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The Great Exception in America's Experiment

All but blacks reaped unique fruits of social development in government without an aristocracy

American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword

By Seymour Martin Lipset

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W. W. Norton & Co.

352 pp., $27.50

Political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset is one of the world's most distinguished Tocquevillists.

Characterizing his work this way refers to the fact that it has been powerfully influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville, the great 19th-century French social theorist. "American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword," extends Lipset's examination of American social development from a Tocquevillian perspective.

Tocqueville gave the concept of American exceptionalism its first complete statement in "Democracy in America" (1835, 1839). He did not call America exceptional in the sense of being unusually good. He meant that the country was literally an exception - it had followed a line of social development different from any other.

Unique origins of US

De Tocqueville found the origins of American exceptionalism in a related set of factors, writes Lipset, involving who settled the new nation; what was happening in Europe at the time; and the conditions the emigrants encountered upon arrival.

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In the 17th and 18th centuries, Europe was engulfed in a great revolution that saw the collapse of an old social order resting on aristocratic principles and the often painful birth of a new order based on egalitarian and individualist premises. In this setting, a middle-class "fragment" broke off from the mother countries and came to North America, bringing to speedy fruition here a new type of social system.

Physical distance allowed the fragment to develop in remarkable isolation from Europe's feudal past. De Tocqueville understood what all this meant: "The great advantage of the Americans is, that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that they are born equal, instead of becoming so."

America's social origins yielded a distinctive ideology. Lipset sees it defined around ideas of "liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire." He credits this idea system with enormous energy, but sees in it a "dark side," too.

The US is "the most religious, optimistic, patriotic, rights-oriented and individualistic. With respect to crime, it still has the highest rates...; The country remains the wealthiest in real income terms, the most productive as reflected in worker output, the highest in proportion of people who graduate from or enroll in higher education.... It is the leader in upward mobility into professional and other high-status and elite occupations ... but the least egalitarian among developed nations with respect to income distribution, at the bottom as a provider of welfare benefits ... and the least taxed."

Good or bad, the American ideology has dominated the country's social development with one large exception - race relations. There, a society whose founding premises stipulate that all people are "created equal" and endowed by God with "unalienable rights," permitted slavery until the 1860s, and then "Jim Crow" discrimination for a century longer.

Lipset argues that this experience of African-Americans has left them the great exception in American exceptionalism. "Being defined either de jure or de facto as a caste for most of their history, blacks, like European workers, are much more likely than whites to respond to group-related, rather than individually oriented values."

He is not by any means alone, of course, in finding America's racial history a great break with its central values. Gunnar Myrdal made this his central premise in "An American Dilemma" (1944). In recent years, many analysts have described the US as "two societies" on racial lines.

Nevertheless, one society

Whether America today is that, or instead - for all its flaws - one society built around widely shared values is obviously of the greatest importance to the country's future. It's also a very complex question. Lipset's "two societies" interpretation is the one instance in a book of the first rank where he is open to real challenge.

My Roper Center colleagues and I reviewed a broad collection of survey findings of the outlook of African-Americans compared with others of their fellow citizens. These data show that most Americans of all groups see the country's current race relations in terms far more complex and ambiguous than "two societies" envisions them.

African-Americans are naturally more inclined than others to see racism, past and present, as a huge problem. But, the data show, they also see comity along with conflict, opportunity as well as discrimination, and progress together with persisting problems.

What's more, for all the legacy of slavery, segregation, and exclusion, African-Americans are "in many ways the most resilient archetypal Americans, still holding onto the notion that perseverance and hard work will give them a real shot at opportunity and equality," as Norman Hill, President of the A. Philip Randolph Institute points out in the February/March issue of the Public Perspective.

Roper presents extensive survey data supporting Hill's argument - that on most core social and political values, and personal ones too, the story is not one of sharp racial differences but of agreement across racial lines.

This said, Lipset is surely right in reminding us of the magnitude of America's historic exception in race relations to its otherwise defining commitments. It's long past time that we end this exception.

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