Book Review of "American Exceptionalism" by Seymour Martin Lipset

By Kevin Lamb
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 7, Number 1 (Fall 1996)
Issue theme: "'Anchor babies' - the citizen-child loophole"

The unique national characteristics of America's political and social culture, which distinguish the United States from other nations of the world, continue to evoke much speculation and analysis among scholars. Some of the political and social factors that contribute to America's stability as a democratic republic are incisively reviewed by a leading American scholar. In the tradition of Tocqueville's perceptive study of American society, Seymour Martin Lipset, a respected and influential social scientist, attempts to explain modern social trends vis-a-vis the traditions that are embedded in America's political culture.

According to Lipset, five core pillars of the American creed account for its exceptional status: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire. Lipset points out that the key to understanding social, economic and political trends throughout American history is to consider them in the context of this five-dimensional prism. In this sense, the ideal of the American creed is the distinguishing feature that makes the United States unique. The degree to which the national character is influenced by the beliefs and values ingrained by this creed is what Lipset identifies as "American exceptionalism."

Other Western countries that have their own distinct cultural identities, like Canada or France, differ from the United States in that they lack robust populist and individualistic convictions. Unlike these other democracies, the concepts of limited government and individual liberty are core features of the American political landscape. The appealing features of the American creed may also explain why residents from unstable countries, who endure patterns of turmoil and torture, so often seek the "American dream" of prosperity and the security a more comfortable existence offers.

Two of the more interesting chapters review the experience of two significant ethnic groups that have had a major impact on American society: Jews and African Americans. Lipset points out that while both groups have experienced discrimination and hostility, major societal and legal changes have been implemented to rectify such practices. And as Lipset points out, a genuine sense of fairness and a commitment to equal opportunity is a leading American characteristic.

Whether it's the abolition of slavery, the end of legal segregation, the resistance to racial or gender preferences, the rise of entrepreneurship or the religious nature of our moral compass, major trends or significant events in American history often stem from one or more of these five major tenets. The end of slavery and de facto segregation reflects a commitment to egalitarian principles just as the widespread opposition to affirmative action reveals a meritocratic recognition of individual achievement. In this regard, Lipset presents a balanced portrait of American culture.

One of the stronger features of Lipset's work is the extensive polling data that disclose revealing information about American attitudes and beliefs on a range of social, economic and political issues. Again, on many issues the concept of individualism runs much deeper in American society than many other European or Asian nations. This explains in part why trade unions remain relatively weak and insignificant unlike their European counterparts. It also accounts for the lack of any substantial socialist movements in American politics. In addition to survey data, the author presents a vast amount of detailed information from reliable secondary sources. Lipset's study, however, comes up short in a few key areas, and to some extent this simply reflects a blind side in the contemporary neoconservative view of social issues.

First, while its scope is broad, its depth is shallow. In this regard, one strength of Tocqueville's analysis is notably missing from the present work. As Tocqueville pointed out, the national character of America's political and social culture was shaped early on by Europeans, which Tocqueville identifies as "Anglo-Americans." This is reflected in the customs, traditions and folkways of our colonial ancestors. The experiences shaped by this common heritage contributed to the formation of our own political institutions. That the foundation and endurance of the American political and social order stem from traditional European culture is not coincidental.

Second, little if any mention is made in the present work about the impact of sizable demographic shifts in the American population, largely a result of contemporary immigration policies, and how this will affect the social and political culture. Tocqueville recognized the significant relationship between civil associations and a firmly established common culture. As Tocqueville put it, "all these general characteristics of the nation were more or less the same among those of its sons who sought a new future on the far side of the ocean."

Most of the measures Lipset relies upon in evaluating American culture and in making cross-national and cultural comparisons are inherently subjective. By applying the national syntality theory of eminent social psychologist Raymond Cattell, Lipset could have enhanced his own empirical findings with this added depth of analysis. Cattell's theoretical framework, an objective method of comparing on a qualitative scale various features of national cultures, would have complemented Lipset's findings. How great, for instance, is the magnitude of cultural pressure, what effect does it have on national character and how has it changed American culture?

It's often difficult to recognize the immediate consequences of extensive changes that occur incrementally over time. And to this extent, migrations of diverse people affect the cultural direction within any given nation.

Although the scant attention that Lipset devotes to examining immigration-related issues is arguably the weakest aspect of his work, Lipset's study is an insightful account - one that, unlike other contemporary volumes in the social sciences, remains free of ideological jargon.

About the author

Kevin Lamb is assistant librarian at the Washington bureau of Newsweek.

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