Lipset on American Exceptionalism
Seymour Martin Lipset's American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, though devoted to an old subject, could not have been more timely. Today, when America faces an eastern Europe recovering from the disasters of communism and a south Asia moving rapidly into the capitalist world without a trace of Calvinist guilt, it behooves us to establish our bearings with the rest of the world. Yet in academic discourse, American exceptionalism is dismissed as either an invention of the cold war or as a false construction that assumes America itself enjoys a unified coherence. Today, writing about the "American experience" has fragmented into local micro-histories that avoid the conceits of master narratives. Seduced by the fetishes of class, race, and gender, the academic historian rarely acknowledges that workers, ethnics, and women may exhibit the same restless drive toward mobility that Tocqueville observed more than a century ago.
In American intellectual history, chronology is destiny. The most important thing to know about Lipset, as a social scientist, is that he is a scholar of the fifties generation. It should be no secret that the intellectual history of the second half of the twentieth century has been nothing less than a war between the fifties and the sixties, between the chastened remnants of the Old Left and the cocky activists of the New Left. The fifties generation, leaving behind its radical youth, came to be called writers of "consensus," while the sixties generation saw conflict almost everywhere in American society and proceeded to theorize about it in the many disciplines the Academic Left came to dominate in the seventies and eighties.
"I consider myself a man of the Left," Lipset wrote in 1962, responding to hostile views of his early work which depicted him as "conservative" and "complacent." However he chose to describe himself, the thesis of American exceptionalism he and his generation expounded spelled death to the illusions of the Left. It also spelled frustration for the Right. For, if America was historically different from Europe in lacking its conflicting social constituencies of an aristocracy, peasantry and proletariat, America could be neither radical nor conservative; it could no more create a revolution than it could sustain a tradition. "In the beginning, all the world was America," wrote John Locke, indicating that, in the New World, the European would find a liberal environment free of older class structures. But the New Left would listen neither to Locke nor to Lipset.
The type of American history and social science that has been written in the past several decades represents a generational rejection of Lipset and the rich body of earlier scholarship of his cohorts. Contemporary historians write of the "radicalism" of the American Revolution and of the "class struggles" of the Jacksonian era, while social scientists describe American society as a systematic structure of "hegemonic domination" that explains why a people born free are everywhere subdued. Ironically, the impulses of early America are liberating while the nature of modern society is repressive. This curious cleavage between a hopeful past and a gloomy present suggests the difficulties in defining America. Do we live in a potentially radical environment about to break free from structural systems? In a liberal culture committed to property, social mobility, and rights of security and opportunity? Or in a conservative tradition dedicated to upholding religion, family, and community?
Failure to get the right take on America is, for the political candidate, fatal. Can the academic caught up in European categories (Marxism, poststructuralism, etc.) really mirror the meaning of the Republic? In The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson offered the best advice on such a question. He warned that, as long as the American scholar listens to the "muses of Europe," the "mind of the country" misconceives its role and hence "eats upon itself."
Seymour Martin Lipset has spent much of his academic life explaining America to itself. Together with Daniel Bell, Richard Hofstadter, and Louis Hartz, Lipset followed Emerson's advice and returned to native grounds in order to begin the search for America. But curiously, Lipset and other social scientists rarely returned to the Puritans and to the Federalist authors to undertake such a search. Those who made the shift away from Marxism turned instead to Tocqueville and Weber, thinkers who actually visited America, admired and indeed envied its Calvinist heritage, and wrote about the country as something new under the sun, whatever might be its ultimate destiny. Like his cohorts, Lipset is a comparativist struck by the ways in which America stands out as distinct, unique, separate from Europe and much of the rest of the world. One unique feature of American democracy is that it thrived in an environment that had no class enemies, no threat from the Left or the Right.
Lipset and much of his generation wrote scholarship with the political disasters of Europe in mind. Almost no one anticipated that the new generation in the sixties would soon repudiate that scholarship as, in its view, calamitous to American intellectual life. To be told that our country was exceptional entailed at least five propositions. America enjoyed: 1) a pragmatic culture immune to ideology and open to change and incremental solutions; 2) an environment of fluid mobility rather than rigid class structures; 3) a pluralist system of government that mastered power by dispersing it; 4) a skepticism about the populist cant of "the people" and about democracy's claims to tolerance that may only conceal the conformist pressures of mass society; and 5) a disbelief in the working class as the vehicle in which Marx's mission to liberate history is to be carried out.
