The Book Home Page Seymour Martin Lipset

American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword,

W.W. Norton, New York, 1996

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Table of Content

Lipset's Introduction

Lipset's Methodology

American Exceptionalism



Table of Contents




Chapter 1 Ideology, Politics, and Deviance

Chapter 2 Economy, Religion, and Welfare

Chapter 3 Socialism and Unionism in the United States and Canada


Chapter 4 Two Americas, Two Value Systems: Blacks and Whites

Chapter 5 A Unique People in an Exceptional Country

Chapter 6 American Intellectuals - Mostly on the Left, Some politically Incorrect

Chapter7 American Exceptionalism - Japanese Uniqueness


Chapter 8 Double-Edged Sword

Appendix: Individualism and Group Obligation





The American difference, the ways in which the United States varies from the rest of the world, is a constant topic of discussion and in recent years, of concern. Is the country in decline economically and orally? Is Japan about to replace it as the leading economic power? Why does the United States have the highest crime rate, the most persons per capita in prison? Does the growth in the proportion of illegitimate births of single-mother families reflect basic changes in our moral order? Why is our electoral turnout rate so low?

Americans once proudly emphasized their uniqueness, their differences from the rest of the world, the vitality of their democracy, the with potential of their economy. Some now worry that our best years as a nation are behind us. Americans distrust their leaders and institutions. The public opinion indicators of confidence in institutions are the lowest since polling on the subject began in the early sixties. These concerns suggest the need to look again at the country in comparative perspective, at the ways it differs from other economically developed nations. As I have frequently argued, it is impossible to understand a country without seeing how it varies from others. Those who know only one country know no country.

The idea of American exceptionalism has interested many outside United States. One of the most important bodies of writing dealing with this country is referred to as the "foreign traveler" literature. These are articles and books written by visitors, largely European, dealing with the way in which America works as compared with their home country or area. Perhaps the best known and still most influential is Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. ' The French aristocrat came here in the 1830s to find out why the efforts at establishing democracy in his native country, starting with the French Revolution, had failed while the American Revolution had produced a stable democratic republic. The comparison, of course, was broader than just with France; no other European country with the partial exception of Great Britain was then a democracy. In his great book, Tocqueville is the first to refer to the United States as exceptional - that is, qualitatively different from all other countries. He is, therefore, the initiator of the writings on American exceptionalism.

The concept could only have arisen by comparing this country with other societies. Tocqueville looked at the United States through the eyes of someone who knew other cultures well, particularly that of his native country, but also to some considerable degree Great Britain. Democracy in America deals only with the United States and has almost no references to France or any other country, but Tocqueville emphasized in his notes that he never wrote, a word about America without thinking about France. A book based on, his research notes, George Pierson's Tocqueville and Beaumont in America, makes clear the ways in which Tocqueville systematically compared the United States and France.' At one point, he became sensitive to the fact that America was a very decentralized country, while France was reputed to be the opposite. Tocqueville commented that he had never given much thought to what centralization in France meant since as a Frenchman, he did what came naturally. He then wrote to his father, a prefect of one of the regional administrative districts, and asked him to describe the concentration of political power in France. His father apparently sat down and wrote a lengthy memorandum dealing with the subject. When Tocqueville or other "foreign traveler" writers Or social scientist have used the term "exceptional" to describe the United States, they have not meant, as some critics of the concept assume, that America is better than other countries or has a superior culture.

Rather, they have simply been suggesting that it is qualitatively different, that it is an outlier. Exceptionalism is a double-edged concept. As I shall elaborate, we are the worst as well as the best, depending on which quality is being addressed.

The United States is exceptional in starting from a revolutionary event, in being "the first new nation," the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent. It has defined its raison d'etre ideologically. As historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, "It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one." In saying this, Hofstadter reiterated Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln's emphases on the country's "political religion," alluding in effect to the former's statement that becoming American was a religious, that is, ideological act. The ex-Soviet Union apart, other countries define themselves by a common history as birthright communities, not by ideology.

