Battles between God and the devil

American Exceptionalism
July 5, 1996

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 (now an imprint of HarperCollins) and eventually found himself dubbed the godfather of the neoconservative movement. All of them have roiled the waters of contemporary American politics on issues ranging from the continuing relevance of the electoral college in electing the president to affirmative action to foreign policy. Taken as a whole, they have exerted an enormous influence in American politics. But in many ways, the most exceptional of all those exceptional fellows has been Seymour Martin Lipset.

Lipset is a true socialist, a man whose formidable learning has been focused on the most fundamental of issues in social and political life. His books have become classics in his fields of endeavour to such an extent that he has served as president of both the American Political Science Association and the American Sociological Association. He has taught at Stanford, Harvard, and Berkeley; he has been elected to the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is a scholar's scholar; but he is more than that. He is a public intellectual, a man whose learning is not closed in the confines of the academy but is rather accessible to a broader public. All the better that he should now turn his attention explicitly to a phenomenon that has fascinated him throughout his prolific career, American exceptionalism.

American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword is more than a collection of essays but less than a cohesive book. All of the chapters have appeared in one form or another elsewhere, and the transitions from one to another are not infrequently rickety. Still Lipset brings to his subject such learning as to render those structural irritations no more than that, irritations. While one might wish that he had opted to write a new work on the same subject, one that was in fact a seamless offering on the subject of American exceptionalism, this is nonetheless a work that towers over most contemporary social science. It is worthy of the attention of scholars and citizens alike.

The great strength of Lipset's works is that he trades only in the currency of hard facts; there are no unsupported opinions here. The conclusions he draws may vex and infuriate, but they are always based on a wide range of sociological data. As a result, Lipset is hard to get around. There is seemingly nothing he has not read, nothing he has not grasped. From the status of blacks in American life as compared to the Jews, to the cultural differences between the Japanese and the Americans, to the nuances of political correctness in the universities, Lipset provides fresh insights about not only the great strengths of America but what he rightly calls "the dark side of American exceptionalism".

In Lipset's view, the basic fact is that America is without doubt a "qualitatively different" country from all the rest. In size, power, and wealth it has no peer. But American exceptionalism runs deeper than such attributes as strength and wealth. As Alexis de Tocqueville knew so long ago, and as Lipset seeks to remind his readers, there is a spirit that sets America and Americans apart; there really is something like an American Creed. That creed is rooted in the fact that America was the first nation born of fundamental political principles rather than the quirks of history. "Being an American," Lipset points out, "is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are un-American."

In America patriotism is judged by adherence to or departure from principles deemed basic; Americans are willing to fight and die in wars (or to resist such wars by protests peaceful and otherwise) not for the fatherland but for ideas held to be universally true, such as "all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights". As Alexander Hamilton put it at the time of the founding, it seemed to have been reserved to the people of America to prove once and for all whether societies of men could determine their constitutions of government from reflection and choice or must depend simply on accident and force. The abiding belief that mankind can create good government from reflection and choice is the foundation upon which the bright side of American exceptionalism finally rests.

That confidence also lies at the root of the darker elements of American exceptionalism. "American values," as Lipset argues, "are quite complex, particularly because of paradoxes within our culture that permit pernicious and beneficial social phenomena to arise from the same basic beliefs." The very idea of an American creed of "liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire" cuts two ways: "It fosters a high sense of personal responsibility, independent initiative, and voluntarism even as it encourages self-serving behaviour, atomism, and a disregard for the common good." When it comes to the American dream, the same forces lead to the American nightmare: crime, illegality, drug abuse and a host of other socially deviant forms of behaviour. Yet amid all the soaring crime rates, poverty, and racism, Americans are still the most devout and church-going people on the face of the earth. More believe that natural disasters may indeed be divine retribution for moral decline than in any other nation. And even though America boasts one of the lowest public expenditures for welfare, it is unmatched in its level of private philanthropy.

One of the greatest assets of Lipset's analysis is to remind his readers that Americans routinely, throughout their history, have thought themselves on the downward moral slope. The reason is not that they have been, or even are in a state of absolute moral decline, but rather that their standards are so high to begin with that "no country could ever measure up". It is this tendency as well that explains the fervour of American politics. "Americans . . . tend to view social and political dramas as morality plays, as battles between God and the Devil, so that compromise is virtually unthinkable . . . Both conservatives and liberals see their domestic opponents as advocates of immoral policies."

One of the most fascinating parts of American Exceptionalism in this regard is Lipset's chapter on "American Intellectuals - Mostly on the Left, Some Politically Incorrect". The essence of this chapter is an account of how neoconservatism arose and how it reflects the various moral tensions within American politics today. While the neoconservatives get a lot of credit for building the foundation of the rise of contemporary conservatism in the United States, from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich, that is giving credit where credit is not really due. The fact is, neoconservatism was a term imposed from without rather than a true ideological position generated from within. While many who have been so labelled (including Lipset himself) shared common assumptions such as being dedicated anti-communists, most have continued to be social liberals, especially when it comes to the defence of the welfare state and nagging suspicions about an unaffected free market. By Lipset's measure, had the neoconservatives been in Britain in the 1980s, "most would have been members or supporter of the Social Democratic Party". The real foundation of contemporary conservatism was poured by the National Review crowd. It was that collection of conservatives led by William F. Buckley who "helped revive American conservatism (classical laissez-faire liberalism), transform the Republican party, and refurbish belief in the free market system". It was this group (a group always suspicious of the neoconservatives, it is worth noting) that truly "paved the way for Reaganism".

This sort of analysis is the great strength of Lipset's work. In many ways, Lipset takes his approach from his great predecessor in trying to understand American exceptionalism, Alexis de Tocqueville. By looking at the smallest things, the most obvious things, the hustle and bustle of daily life, you can often see the largest things and begin to grasp the vast sweep of the course of American history.

Several years ago, Irving Kristol set down his memories of those long ago raucous days in the lunchroom of CCNY. Among that crowd of future scholars that gathered there, Kristol said, Seymour Martin Lipset was "a kind of intellectual bumblebee, whose function it was to spread the pollen of ideological doubt and political consternation over all . . . the flowering ideologies". As American Exceptionalism makes very clear, some things never change.

Gary L. McDowell is director, Institute of US Studies, University of London.

American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword

Author - Seymour Martin Lipset
ISBN - 0 393 03725 8
Publisher - W.W. Norton & Co
Price - £19.95
Pages - 352

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