American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset died on January 4 at the age of 84. One of his principal themes was American exceptionalism: the idea that the history of the United States is qualitiatively different from the history of almost all all other nations. One of the most obvious and intriguing proofs of this exceptionalism is that the United States’ political system, unlike all other developed countries and many less-developed ones, has never given rise to a mainstream mass socialist party.
Although he moved rightward during his life, he avoided patriotic chest-beating; his interest lay in explaining America, not exulting in it. I’ve often thought that every foreign journalist who writes about the United States should be required to read Lipset’s 1996 work American Exceptionalism: The Double-Edged Sword. The book would teach them that they are entering a country whose culture differs from Europe’s culture, and which does not want to, and will never, become Europe. This lesson, in turn, might reduce the number of tiresome opinion pieces European journalists write which scold the United States for flagrantly, obstinately failing to be Europe.
Here are a paragraphs that convey the flavor of Lipset’s work:
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 (postgrade 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-reliance 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.
[Source: Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, pp. 26-27 (New York 1996].