The American Creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire. Egalitarianism, in its American meaning, as Tocqueville emphasized, involves equality of opportunity and respect, not of result or condition. These values reflect the absence of feudal structures, monarchies and aristocracies. As a new society, the country lacked the emphasis on social hierarchy and status differences characteristic of post-feudal and monarchical cultures. Post-feudal societies have resulted in systems in which awareness of class divisions and respect for the state have remained important, or at least much more important than in the United States. European countries, Canada, and Japan have placed greater emphasis on obedience to political authority and on deference to superiors.

Tocqueville noted, and contemporary survey data document quantitatively, that the United States has been the most religious country in Christendom. It has exhibited greater acceptance of biblical beliefs and higher levels of church attendance than elsewhere, with the possible exception of a few Catholic countries, such as Poland and Ireland, where nationalism and religion have been interwoven. The American

religious pattern, as Tocqueville emphasized in seeking to account for American individualism, is voluntary, in other words, not state-supported. All denominations must raise their own funds, engaging in a constant struggle to retain or expand the number of their adherents if they are to survive and grow. This task is not incumbent upon state-financed denominations.

The United States, as elaborated in chapter Two, is the only country where most churchgoers adhere to sects, mainly the Methodists and Baptists, but also hundreds of others' Elsewhere in Christendom the Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches dominate. The churches are hierarchical in structure and membership is secured by birthright. Parishioners are expected to follow the lead of their priests and bishops. Sects, by contrast, are predominantly congregational; each local unit adheres voluntarily, while the youth are asked to make a religious commitment only upon reaching the age of decision.

Churches outside of the United States historically have been linked to the state; their clergy are paid by public authorities, their hierarchy is formally appointed or confirmed by the government, and their schools are subsidized by taxes. American Protestant sectarianism has both reinforced and been strengthened by social and political individualism. The sectarian is expected to follow a moral code, as determined by his/her own sense of rectitude, reflecting a personal relationship with God, and in many cases an interpretation of biblical truth, onenot mediated by bishops or determined by the state. The American sects assume the perfectibility of human nature and have produced a moralistic people. Countries dominated by churches, which view human institutions as corrupt are much less moralistic. The churches stress inherent sinfulness, human weakness, and do not hold individuals or nations up to the same standards as do the sectarians who are more bitter about code violations.

The strength of sectarian values and their implications for the political process may be seen in reactions to the supreme test of citizenship and adherence to the national will, war.' State churches have not only legitimated government, for example, the divine role of kings; they have invariably approved of the wars their nations have engaged in, and have called on people to serve and obey. And the citizens have done so, unless and until it becomes clear their country is being defeated. Americans, however, have been different. A major anti-war movement sprang up in every conflict in which the United States has been involved, with the notable exception of World War II, which for the country began with an attack. Americans have put primacy not to "my country right or wrong," but rather to "obedience to my conscience." Hence, those who opposed going to war before it was declared continued to be against it after Congress voted for war.

Protestant-inspired moralism not only has affected opposition to wars, it has determined the American style in foreign relations generally, including the ways we go to war. Support for a war is as moralistic as resistance to it. To endorse a war and call on people to kill others and die for the country, Americans must define their role in a conflict as being on God's side against Satan - for morality, against evil. " The United States primarily goes to war against evil, not, in its self-perception, to defend material interests. And comparative public opinion data reveal that Americans are more patriotic ("proud to be an American") and more willing to fight if their country goes to war than citizens of the thirty or so other countries polled by Gallup.

The emphasis in the American value system, in the American Creed, has been on the individual. Citizens have been expected to demand and protect their rights on a personal basis. The exceptional focus on law here as compared to Europe, derived from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, has stressed rights against the state and

other powers. America began and continues as the most anti-statist, legalistic, and rights-oriented nation.

