Observations about American exceptionalism go back to the birth of the republic itself. Alan Ryan finds that Seymour Martin Lipset's latest book offers little new on the subject, but welcomes its conclusion that Americans worry a great deal more than they ought toby Alan Ryan / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Seymour Martin lipset is as well equipped as anyone could be to answer the old question: is America special? The First New Nation provided one best-selling answer to that question some 20 years ago: an unequivocal yes. Both there, and in other books and essays since, he has elaborated the answer in the only way possible, by comparing American attitudes to politics, unions, welfare, violence, income distribution, individual responsibility and so on, with the attitudes of the British, the French, the Japanese, the Germans, and the Canadians. He uses many different surveys, but particularly two rounds of the World Values Survey in 1980 and the early 1990s; he comes up over and over again with the finding that on a spectrum that runs from individualism to collectivism, the US occupies the extreme individualist end of that spectrum, with Canada and Britain somewhat more collectivist, continental Europe a good deal more so, and Japan at the other extreme.
American Exceptionalism is rightly sub-titled “A Double-Edged Sword”; American individualism may partly account for American prosperity, but it also accounts for American criminality-for both lead the world. Sadly, its author’s long standing interest in the subject turns out to be a double-edged sword too. The book is a compilation of old articles and reviews; it smells less of the midnight lamp than of the word processor’s cut and paste utilities.
Nor is it obvious why a book on America includes a 50-page chapter on “Japanese Uniqueness” other than to use up an essay on Japan that Lipset is fond of. It adds nothing to the explanation of American exceptionalism. Nobody would expect the US to resemble, let us say, Cambodia, Fiji or Niger. Differences from Japan are not, therefore, intrinsically as interesting as differences from the societies that one would expect the US to resemble a lot more closely-the highly industrialised societies of western Europe and countries of the “white commonwealth” such as Australia and Canada.
But what we get from Lipset is not to be sneered at; he includes an interesting analysis of the attitudes of Jews, black Americans, and intellectuals. And like other writers in this field, Lipset struggles gallantly, if inconclusively, with the paradoxical fact that Americans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the future of their country and the decay of its ethical foundations at a time when it has seen off the political challenge of the Soviet Union and…