The last proposition became the most hotly contested of the five. Lipset and the historian John H.M. Laslett put together a huge anthology, Failure of a Dream? Essays in the History of American Socialism, to address such questions as the one Werner Sombart raised shortly after the turn of the century: "Why is there no Socialism in the United States?" Sombart's answer was the unique high level of consumption and life styles driven by status aspiration. Lipset and others also cited the thirties writings of Leon Samson, which insisted that the American belief system had already incorporated the goals of socialism, such as the abolition of poverty that had been advocated even by Herbert Hoover. Tocqueville also became central to the issue of exceptionalism, with his analysis of American democracy as a hybrid proposition of both liberal and conservative countercurrents: a love of change and a fear of revolution, competitive individualism and social conformity, equality of conditions and resistance to political leveling.
The message that an older generation, and Lipset especially, tried to convey to the academic world reads like an idea whose time had come only to be dismissed and even ridiculed. Lipset's Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics, published in 1960, analysed the nature of consensus, mass culture, the Leftism of intellectuals and the Centrism of the American political party system, and, in Europe, the fascism inherent in the Left as well as the Right. Perhaps the most telling chapter was on "Working Class Authoritarianism," which brought to light the intolerance for liberalism and religious and cultural fundamentalism among the laboring masses. The sixties generation, instead of pondering Lipset's empirically based study of workers, ridiculed his statement that "the fundamental problems of the industrial revolution have been solved." Lipset's study proved prescient in view of the subsequent behavior of American workers who became "Reagan Democrats," key swing voters who saw their cultural and religious values threatened by liberalism and their opportunities restricted by affirmative action.
The Academic Left may have hated the scrappy Sidney Hook more than the genial Marty Lipset. But Lipset's scholarship did more to undermine the Left's mystique of "participatory democracy." In several of his writings Lipset questioned the mystique as all movement and no meaning. He favored gradual, prudent participation in the political process, but looked upon mass demonstrations and the angry intensification of political emotions as a threat to stability and a possible prelude to dictatorship based on European experiences. Lipset feared what a younger social scientist would hail as "democracy in the streets."
Lipset's earlier writings on exceptionalism aimed to isolate America from European prophecies depicting universal patterns of developments converging on all industrial societies. The purpose of the present work, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, is to demonstrate how uniqueness itself carries the burdens of its own blessings. Having delighted in our differences, it is time to face our dilemmas. Presently the relative decline of the economy, our increasing distrust of our political leaders, and the widening cultural wars all suggest that America requires scrutiny from the perspective of exceptionalism.
Unlike his former Harvard colleague David Riesman, who wrote about the changing nature of the American character in The Lonely Crowd, and unlike Weber, who saw values eroding before the forces of modernity, Lipset sees a continuity of American values from the time of the Revolution to the present. "The nation's ideology can be subsumed in five words: liberty, individualism, populism, egalitarianism, and laissez-faire." Each of these values has a "double-edged sword." Individualism nourishes self-reliance at the expense of civic virtue, populism encourages distrust of government only to leave many disputes to be settled by lawyers in a litigious society, egalitarianism develops initiative and voluntarism but also "self-serving behavior, atomism, and a disregard for communal good."
Lipset admits there is no easy explanation as to why the United States has the highest crime rate in the world, and he is not sure other sociologists are correct in citing America's emphasis on achievement, mobility, and success, as though Horatio Alger presages Al Capone. He does seem certain that America's emphasis on personal responsibility and fairness explains the resistance to using quotas and preferences as a means of racial and minority integration. But to the extent that such programs would in all likelihood be resisted in other modern societies, the perspective of exceptionalism may do little to explain the repugnance of the new politics of categories and identities.
American Exceptionalism devotes the fullest discussion to religion in church, school, and society itself. Lipset draws on Tocqueville and Weber to distinguish churches from sects, noting that European Catholic and Lutheran institutions are hierarchical with membership a matter of birthright, while America's protestant denominations are congregational, voluntary, and completely independent of the state. Voluntary associations and sect beliefs, he emphasizes, were conducive to a competitive society that admired entrepreneurial success. Today, opinion polls still prove, he contends, what Tocqueville observed more than a century ago: "There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America." Lipset insists that America's religiosity explains the idealism, moralism, and excessive utopianism in our foreign affairs, and he believes that both those who supported anti-communists crusades and those who opposed the Vietnam War "reenacted a two-century 'Protestant' sense of personal responsibility that led the intensely committed to follow their consciences."