The American Constitution intensifies the commitment to individualism and concern for the protection of rights through legal actions.

The American Bill of Rights, designed to protect the citizenry against the abuse of power by government, has produced excessive litigiousness. It has fostered the propensity of Americans to go to court not only against the government, but against each other. The rights of minorities, blacks and others, women, even of animals and plants, have grown extensively since World War II through legal action.

The American disdain of authority, for conforming to the rules laid down by the state, has been related by some observers to other unique American traits, such as the highest crime rate, as well as the lowest I level of voting participation, in the developed world. Basically, the American revolutionary libertarian tradition does not encourage obedience to the state and the law. This point may be illustrated by examining the results when the American and Canadian governments tried to change the system of measurements and weights to metric from the ancient and less logical system of miles and inches, pounds and ounces. A quarter century ago, both countries told their citizens that in fifteen years, they must use only metric measurements, but that both systems could be used until a given date. The Canadians, whose Tory-moarchical history and structures have made for much greater respect for and reliance on the state, and who have lower per capita crime, deviance, and litigiousness rates than Americans, conformed to the

decision of their leaders and now follow the metric system, as anyone who has driven in Canada is aware. Americans ignored the new policy, and their highway signs still refer to miles, weights are in pounds and ounces, and temperature readings are in Fahrenheit.

An emphasis on group characteristics, the perception of status in collectivity terms, necessarily encourages group solutions (see chapters Three and Four). In Europe, the emphasis on explicit social classes in post-feudal societies promoted class-consciousness on the part of the Lower strata and to some extent noblesse oblige by the privileged. The politics of these countries, some led by Tories such as Disraeli and Bismarck, and later by the lower-class-based, social democratic left, favored policies designed to help the less affluent by means of state solutions such as welfare, public housing, public employment, and medical care. Americans, on the other hand, have placed greater stress on opening the door to individual mobility and personal achievement through heavy investment in mass education.

The cross-national differences are striking. This country has led the world by far in the proportion of people completing different levels of mass education from early in the nineteenth century, first for elementary and high schools, later for colleges and graduate institutions.

While America has long predominated in the ratio of those of college and university age attending or completing tertiary education, the numbers and proportions involved have been massive since World War II. A report on the proportion of 20- to 24-year-olds in higher education, as of 1994, indicates that it is almost double, 59 percent, in the United States to that in most affluent European countries and Japan: the Netherlands (33%), Belgium (32%), Spain (32%), France (30%), Germany (30%), Japan (30%), and Austria (29%). And America spends a greater proportion of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education, 7.0 percent, than does the European Union, 5.3 percent, or Japan, 5.0 percent.

Conversely, European countries have devoted a much larger share of their GNP, of their public funds, to bettering the living conditions of their working classes and the less privileged generally. The European social democrats have had frequent opportunities to hold office since the 1930s. To transform the situation of the working class, they have emphasized group improvement policies, such as public housing, family allowances and state medicine. Until recently, however, they pre-

served a class-segregated educational system with elite high schools and failed to focus on the expansion of university education.

American values were modified sharply by forces stemming from the Great Depression and World War II. These led to a much greater reliance on the state and acceptance of welfare and planning policies, the growth of trade unions and of class divisions in voting. While these changes continue to differentiate the contemporary United States from the pre-Depression era, the prosperous conditions which characterized most of the postwar period led the population to revert in some part to

the values of the founders, especially distrust of a strong state. Support for diverse welfare entitlement policies has declined; trade union membership has dropped considerably, from a third to a sixth of the employed labor force; and class-linked electoral patterns have fallen off. Americans remain much more individualistic, meritocratic-oriented, and anti-statist than peoples elsewhere. Hence, the values which form the context for public policy are quite different from those in other developed countries, as the results of the 1994 congressional elections demonstrated.

