialist movements in the United States. Lipset joins such commentators as Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, and Michael Harrington in seeing Americanism (the ideology of success that posits the existence of unrestricted opportunity) as, in effect, a substitute for socialism in the U.S. context. This phenomenon renders the American experience qualitatively different from the consciousness of limited opportunity and political power that prevails in other industrialized societies.
Lipset's use of contrast is not limited to cross-national comparison. Nearly half the book is devoted to "exceptions to exceptionalism," social groups within American society which have undergone experiences at variance from the national mainstream. Lipset chooses three: American Jews (who are notable for how their unusual material success remains coupled with an abiding commitment to social equality), African-Americans (whose marginalization is linked to a greater openness to such group-oriented solutions as affirmative action), and intellectuals (who are more likely to embrace leftist approaches because of their alienation from market-driven populist society). In all three cases, deviation from the U.S. norm sheds much useful light on the inner logic of the distinctive American ideology. Lipset's portrayals allow the reader a revealing glimpse of why our polity is capable of engaging simultaneously in noble attempts to institutionalize virtue or to impose an often intolerant, crusading moralism while we hold fast to a construal of meritocracy which fosters a ruthless instrumental pursuit of material success that is largely indifferent to social decay.
`'America a unique blend of good, bad and ugly'' The Toronto Star, July 6, 1996, Pg. J15
Canadians are fated to share the territory between the Rio Grande and the North Pole with the United States - a nation, as George Grant put it, that has no history of its own before the age of progress and which has become the dynamic centre of technological modernity. What sort of a people are these, whose destiny we share whether we like it or not?
Seymour Martin Lipset is the distinguished author of more than 20 books of sociology and political science. Even more unusual for an American, he has a deep and enduring interest in Canada. Continental Divide (1989) is still the best comparative study of Canadian and American institutions and values.
Comparison is the key to Lipset's approach since, as he says, to know only one country is to know none. The great observers of the American scene were like Alexis de Tocqueville who, when he wrote his masterpiece, Democracy In America, really wanted to know what made America different from his native France.
Lipset shares the view of de Tocqueville and others that the United States is unique among nations. He calls it an "outlier," and by this he means that on scales measuring such social indicators as disparities of wealth and property, crime rate, the number of lawyers, church attendance, the USA is found at one extreme or the other.
Nowhere is this more clear than in America's treatment of race. On the one hand, the USA has treated Jews with extraordinary generosity from the beginning of its history. Although Jews make up a small proportion of the population, their religion has been respected from the time of the American Revolution.
However, at the same time as it was showing religious tolerance, it was oppressing and marginalizing its African-Americans.
One important consequence of American treatment of blacks has been the creation among blacks of a set of group-related values: They see themselves as part of a group and demand group rights, whereas whites are more strongly committed to individual rights.
However, as Lipset points out, affirmative action programs were introduced by Republicans, under Richard Nixon no less; they were opposed by black leaders at the time who feared that they would divide the black and white working classes, as indeed they have. This difference of attitude sets blacks and whites at odds.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the United States that Lipset identifies is its moralism.
In Lipset's words, "Americans are utopian moralists who press hard to institutionalize virtue, to destroy evil people and eliminate wicked institutions and practices."
Domestically, Americans often hold their politicians and political institutions in undeserved contempt. Because they think that government is so prone to corruption, they believe it is better to limit the power of the state. Consequently, the American state is the least intrusive in the developed world, but it is also the one that does the least for the elderly, the poor and the sick.
Another important element of the American creed is the belief in the individual and his or her ability to get ahead by their own initiative and efforts. Lipset argues that this trait is so strong, it even explains America's exceptionalism with respect to crime. Success seen in terms of wealth is such a fundamental value for Americans that they subordinate everything to it.
In foreign policy, American moralism has meant that their enemy of the moment - whether King George, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein or some minor Somali warlord - has to be seen as the devil incarnate. The Vietnam war, Lipset argues, was unpopular, because Lyndon Johnson was unwilling sufficiently to vilify North Vietnamese communists, frightened of stirring up another wave of McCarthyite intolerance.
Another important theme that Lipset addresses is the question of American decline. Many analysts have sought to explain why America had ceased to be economically competitive; they tend to either blame Japan or urge that America become more like Japan.
Lipset makes a convincing case that America has shaken off its rivals, and has restored its position as the world's dominant economy. However, he is fascinated by the differences between Japan and the USA. Japan, he argues, is another outlier, and he devotes a fascinating chapter comparing American exceptionalism with Japanese uniqueness.
Lipset's thesis is provocative but by no means totally convincing. Too often the reader feels that he has chosen only those statistics that support his argument.
Even with these limitations, this book overflows with brilliant insights. Few people will agree with everything in it, but no one will close it without having learned something about our exceptionally annoying but also exceptionally interesting neighbor.
Battles between God and the devil;
The Times Higher Education Supplement July 5, 1996, Pg.23
In the late 1930s and early 1940s there appeared a remarkable group of young Jewish intellectuals in New York City. Gathered around the various alcoves in the cafeteria of the City College of New York, these students battled over the various doctrines that separated the pro-Stalinist Left, the Trotskyists, and Norman Thomas socialists. From among those ranks emerged men whose impact on modern American political thought would be formidable; it was there that the likes of Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol and the late Martin Diamond earned their stripes.
Over time, a number of those left-wingers became, to one degree or another, leading conservative thinkers. Diamond nearly single-handedly established the study of the political thought of the American founders as a serious object of concern for political scientists and policy makers as well as historians. Glazer eventually joined Kristol as co-editor of The Public Interest; and Kristol went on to found The National Interest as well as Basic Books