If only America had a conscience! As with many social scientists who would like to believe in "civil religion," Lipset quotes Tocqueville about America being so religious without following up what the anguished French thinker wrote in Democracy in America and elsewhere. What are people implying when they say they believe in God and dutifully go to church? The question afflicted Tocqueville, haunted as he was by Pascal. In contrast to the philosophes, he did see society in need of religion to the extent humankind longed for meaning and feared annihilation. But he worried, as did Weber a half-century later, that as capitalism develops, "the light of faith grows dim," and Americans become "so methodical, so calculating, that it would seem that the head rather than the heart leads them to the foot of the altar." Thus Tocqueville questioned the theologian William Ellery Channing about the doctrines of Unitarianism, wondering if a belief that served more as a social convention than a spiritual conviction, a "cold-corpse" proposition, as Emerson described it, would not undermine religion itself. "But are you not afraid," Tocqueville asked Channing, "that by your efforts to purify Christianity, you may end by making its very substance disappear? I am afraid, I admit, of the road which the human spirit has taken since Catholicism; I am afraid that it may in the end come to natural religion."
If America has enjoyed an abiding religious "conscience," one might expect to find the American people capable of sacrifice, some effort at self-denial, and perhaps a record of altruism and munificence. But Lipset notes that America has the lowest tax rates of any modern industrial country; he is convinced that it is the belief in equality of opportunity and personal responsibility that has Americans accepting gross income differentials and rejecting "taxing the successful to upgrade the less advantaged," whereas European countries in which classes signify hereditary advantages are more inclined to tax those with higher incomes. What compensates for a religious conscience or a social gospel is philanthropy, and the amount of voluntary charitable giving in America exceeds that of Europe. It may be true that the philanthropy of the early part of the century that led to such an institution as the Carnegie Foundation had religious roots in the doctrine of stewardship. Today, however, Lipset fails to mention that individual contributions to charity and culture have declined, and the more new millionaires America produces, the less philanthropic they are with their easily-earned, market-driven wealth.
Some of the chapters in American Exceptionalism, such as the one on socialism and trade unionism in the United States, have been put together from fragments contained in Lipset's earlier works. Some, such as those on Afro-Americans and Jews, do not necessarily lend themselves to an exceptionalist analysis, but they do provide the author the occasion to comment on the rise of a well-off black middle class and, contrary to popular impressions, on the adherence of Jews to liberalism and the Democratic Party. The chapter on Japan could be fruitfully compared to Francis Fukuyama's recent book, which argues that only in societies of mutual trust can capitalism thrive. Lipset sees capitalism arising in Japan when the Jeiji barons encouraged the lowest aristocratic stratum, the samurai (knights), to enter the world of business, thereby leaping from feudalism into modernity and by-passing the liberal stage of history, which perhaps goes far to explain the retarded status of women in contemporary Japan. So much for "trust" and capitalism as the promise of mutual respect.
The chapter on "American Intellectuals--Mostly on the Left, Some Politically Incorrect" brings history up to the present as Lipset makes astute observations on the politicalization of academic life, the repression and exclusion of independent scholars, and the discordant positions of neoconservative thinkers. Lipset suggests that the coercions of political correctness, by the Left on the campus and by the Right in fundamentalist enclaves, stems from the same exceptionalism that had always emphasized moralistic righteousness on the one side and religious zeal and patriotism on the other. Yet neither Lipset nor anyone else has been able to account for the persistence of radicalism in the American academe, in contrast to the attitudes of professors in Europe, South America and Asia. Noting that many professional associations have elected radical leaders, Lipset quotes the Cambridge University Nobel laureate M.F. Perutz: "Marxism may be discredited in Eastern Europe, but it still seems to flourish at Harvard." Not only in Eastern Europe but throughout western Europe Marxism has been junked as though it were once a childhood addiction. Why not at Harvard and Berkeley? Revelations of the Gulag outraged the Left intelligentsia in France and elsewhere. On the American campus radicalism remains as mindless as it is monotonous.
A possible explanation for this phenomenon is also susceptible to an
exceptionalist interpretation. For of all the western countries America
was the only one to field a viable anti-communist intellectual front that
had its roots in Trotskyism and other opposition factions of the thirties.
In Europe, in contrast, many students and young intellectuals accepted
uncritically the writings of Sartre, Lukacs, and others who looked to the
communist East as the beacon for the West. Then, with the shock of Gulag,
Stalinism hit the French Left in the face, and it turned against Sartre
with a vengeance, convinced that it had been deceived and misled by an
older generation. But America's New Left had always dismissed the anti-communism
of the Old Left with contempt. For the New Left to react honestly to Gulag
would require nothing less than a confession that it had been wrong not
to listen to the Old Left. Thus today's Academic Left, the New Left's second
life, makes no apologies: a truly exceptional performance.
John Patrick Diggins was born in San Francisco in the midst of
the depression (1935); he became a history professor three decades later
in the midst of a rebellion (1968), and has taught at San Francisco State
University, University of California, Irvine, and Princeton. He has held
the Chair in American Civilization at the University of Paris and presently
is Distinguished Professor of History, Graduate Center, City University
of New York. He has written a dozen books dealing with American political
thought and intellectual history.