American Exceptionalism

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Is the culture of the United States significantly different than that of Europe? This, for Lipset, is the question of American Exceptionalism. In this collection of previously published essays, readers learn of the difference between conservatism in Europe and America; the weakness of the individual state governments and the strength of individual rights; the feeble grip of political party discipline; the extreme inequality of wealth in the; American’s comparatively light tax burden; and the unusual patriotism and optimism of Americans.

American exceptionalism is a “double-edged sword.” What is meant by this? The nation’s uniqueness stems from “The American Creed,” so fervently embraced that Americans can scarcely comprehend a truly traditional nation such as Great Britain. This creed has five elements: “liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez- faire.” These elements sustain a liberal social order for which Lipset has the greatest admiration.

Yet Lipset acknowledges that the central passions arising from this creed can become dangerous. Populism and anti-elitism engender disrespect for authority, declining discipline in schools, and low electoral turn outs. Individualism unleashes an emphasis on achievement that makes crime a temptation for those prevented from pursuing accepted means of advancement. Exalting the self-made person, Americans look down on the weak and underprivileged. The creed enshrines individual rights, but such rights can become anticommunal, as the proliferation of deadly weapons shows.

Thus, while he sees American exceptionalism in very positive ways, Lipset recognizes that in it also lies the source of most of the nation’s problems. His writings on this subject are thus of immense value, for they help illuminate the special vulnerabilities that arise from the nation’s strength. Readers interested in American exceptionalism should consider Seymour Martin Lipset essential reading. Because it is an assemblage of earlier writings, however, the book often deviates alarmingly from its announced topic. The fascinating essay on the history of left-wing intellectuals is a case in point.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. April 29, 1996, p. 13.

Commonweal. CXXIII, September 13, 1996, p. 38.

Foreign Affairs. LXXV, March, 1996, p. 135.

Humanities. XVII, July, 1996, p. 4.

The Nation. CCLXII, May 6, 1996, p. 28.

New Statesman and Society. IX, March 29, 1996, p. 33.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, February 11, 1996, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, February 5, 1996, p. 75.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 29, 1996, p. 7.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, April 7, 1996, p. 4.