America's man of stark ontrasts

April 5, 1996

Renowned sociologist and political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset tells Huw Richards why he finds the US exceptional, Canada fascinating and Ronald Reagan shrewd.

While E. M. Forster set a virtually unbeatable record for snappily apt intellectual credos with his "only connect", the American social scientist Seymour Martin Lipset could claim a dead heat with "only compare".

Of course a distinguished academic career stretching over more than half a century takes more than two words to summarise. Lipset's books have been supplemented by a teaching career warmly recalled by Arthur Lipow of Birkbeck College, a student at Berkeley in the late 1950s: "He didn't so much teach answers as the questions we should be asking."

One of the marks of the productive academic is to treat retirement as an opportunity to become even more prolific, freed from the duties of teaching and administration. At 74, Professor Lipset - who still holds a chair in public policy at George Mason University, Virginia, and a fellowship at the Hoover Institute - has just produced his 25th book, American Exceptionalism. Like many of its predecessors it is comparative in style. As he says: "He who only knows one country, knows none."

A fair case can be made that Lipset belongs to the small class of academics whose books are events in themselves. Political Science reckons him the most cited living political scientist. His name and books, in particular Political Man - permanently in print 36 years after publication, are still familiar to students of politics and sociology.

But catching the zeitgeist also matters. Lipset says: "I think there are two main reasons [for the interest in the book]. One is the sense of malaise in the United States. People are constantly looking for explanations for it. And it is an election year. While this isn't an election book, there is still a search for explanations for what happened in 1994 when the Republicans won on a platform emphasising their traditions of anti-statism."

Election years have a habit of throwing up mildly surprising academic bestsellers. Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers tapped into similar concerns about the state of America in 1990, attracting critics who cited America's exceptional qualities to explain why the country would be immune to Kennedy's historical patterns of imperial overstretch followed by relative decline. Kennedy was unimpressed: "The USA is different, but only in the sense that New Zealand or any other country is," he argued.

Lipset does believe that America is special. But as the book's subtitle, A Double-Edged Sword, makes clear, he defines exceptional as different rather than better. Not least of the differences he discerns between the US and other developed societies is a deep-rooted tendency to see the world through moralising, judgemental spectacles.

The analysis has a breadth reflecting his career. To be president of either the American Sociological Association or the American Political Science Association is the crowning peer group accolade. Lipset, uniquely, has been both, as well as holding cross-disciplinary chairs at first Harvard then Stanford. He says: "When I was a graduate student political science was not a particularly intellectually challenging discipline and sociology was much livelier."

His comparative base also comes from personal experience: "I was a Trotskyist in high school and always intrigued by the question of why socialism was so unsuccessful in the US." That interest informed both his doctoral work on Agrarian Socialism and in particular an interest in Canada, where socialist parties enjoyed some success.

Americans are staggeringly incurious about their northern neighbour. Lipset notes that its main place in the vernacular is as a metaphor for boredom as in "Al Gore's so dull, he could be Canadian" and that this tendency extends south as well as north. "When it comes to Latin America, there's a lot more media interest in Brazil or Argentina than there is in Mexico."

As the conspicuous exception to that rule, he is extremely well known in Canada, where one commentator once likened him to Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat whose Democracy in America (1836) was one of the earliest and most influential studies of what made the US different. Lipset's own comparative study of the US and Canada, Continental Divide (1990), anticipated many of the arguments in American Exceptionalism, but ran into a familiar problem: "It was treated exclusively as a book about Canada, and given to Canadians to review. I realised that if I wanted my thoughts on the US to get across I'd have to write another book. And this is it."

Canada has provided an extremely useful element in his comparative studies. "Different from us, but more like us than you," he told British academics in a recent lecture to London University's Institute of United States Studies. The thesis he propounds, backed by a vast weight of polls and other statistical evidence, is that "on almost any social indicator or set of attitudes the United States is at one extreme, with Japan at the other end of the scale, the major European states somewhere in the middle and Canada between them and the US."