These differences can be elaborated by considering the variations between the American Constitution and those of "most other liberal democracies . . . [which contain] language establishing affirmative welfare rior obligations" Some writers explain the difference by the fact that except for the American, almost all other constitutions were drawn up since World War II and, therefore, reflect a commitment to the welfare state, to upgrading the bottom level. But as Mary Ann

Glendon has emphasized,

The differences long predate the postwar era. They are legal manifestations of divergent, and deeply rooted, cultural attitudes toward the state and its functions. Historically, even eighteenth- and nineteenth-century continental European constitutions and codes acknowledged state obligations to provide food, work, and financial aid to persons in need. And continent Europeans today, whether of the right or the left, are much more likely than Americans to assume that governments have affirmative duties.. By contrast, it is almost obligatory for American politicians of both the right and the left to profess mistrust of government."

In much of the writing on the subject, American exceptionalism is defined by the absence of a significant socialist movement in the United States. This again is a comparative generalization, emphasizing that socialist parties and movements have been weaker in the United States than anywhere else in the industrialized world, and also that the membership of trade unions has been proportionately smaller than in other countries. Analysts have linked those facts to the nature of the

class system as well as to attitudes toward the state. Where workers are led by the social structure to think in fixed class terms, as they are in post-feudal societies, they have been more likely to support socialist or labor parties or join unions. But class has been a theoretical construct in America. The weakness of socialism is undoubtedly also related to the lower legitimacy Americans grant to state intervention and state authority. I discuss these matters in chapter Three, which deals with trade unions and socialism.



Some who criticize an emphasis on American exceptionalism as a way of understanding current and future events have questioned the insistence that historical factors linked to the settlement of the colonies and the ideology of the founders continue to influence American behavior and values. Max Weber dealt with this topic in an interesting and insightful way, which I have relied on in earlier work. He suggested that history operates to determine the future of a nation the way. a game in which the dice become loaded does. According to Weber, by conceiving of a nation's history starting as a game in which the dice are not loaded at the beginning, but then becomes biased in the direction of each past outcome, one has an analogue of the way in which culture is formed. Each time the dice come up with a given number, the probability of rolling that number again increases.

Frank Underhill, a Canadian historian, suggested processes similar to Weber's in comparing the United States and Canada. He noted that, in the United States in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the left-disposed forces favoring populism, egalitarianism, and the like tended to win the major conflicts, starting with the Revolution, moving to the war hawks of 1812, the Jacksonian period, and the Civil War. The more conservative groups, the Federalists, the pro-British peace forces in 1812, the Whigs and defenders of slavery, lost out. Underhill believes that each outcome gave the egalitarian side an advantage in the next major domestic conflict. Conversely, he argues that in his native country, Canada, the conservative forces were dominant in each important struggle from the American Revolution on, through the War of 1812, the Mackenzie-Papineau Rebellion of the middle 1830s, and the founding of the Dominion of Canada in 1867 under the aegis of conservatives." Those who respected authority won in Canada, while those who were more populist triumphed in the United States. Since Canadian conservatives have been Tories, believers in what a British Tory Harold Macmillan called "paternalistic socialism," statism is more acceptable north of the border than south of it. Ironically, as a result of losing the Revolution, Canadian public policy has been closer to that of social democratic countries, while the more libertarian ideology of revolutionary America has made the country the most resistant to welfare state policies and the social democratic and communitarian ethoses.

Other dissenters from the exceptionalism thesis contend that the concept is too imprecise, too unmeasurable, to be useful in explaining continuity or change in behavior on the national or group level. It may be argued that survey or polling data, available since the 1930s, provide quantitative indicators of attitudes and values which can be compared longitudinally or cross-nationally. It is important to distinguish between attitudes and values. Attitudes are much more malleable; they vary with events and contexts. They may change to reflect current social developments, recessions, corruption scandals, or violent periods, and therefore may counter assumptions about deep-rooted variations among nations. At given times, Americans may show up as more supportive than others of certain government welfare policies, less hostile to trade unions, less patriotic, or more willing to spend money to deal with a given problem.

