The American Creed: Does It Matter? Should It Change?

American exceptionalism has come to have two meanings. For many politicians, it is a term of praise: the United States, compared to other countries, is unusually good. For social scientists and political philosophers, American exceptionalism presents an intellectual problem: why does the United States differ in significant ways from most other industrial democracies?

That the United States is different is the argument that links the diverse essays in Seymour Martin Lipset's book. "America continues to be qualitatively different" from other advanced industrial nations, Lipset writes. "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. . . . It also has close to the lowest percentage of the eligible electorate voting, but the highest rate of participation in voluntary organizations. . . . It is the leader in upward mobility into professional and other high-status and elite occupations, 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, the least taxed, close to the top in terms of commitment to work rather than leisure." Lipset makes the important observation "that various seemingly contradictory aspects of American society are intimately related. The lack of respect for authority, anti-elitism, and populism contribute to higher crime rates, school undiscipline, and low electoral turnouts. The emphasis on achievement, on meritocracy, is also tied to higher levels of deviant behavior and less support for the underprivileged."

Lipset, one of America's most distinguished sociologists, has pondered American exceptionalism throughout his career in a number of books including The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective (1963) and Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada (1990). He stresses the importance of U.S. political culture in the form of "the American Creed"--defined as "liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire"--to explain the differences between the United States and other industrial democracies.

EXCEPTIONALLY ALIKE

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis