The Promise of the Third Way: Globalization and Social Justice

By Otto Newman | Go to book overview
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9
American Exceptionalism Again?

Introduction

One of the great unsolved mysteries of American capitalism and society was why the US largely avoided the challenge to its legitimacy of a sustained socialist alternative. It was not as if capitalism was uniquely benign compared to developments elsewhere, nor without recourse to repression of trade unions and workers struggling to survive. Socialism did develop but only in a pallid version of the great struggles occurring in Europe at roughly the same time, and this in a country which had by the last decade of the nineteenth century the most advanced capitalist economy of them all. Just before the outbreak of the First World War, the socialist vote peaked at a mere 6 per cent, and the relative absence of a mass working-class party is reflected today in the weaker regulation of industry, less welfare, weaker unions, greater inequality and less government of all kinds ( Lipset and Marks, 2000). The difference between developments in the USA and elsewhere is referred to as ‘American Exceptionalism’, and has prompted much academic historical enquiry. The reasons advanced range from: the lack of a feudal past, individualism as a powerful corrective ideology, ethnic and racial diversity fuelled by constant immigration which acted to inhibit collectivism and party organization within a powerful two-party system based on a first-past-the-post voting system, and last but not least, plentiful employment providing a degree of security and ‘affluence’ throughout much of the nineteenth century.

At different times in American history it looked as if political change favoured the adoption of European-style social democratic practice, most notably with Roosevelt's New Deal reforms carried forward later

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