He emphasises that the polls measure tendencies rather than absolutes. "When I say 'Americans think' or 'Americans do' I am not saying that applies to every single one of them. On any question there is a minority which acts or thinks more like Europeans. But in broad terms the indications are clear."

Thus, to take a few examples, Americans are much more likely to believe in both God and the devil, to be opposed to excessive interference by the state, to be proud of their country, to be socially egalitarian and to believe that hard work gives them a chance to change their circumstances. It is a society of great social mobility, and spectacular economic inequality. They are also much more likely to commit crime. This might seem to sit oddly with religious observance, but Lipset points out that crime is linked to America's deep-rooted individualism, itself borne of religious attitudes. Like the conjunction between social equality and economic inequality, it illustrates Lipset's double-edged sword thesis - strengths inextricably tied up with weaknesses.

The difference, he argues, is that the US is an ideological rather than a historical country. And that ideology is rooted in religion. "It is the only Protestant state where the protestantism was sectarian - what the British call nonconformist - rather than linked to the state. There was no hierarchy. It was egalitarian and individualistic and produced a moralistic people who believed that you should do as your conscience, rather than the state, dictates."

That moralism leads to a tendency to treat wars as crusades rather than struggles for power. "Americans are as self-interested and self-aggrandising as any other people, but they have to be convinced that their international conflicts are moral crusades. Bernard Shaw said the English had an extraordinary gift for locating their own self-interest, then convincing themselves that it coincided with God's. Americans are even better at that." But it equally feeds into a formidable tradition of war resistance. "In the Mexican War of 1848 you had Americans who felt that their government was wrong, and saw it as their moral duty to join the Mexican army and fight for the right." Hence Lyndon Johnson's failures with Vietnam. "Johnson remembered McCarthyism and the Korean war, and was terrified that making Vietnam into an anti-communist crusade would unleash the far right. He played down the moral aspect, and so had very few defences against the moral condemnation of the anti-war movement."

To put this down to nonconformism begs the question of how far these values have survived two centuries of immigration by Catholics, Jews and others. "One factor is certainly material success, with immigrants seeing how much better their conditions and opportunities were than in Europe. When Trotsky was in the US in early 1917 he was impressed by how much higher the standard of living of workers was than it was in Vienna, where he had been previously. And if even Trotsky was impressed I" Even the religions have assimilated. "American Catholics are often more like European Protestants than European Catholics in their attitudes. Reform Judaism has a lot in common with unitarianism," says Lipset, a New York-born Jew.

One conclusion to be drawn from his studies is that trying to turn one country into a simulacrum of another is exceptionally difficult. He points to Anthony Crosland, the British politician he knew best, and Margaret Thatcher as hoping in their different ways to achieve US-style egalitarianism in Britain.

Another is the explanation to his original question about why socialism has not prospered in America. "The statist rulers of Europe produced statist responses in the form of socialism. American anti-statism produced an anti-statist left, closer to anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism than to socialism. I used to think that Americans wouldn't vote for third parties. In fact they wouldn't vote for socialists." And they will, he notes, vote for anti-statist third parties: "Ross Perot is still running at about 20 per cent in the polls, although nobody seems to be taking any notice of this. It looks as though he is likely to run, and this should work in Clinton's favour."

Whether Clinton is good at the job is another matter. Here personal rather than national comparisons come into play. "Nobody was ever a more effective president than Franklin Roosevelt. He spent his time on the politics of the job, leaving detailed policy preparation to his advisers. That is what Reagan did, and why he was right when he said he was following in F. D. R.'s footsteps. The people who laughed at him were missing the point. Carter got so enmeshed in the policy business that he left the politicking to his staff. Clinton's problem is that he enjoys policy-making and politicking and he's tiring himself out." Not, one suspects, a problem for Lipset who, in spite of age and a multiplicity of interests, looks anything but tired.

American Exceptionalism by S. M. Lipset, is published by W. W. Norton at Pounds 19.95.

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