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

In American Exceptionalism, as in his previous studies on the subject, Lipset relies heavily on cross-national comparisons to prove that the United States is an "outlier" compared with a supposed European/East Asian norm. "European countries, Canada and Japan," he writes, "have placed greater emphasis on obedience to political authority and on deference to superiors." His own data, however, undermine his argument. "While America collected 31 percent of its GDP in tax revenues in 1991, other countries such as Sweden (52%), Holland (48%), Belgium (40%), and the United Kingdom (36%) were taxed at higher levels," Lipset notes. Why not put Britain together with the United States in the low-tax category? Similarly, Lipset writes, "As of the early nineties, overwhelming majorities, 87 percent of West Germans, 86 percent of Italians, and 75 percent of Britons, believe in levying higher taxes on the rich to produce greater income equality, as compared to a much smaller majority, only 74 percent, of Americans." The American majority on this issue is hardly "much smaller" than the British--the difference is one percentage point. The cultural gap appears to be greatest not across the Atlantic but across the English Channel.

More important, Lipset exaggerates the role of the American Creed in explaining why the United States is the way it is. America does have a distinctive political culture, characterized by a high degree of individualism and antistatism. But political culture--American, Japanese, or any other--is as much a response to social institutions and public policies as an explanation for them. In a sustained comparison of the United States and Japan, Lipset observes that "Japanese clearly exhibit much stronger ties to their employers than Americans do." Is this a result of some ancient Japanese cultural heritage or a reaction to the practice of lifetime employment that Japanese corporations adopted in the face of labor strife immediately after World War II? Conversely, in this era of downsizing, the attitudes of Americans toward their employers more likely reflect a rational assessment of the insecurity of their tenure than a tradition of American bourgeois individualism going back to the Founding Fathers. In the 1950s this same American culture exhibited a more "Japanese" relationship between large companies and their workers. And a supposedly consensual Japanese political culture was invoked to explain one-party rule and bossism in that country--until the recent appearance of multiparty politics and charismatic leadership.

Lipset also draws attention to the low and declining levels of voter participation in the United States, as though they were somehow an inevitable result of American political culture. He does not consider that they are a response to the voter registration regulations imposed by early-twentieth-century Progressives (who wanted lower turnout by the less educated and less wealthy) and to the penalty imposed on third parties by the first-past-the-post electoral system the United States shares with Britain. Reforms such as easy, same-day voter registration, weekend voting, and proportional representation might not bring U.S. voter participation levels up to First World norms--but then again, they just might.

Much of the difference in aggregate public spending between the United States and other English-speaking democracies, which Lipset cites to prove American exceptionalism, results from a single factor: the absence of universal health care in the United States. Lipset does not take into account the tax subsidies in health care and other areas which, many argue, constitute an "invisible welfare state" that is relatively generous to the affluent and the middle class, if not the poor, in the United States. At any rate, if the United States could move dramatically closer to the statistical norm of developed countries by passing merely a single piece of legislation, how deep-rooted can American exceptionalism be?

In addition, Lipset's surveys of American attitudes are misleading because they erase cultural differences between regions in the United States. American regional politics--in particular, the politics of the most exceptional region in the United States, the South--is more responsible than universally shared American values for the peculiar structure of the American welfare state. From the 1930s to the 1990s, Southern members of Congress, whether conservative Democrats or Republicans, have been the chief impediments to the adoption of European-style social democracy in the United States. Under F.D.R., the very same conservative Southern Democrats who killed social programs that would have empowered poor whites and blacks in their region ensured the adoption of massive, centralized federal agricultural subsidy programs. If the South had won its independence in the Civil War, the northern remnant of the United States, free of Southern congressmen and senators, might well have followed a path much closer to those of Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, American political culture notwithstanding.

Lipset concedes that American exceptionalism has not prevented the United States from adopting many institutions, from federal welfare to an enormous peacetime military establishment, that were once thought utterly un-American. He admits that "major changes have occurred which have modified the original American Creed, with its suspicion of the state and its emphasis on individual rights. These include the introduction of a planning--welfare state emphasis in the 1930s, accompanied initially by greater class-consciousness and trade union growth, and the focus on ethnic, racial, and gender group rights which emerged in the 1960s." Meanwhile, Lipset acknowledges, the "statist" European nations are becoming more liberal in many respects: "The United States is less exceptional as other nations develop and Americanize. But, given the structural convergences in economy and ecology, the extent to which it [the United States] is still unique is astonishing." What is really astonishing is that a multiracial, continental country of 265 million people with a history of slavery and segregation should match the characteristics of relatively small, homogeneous European and Asian nation-states as closely as it does.

