The First New Nation: The United States in Historical States in Historical and Comparative Perspective

By Seymour Martin Lipset | Go to book overview

Introduction

There has been a quite extraordinary number of books published in recent years that seek to analyze American society. Among those most widely read and talked about have been the works of Vance Packard, especially The Status Seekers; The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills; The Organization Man by William H. Whyte; The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman; Image of America by R. L. Bruckberger; America as a Civilization by Max Lerner; and the Self-Conscious Society by Eric Larrabee. These and other works arrive at roughly two sorts of conclusions :

According to the first view, America suffers from elaborate corruption in business and labor, and in law enforcement practices; from a growing concentration of business power; from the influences of mass media run by entertainment tycoons who satisfy the lowest common denominator in popular taste; and from a wasteful expenditure of resources directed to the enhancement of social status.

According to the other view, America is an affluent, highly democratic society in which the distribution of income, of status symbols, and of opportunities for social mobility is becoming more even-handed all the time; in which tolerance for differences in culture, religion, and race is growing; and in which demand for the best in art, literature, and music is increasing.

This book tries, in part, to reconcile these two pictures. To look at America in a comparative and historical context is to point up the fact that such contrasts have distinguished American society through its history. The contrasts, moreover, are linked to two basic American values—equality and achievement. These values, though related, are not entirely compatible; each has given rise to reactions which threaten the other.

When I say that we value equality, I mean that we believe all persons must be given respect simply because they are human beings; we believe that the differences between high- and low-status people reflect accidental, and perhaps temporary, variations in social relationships. This

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