American Exceptionalism

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Seymour Martin Lipset’s long career as a sociologist and political scientist has focused on such institutions as trade unions, higher education, radicals and revolutions, American Jewry, Canadian politics, and problems of the welfare state. Born in 1922, Lipset has at last become something of an institution himself. Harvard University, Stanford University, George Mason University, the Progressive Policy Institute, and the Hoover Institution—these have been some of his academic way stations. One measure of his breadth of interest and achievement is the fact that he has served as the president of both the American Political Science Association and the American Sociological Association.

Lipset’s interest in the problem of the uniqueness of the American national venture is of long duration. Indeed, as he states in the foreword of American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, “My first book, Agrarian Socialism (1950), which was also my doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, took off from the issue Why no socialism in the United States?’” His major first statement on this topic was the important work, The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective, first published in 1963. The 1990 volume, Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada, sought to portray the cultural and institutional difference of “two countries which reflect the varying outcomes of the American Revolution in different sections of what had been British North America.” Lipset’s work on the history and cultural situation of American Jews has also placed exceptionalism in the foreground, as he tried to account for the relative absence of anti-Judaism in the nation’s life.

What exactly is “American exceptionalism”? For such scholars as Louis Hartz, R. W. B. Lewis, George W. Pierson, Robert Bellah, and Lipset himself, the exceptionalism discussion springs from this question: “Is the United States an historically unique culture in ways that really matter?” Certainly America’s national symbols and rhetorical heritage encourage such a view. The Puritan and biblical image of a “shining city upon a hill” was invoked in Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns. The dollar bill contains the Latin phrase “Novus ordo seclorum”—a new order of the world. The Jeffersonian tradition pictures this country as a fresh start for humankind, one based on agriculture, scientific reason, educational opportunity, and the widespread ownership of productive property. “New Deal,” “New Frontier,” “New World Order”—such verbal formulas attest to the power of the idea of America’s special destiny and historical novelty.

While such rhetoric can be both self-congratulatory and self- deceptive, the testimonies of foreign observers have often confirmed American exceptionalism. Over the years, Lipset has been particularly attentive to the nineteenth century writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and Harriet Martineau. The former’s observations proved particularly astute, for with astonishing predictive power he linked the positive achievements of the new American democracy with certain quite unanticipated negative tendencies. Emancipated from the disciplining authoritative structures of social class, ecclesiastical power, and venerable tradition, the American was indeed the world’s freest individual. Yet, observed Tocqueville, this very freedom makes the citizen subject to both the tyranny of majority opinion and the temptations of individualism.

“Individualism,” in Tocqueville’s account, is an exhilarating emancipation as well as an invitation to ignore the needs of the commonwealth. Americans are thus “naturally” inclined to lapse into subjectivism, solipsism, and the self-indulgent cultivation of private realms. What rescues them from a profoundly antisocial way of life is the countervailing tendency to form voluntary organizations for the solving of collective problems. The health of the “intermediate realm” of voluntary associations is therefore critical to the republic’s survival, for these draw the individual into civic callings and require the tempering of egoistic, isolationist impulses. The most important free groups in America are religious ones, believed Tocqueville. For, in Lipset’s gloss on the Frenchman’s text, “voluntary religion fostered the myriad of voluntary associations. . . . These associations of what has come to be known as civil society create networks of communication among people with common positions and interests helping to sustain the moral order, political parties, and participation.”

Tocqueville’s brilliant insights about what made the United States a unique society sprang from research joined with preternatural philosophic genius. Lipset approaches Tocqueville’s subject as a social scientist, one who must take account of a large critical literature as well as decades of empirical work. Hence, while he still finds Tocqueville generally accurate, Lipset ranges widely through a variety of evidence to build a richly documented and nuanced picture of the American difference. The...

(The entire section is 2116 words.)