Lipset on American Exceptionalism

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].

9 thoughts on “Lipset on American Exceptionalism

  1. “Our country is different from other countries.” is a truism, it becomes meaningful only when understood at “In a significant number of important fields our country is different from others so much that all other countries are looking similar in comparison.” That’s what exceptionalism means. People who claim something like that are ill-informed at best and have a hidden agenda at worst. And even if they underline (honestly or not) that “different” does not mean “superior”, history shows that the next generation of thinkers will understand it just like that.

    “Americans are also very critical of their society’s institutions and leaders.” Wow. Somebody please translate the readers’ comments of the online issue of any major German newspaper for him please. I don’t think that there are many rational thinkers who would say that’s a problem in this country nowadays that the German public is NOT VERY CRITICAL towards its political class and its decisions, compared to the USA or whoever.

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  2. Andrew (and Lipset before him) make a point which I have been trying to communicate for years, but far more eloquently than my efforts have been. America is exceptional and many (most?) europeans don’t see that.

    I often have a hearty laugh when I read some european critic of the US. Their message to us yanks is often something like: “You are narrow and insular, and you are evil – because you are not like us!”. Pardon moi, monsieur, you understand nothing! Who is being narrow and insular here? 😉

    Most of these critics would never make this mistake with the Japanese, Chinese, or Indians – the differences are more obvious perhaps. But they are clear enough to those who study the US and Europe on more than the most superficial level. Read De Toqueville and undertand that in many respects the US of the 1830’s is still with us. I think the same could be said of much of Europe….

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  3. @Don: I agree with you that many (most?) Europeans don’t see that the US-American culture is completely different from their own – a mistake, I also agree, they would never make with countries like Japan or India. Simply because the culture there is sufficiently different already from the very first superficial look you take on it, while American culture seems to be so similar and familiar.
    I don’t see, though, why America should be exceptional — just because it’s perhaps as different from European countries as India or New Guinea? That’s more the rule than the big exception.

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  4. “I don’t see, though, why America should be exceptional — just because it’s perhaps as different from European countries as India or New Guinea?”

    Yes. Don clearly contradicts himself here or at least uses the word “exception” in a strange way. You can’t say that out of 6.5 billion people on the world 1.3 billion Chinese, 1.2 billion Indians, 300 million Americans, 130 million Japanese (and a billion or so Muslims, and, and …) are all exceptions. If they are all exceptions then what constitutes the rule?

    I’ve seen a paper somewhere on attempts to quantify values in different societies as found in surveys. I’ll see if I can find it again. But the results weren’t surprising in any way as far as I remember. And they didn’t find any magical-exceptional kingdoms either.

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  5. I’m using ‘exceptionalism’ in the same context that Andrew and Lipset uses it – among the subset of western democracies, which include most of Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the US. Japan is an honorary member despite not really being western. Australia and New Zealand are even more exceptional than the US is – but don’t recieve the attention the US does.

    Please don’t try to redefine the terms of the discussion and then bash participants based on your new drfinitions, Ben – it’s a bit of a cheap trick and the best people don’t do it.

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  6. @Don: When you say that Andrew and Lipset use the term exceptionalism only in the context of western democracies, why then defines already the second sentence of the Blog entry American exceptionalism like this:
    “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 other nations.”
    ?
    There is no restriction to western democracies in the article. If it would just state that the US are more different from any European country than any two European countries from each other, I wouldn’t object. But a unique qualitatitative difference from any other country in the world, that makes it an (almost) standalone exception? I don’t think so.

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  7. “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 other nations.”

    Well – it works on that level too if you think about it. Most countries in the world were monachies or some kind of autocracy at very least. The US grew up as a set of colonies under the (very) loose control of the British monarchy and with mostly self government.

    The two times the British monachy tried to tighten the reigns were in the 1680s and 1690’s – which almost resulted in a revolt, and the 1760’s and 1770’s which did. Australia started as a penal colony. Canada and New Zealand had a sorta comparable start to that of the US – absent the revolution. The revolution was huge.

    Who else had a revolution and forced the mother country to disgorge? South America under Simon Bolivar, Mexico, and Haiti. Again, no proper comparison because there were other enormous differences before and after.

    Remember this however: the US is a western country, but the only western country which tore itself free from the mother country by force. We set up our fundamental institutions in deliberate opposition to the way things were done in Europe – particularly to George III’s Britain but also to France and Spain.

    You might say that France did the same after their revolution but look at how that came out. Viva l’Empereur and the establishment of Les Polytechniques and the Cose Napoleon. Down with the old elite, up with the new. But still an elite….

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  8. Furthermore, declaring the US to be “exeptional” makes even less sense if one restricts oneself only to the West. After all, about one third to one half of the people in the western world *are* Americans depending on how broad one is willing to define the term “western democracies” (and the broader, the more fuzzy it becomes again). And why should one restrict oneself that way, if your very point is that the US is about as different from Europe as both are from India (what I would deny, but oh, well …)?

    I don’t see Lipset making this restriction either and if his only point is the not exactly earth-shattering realization that the US is not Europe and Europe is not the US, then a lot of trees have died in vain to print his article.

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  9. You could use very similar arguments to prove that Germany is totally exceptional – started out as a loose federation under an elected Kaiser, became a republic after WWI, had the most ruthless dictator in history, was divided for 50 years and peacefully reunited. Which other country had any of this? And then: so what? Why should it make Germany or the US make exceptional to be different from France or Switzerland?

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