Seymour Martin Lipset and American Exceptionalism

If everything else about him is forgotten, the noted American sociologist, Seymour Lipset (1922-2006) will surely be remembered for coining the term, “American Exceptionalism” through his 1996  book,  American Exceptionalism: A Two-Edged Sword. Before I took up social science as a “second language” at George Mason University, Lipset’s last academic residence, I was a federal earth scientist avocationally interested in public policy. The only social scientists whose names I recall seeing at regular intervals in the American flagship journal for the sciences,  Science Magazine,  were Lipset, along with Robert Merton, Amitai Etzioni, and Don Price.

Lipset had omnivorous curiosity and interests. Among his many memberships and honors, he was the only person to serve as President of both the American Sociological Association and the American Political Science Association. Lipset could marshall vast amounts of statistical data and tossed out bold generalizations that other academics had not arrived at or were afraid to venture without their conclusions being quantitatively established by “empirical” studies.

For readers not familiar with social science methods the terms “empirical” and “normative” need explanation. Once I got serious about social science I  learned that social scientists used the term “empirical” differently than it was used to among physical scientists like biologists, chemists, geoscientists and oceanographers. For me it loosely referred to relationships suggested by systematic observation, rather than studies involving theory. For social scientists, however, “empirical studies” focus on rigorous statistical testing of specific hypotheses and are ‘king” in leading journals like the American Journal of Political Science. The other major type of research recognized by the social sciences is the “normative” study. It involves a broader approach to problems and may use any relevant methods. Although this more holistic approach better fits decisionmakers’ needs and is the only kind accessible to the general public, normative studies have a lower professional prestige than empirical studies.

Back to Lipset’s generalizations. In the introduction to American Exceptionalism Lipset states flatly that U.S. is the most religious country in Christendom, and the only one where churchgoers adhere to sects. Protestantism influenced opposition to wars, but earlier affected American foreign policy. The U.S. disdain of authority led to the highest crime rate and the lowest level of voting participation in the developed world.

I found that Lipset’s generalizations had to be respected but taken advisedly. This is illustrated by the abovementioned claim that the U.S. had the lowest level of voting participation in the developed world. In fact, this statement only applies to recent years. The Wikipedia article on “American election campaigns in the 19th century” points out that elections in the midwestern states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio, reached 95% voter turnout in 1896. Generally high voter turnouts continued after the turn of the 20th Century.

Lipset’s used the term “American exceptionalism” to confirm that America is qualitatively different from all other nations. He indicates that this was first established by the 19th Century French observer, Alexis De Tocqueville, in a famous book, Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. Besides lack of respect for authority Lipset identifies  other characteristic features in U.S. society. These include “identification creeds” (moralism), rather than ethnic or other commonalities; firm belief that the U.S. is best and unique among nations; distrust of a strong state, aversion to state-provided welfare, weak working-class radicalism, and lack of a significant socialist movement. Americans were described as holding tightly to the principle of democracy; elections at various levels are more pervasive than in any other nation.

Lipset recognized that the strong American penchant for moral absolutism could lead to excesses. This is abundantly demonstrated by today’s partisan political polarization and Congressional gridlock – unique among advanced nations. Each contending faction declares in ringing pronouncements the rightness of its principles and the hopeless error of the opposition. Andrew Bacevic’s recent book (2008) The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, cites a long list of disastrous policies the author attributes to American moral utopianism and hubris over the past 40 years. He cites chicanery, dirty tricks, “suppression of open discussion and insulation of error against public criticism”, blatant corruption, making common cause with dictatorial regimes, and squandering of billions of dollars, all of which were justified in the name of higher moral goals. In asserting the end of American exceptionalism Bacevic clearly means the “America is best” kind; he would presumably admit to exceptionalism on the undesirable side. Lipset avoids “good/bad” characterizations, like most social scientists.

From my own studies of the history of political polarization in the U.S. I see a problem with Lipset’s exuberantly presented theories and generalizations. He often fails to test them, look for exceptions and differences due to location and especially the factor of time and history in assessing social problems. Wherever I look I find problems with stereotypes when history isn’t taken into account. Let’s take U.S. “high crime”, for example. The U.S. has not been a high crime nation always and everywhere. Prior to the emergence of mobs in the 1920s police in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York, as well as lesser cities did not wear guns. FBI crime statistics for Massachusetts show that there was a more than ten-fold increase in violent crime from 1960 to 1980 (see figure). Criminality before 1960 was no higher in Massachusetts and other northeastern states than in many European nations from which most immigrants came. This agrees with accounts that the U.S. was a far safer place before the 1960s than it is today. Women are said to have been able to walk safely late at night in Harlem, NY in the 1930s and 40s.

Mass stats

From around 1910 to 1950 America was generally pragmatic and efficient in planning and maintaining societal infrastructure. The American railroad network, which reached its peak extent around 1910, provided extraordinarily comprehensive service for such a geographically large nation. Larger cities maintained efficient central management and planning systems that anticipated traffic and waste treatment needs. They rapidly accommodated introduction of electrical light and power.  The construction and integration of the record-breaking Chrysler building into Manhattan, completed in 1930, took only 20 months. The New York subway system maintained its cost of a nickel from 1904 to 1944 – during which time it expanded the subway network.

Andrew Bacevic documents that American exceptionalism took on more extreme character after 1960. But a conclusion not mentioned by Bacevic or Lipset is that parochialism and the tendency to embrace new ideas for society without reasonable testing was spearheaded by leading educational institutions. For example, before the 1960s virtually all colleges and universities required at least one foreign language for admission. Leading universities required two. U.S. industry, academia, and goverment kept in touch with foreign developments (recall that the early U.S. space program was led by a German scientist,Wernher von Braun). But in the 1960s language requirements were eliminated altogether by Princeton and MIT. Brown University announced with pride elimination of all mandatory course requirements for undergraduate students. And from the mid 1960s on Congress virtually ignored foreign experience in lawmaking.

The effect of the huge growth of the U.S. academic establishment after the 1950s, accompanied by disciplinary fragmentation and increasing disengagement from the nation’s practical affairs is almost completely overlooked by Lipset, possibly obscured by his absorption with academic analysis and stimulating contacts with academic peers and students. This isn’t a trivial issue. Academic leaders have the resources and responsibility to train the nation’s educated workforce and future leaders, conduct research and identify national problems and potential solutions. But have economists, sociologists, and political scientists improved the nation’s conditions in their areas of activity since the 1960s? “If not why not?”. This and the possibility that we can no longer afford even brilliant academic jousting as a respectable game would have been great questions to ask Lipset were he still with us.