Values are well-entrenched, culturally determined sentiments produced by institutions or major historical events, for example, a new settler society, a Bill of Rights, Protestant sectarianism, wars, and the like. They result in deep beliefs, such as deference or antagonism to authority, individualism or group-centeredness, and egalitarianism or elitism, which form the organizing principles of societies. Value-based explanations may relate to institutional differences to other countries, for example, constitutional constraints on state power, divided or unite authority structures, religious systems. They also bear on behavioral outcomes, such as litigiousness or propensity to use government to deal with social problems welfare, health, unemployment. Opinion surveys may also provide indicators of values. For example, degrees of egalitarianism may be reflected in the responses to questions in the World Values Survey conducted in 1980 and 1990 concerning equal differentiated pay to persons of varying qualifications doing the same job. Americans are the most likely to approve of merit-based difference in reward, much more so than Japanese, Europeans, or Israelis. And indicators of basic beliefs derived from data in surveys may be used to test or elaborate hypotheses about sources of cross-national variations in behavior, such as social policy or crime rates.

Comprehensive surveys of the attitudes of 15,000 managers from many countries around the world taken from 1986 to 1993 find that American executives emphasize individualism much more than their counterparts elsewhere, and together with the Japanese are outliers with respect to different indicators of values. (See Appendix, pp. 293-296.( Charles Hampden-Turner and Alfons Trompenaars conclude that:

"American managers are by far the strongest individualists in our national samples. This means that they regard the individual as the basic unit and building block of the enterprise and the origin of all its success. They are also more inner-directed, i.e., they locate the source of the organization's purpose and direction in the inner convictions of its employees. No culture is as dedicated to making each individual's dream come true. Americans believe you should "make up your own mind" and "do your own thing" rather than allow yourself to be influenced too much by other people and the external flow of events. Taken together, these are the prime attributes of entrepreneurship: the self-determined individual tenaciously pursuing a personal dreem"

Some critics of the concept of American exceptionalism ascribe to exponents the belief that America had a consensual leistory, that its past is less marked by conflict than other countries. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have analyzethe interrelationship between consensus and conflict in social science and historical analysis in my book Consensus and Conflict and will not repeat the discussion here. I would only note that as Sacvan Bercovitch, Richard Hofstadter, Samuel Huntington, and Gunnar Myrdal, among many, have stressed the United States is distinguished by an emphasis on adversarial relations among groups, and by intense, morally based conflicts about public policy, precisely because its people quarrel sharply about how to apply the basic principles of Americanism they purport to agree about. Conflicts which are defined in moral terms are more intense, as in America, than those which are seen primarily as reflecting interests, as in Europe.

America continues to be qualitatively different. To reiterate, exceptionalism is a two-edged phenomenon; it does not mean better. This country is an outlier. 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; with respect to litigiousness, it has the most lawyers per capita of any country in the world, with high tort and malpractice rates. It also has close to the lowest percentage of the eligible electorate voting, but the highest rate of participation in voluntary organizations. The country remains the wealthiest in real income terms, the most productive as reflected in worker output, the highest in proportions of people who graduate from or enroll in higher education (post-grade 12) and in postgraduate work (post-grade 16). It is the leader in upward mobility into professional and other high-status and elite occupations, close to the top in terms of commitment to work rather than leisure, 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, and the least taxed. And as I elaborate in the chapters that follow, the positive and the negative are frequently opposite sides of the same coin.