THE REPUBLICAN DEAD END

While Lipset is content to invoke the American Creed as an explanation for the country's uniqueness, Michael J. Sandel, the eminent Harvard philosopher, wants to alter America's cultural core, to make it less liberal and individualistic and more republican and communitarian. Sandel attempts to reinterpret twentieth-century American political history as a tragedy--the abandonment by political and intellectual elites of America's republican tradition of civic character-building in favor of a morally neutral, rights-based liberalism which, in both its left-wing and conservative varieties, leads to the attenuation and abandonment of community and the establishment of the "procedural republic." Sandel's thought reflects the new interest in questions of community that a number of prominent liberal and left thinkers, including Michael Walzer and the late Christopher Lasch, have shown in recent years.

"In the early republic," writes Sandel, "liberty was understood as a function of democratic institutions and dispersed power. The relation of the individual to the nation was not direct but mediated by decentralized forms of political association and participation." As proof, he offers Alexis de Tocqueville's idealized account of New England town meetings. "By contrast, liberty in the procedural republic is defined in opposition to democracy, as an individual's guarantee against what the majority might will." In Sandel's version of U.S. history, most of the parties in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America--Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, Whigs and Democrats--agreed that the goal of politics was "to cultivate in citizens the qualities of character that self-government requires."

According to Sandel, this noble vision was abandoned by narrow-minded trade unionists like Samuel Gompers, technocratic Keynesians, and consumer advocates who did not realize that an economy of mom-and-pop stores builds character more effectively than one of big retailers. "The effort to banish moral and religious argument from the public realm for the sake of political argument," Sandel maintains, "may end by impoverishing political discourse and eroding the moral and civic resources necessary to self-government." He devotes much of the book to criticizing the Supreme Court for undermining community by promoting tolerance of pornography and state neutrality in matters of religion. Along with the indifference of Keynesian liberals to the effects of economic policy on character, the libertarian activism of the Supreme Court, he argues, has contributed to the triumph of the procedural republic.

Sandel's attempt to reinterpret American history in terms of this philosophical dichotomy between republican community and liberal individualism is ambitious, erudite, and ultimately unconvincing. He is in tune with the Zeitgeist in his attack on soulless, technocratic big government and his praise for the small, intimate communities of an idealized civil society. Although he takes pains to distinguish himself from the right, much of the book could be endorsed without demur by conservative decentralists, privatizers, and virtuecrats. Sandel does his best to define a left-of-center republican tradition, linking New England townships (again as Tocqueville imagined them), the ill-fated Knights of Labor, and Robert F. Kennedy, as an alternative to the anomic liberalism of the procedural republic.

But does this grab bag of disparate institutions and individuals add up to a coherent republican tradition? And even if it does, that these people and organizations represent roads abandoned would seem to strengthen the liberal argument that recreating something like classical republicanism (as distinct from representative democracy) in a modern state with an advanced economy is impossible. Alexander Hamilton, the patron saint of American liberalism in the sense in which Sandel uses the term, was right to mock the cult of neoclassical republican virtue: "We may preach till we are tired of the theme, the necessity of disinterestedness in republics, without making a single proselyte. . . . We might as soon reconcile ourselves to the Spartan community of goods and wives, to their iron coin, their long beards, and their black broth."

Sandel's polemic suffers from another weakness: the measures he proposes are far too feeble to remedy the evils he decries. A reconstruction of the republican tradition in American life will take more than support for community development corporations in poor areas and neighborhood campaigns against chain stores like WalMart.

Sandel's one truly radical proposal is almost an afterthought: the end of the sovereign state. He writes, "The most promising alternative to the sovereign state is not a one-world community based on the solidarity of humankind, but a multiplicity of communities and political bodies--some more, some less extensive than nations--among which sovereignty is diffused. The nation-state need not fade away, only cede its claim as sole repository of sovereign power and primary object of political allegiance." What, if not the nation-state, would be the "primary object of political allegiance"? The United Nations? The ethnic group? In such a world, for whom would one vote? What authority would supply visas and insure banks? How would jurisdictional conflicts among "a multiplicity of communities and political bodies" be decided? In a 400-page book, Sandel should have been able to devote a few pages to the practical ramifications of these vague and sweeping proposals. Though much in Democracy's Discontent will stimulate reflection and debate, Americans "in search of a public philosophy" will have to keep searching.

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  • Michael Lind is a Senior Editor at The New Republic. His most recent book is The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution.
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