Here I would only like to note that those who emphasize social morbidity, who focus on moral decline, for example, or on the high crime or divorce rates, ignore the evidence that much of what they deplore is closely linked to American values which presumably they approve of, those which make for achievement and independence. As Robert Merton points out, the stress on success, on getting ahead, presses the unsuccessful or those without the means to win out legitimately the poor and the oppressed minorities to violate the rules of the game ". Individualism as a value leads not only to self-re]lance and a reluctance, to be dependent on others, but also to independence in family relationships, including a greater propensity to leave a mate if the marital relationship becomes troubled. America is the most moralistic country in the developed world. That moralism flows in large part from the country's unique Protestant sectarian and ideological commitments. Given this background, it is not surprising that Americans are also very critical of their society's institutions and leaders. Europeans, who take their national identity from common historical traditions, not ideologies, and are reared in a church tradition, have been unable to understand the American response to Watergate or the sexual peccadilloes of politicians.

In the seventh chapter of the book, I seek to enlarge the comparative perspective by looking at the United States and Japan. The Japanese stress the extent to which they are a unique people. They are even' described occasionally as "uniquely unique." The concept of Japanese uniqueness goes back a long way. Like the Americans, the Japanese are outliers; they are usually at the opposite ends of the value and behavioral continua, as the Appendix at pp. 293-296 demonstrates. They are the most group-oriented society; the United States is the most individualistic. Japan has extremely low crime and litigiousness rates; America is at the opposite extreme among developed countries. The United States, as the data of the 1990 World Values Survey demonstrate, has the highest rates of membership and activity in voluntary associations; Japan has the lowest.'"

The United States and other developed countries have obviously changed considerably over the past two centuries as they have industrialized, urbanized, and become democratized. But I would argue that the relative differences among them have remained. Thus, while statism has grown considerably in the United States, particularly since the Depression of the 1930s and the New Deal, and the country clearly, can no longer be described as laissez-faire, it is still less welfare-oriented, less statist, and more laissez-faire than almost all the European nations, and more moralistic. Alone in the developed world, the country has not moved toward comprehensive health care under the sponsorship of the government. In general, we have hung back behind other nations with respect to state industrial policies. In November 1994, the electorate gave control of Congress to the most ardently anti-statist major political party in the world, thereby rejecting the moderate (by international standards) welfare-oriented policies of Bill Clinton and the Democrats. The Republican campaign's "Contract with America" promised to drastically cut back on taxation and the scope of government in a country which has been at the bottom among industrialized nations in terms of the proportion of national income raised in taxes, extent of public ownership, and expenditures for entitlements and welfare. The major divisive, religion-linked social controversies in America, abortion and gay rights, are non-issues in all the industrialized European countries, including the Catholic ones (non-industrialized Ireland and Poland excepted). No one burns down abortion clinics in Europe, Australia, or Japan. But given the emphasis on moralism, American politicians define interest issues as well as value conflicts in ethical terms. Commenting on the Republican tactics in the 1994 elections, Suzanne Garment notes that the author of the GOP Contract, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, "thought the 'secular religion' he saw on the left could be successfully opposed only by equally moralistic rhetoric". To understand why Americans act as they do, as distinct from the Europeans and the Japanese, it is necessary to see the ways in which the country has been exceptional all through its history. This book addresses various aspects of American exceptionalism, such as status, statism, economic and welfare policy, trade unionism, politics, race relations, religion, crime, political participation, and economic behavior. Aside from the concluding chapter, it is divided into three sections. In the first, chapters One to Three, I examine the classic emphases of the discussion of exceptionalism, the United States as a sociological, political, and economic outlier, as well as the issue of "why no socialism in the United States?", a topic which, as noted, is taken by some as the principal meaning of American exceptionalism. In the second section, chapters Four, Five, and Six, I analyze the "exceptions on the margin," three more statist groups which illustrate the extremes: the African Americans of oppression, the Jews of success, and intellectuals of alienation from a market-driven, or for a minority of them, a populist society. In the third section, chapter Seven presents a detailed comparison of the two sociological outliers among

developed countries, confronting American exceptionalism with Japanese uniqueness. And in the concluding chapter, I discuss the positive and negative outcomes of the two-edged American Creed, both fostering initiative and voluntarism, and threatening community and triggering moral decline.


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