Still the Exceptional Nation?

By Lipset, Seymour Martin | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Still the Exceptional Nation?


Lipset, Seymour Martin, The Wilson Quarterly


At the dawn of a new century, the United States finds itself in a position of surprising dominance around the world. It has been a triumph of ideas and values perhaps even more than of power, and the victory has critics worrying about the homogenizing effects on the world. But what, a noted scholar asks, about the effects on America?

Was Karl Marx right? More than 100 years ago, he declared in Capital that "the country that is the most developed shows to the less developed the image of their future," and his early followers had little doubt that the United States was that most developed harbinger country. "Americans will be the first to usher in a Socialist republic," declared the German Social Democrat August Bebel in 1907 -- even though the American Socialist Party was faring miserably at the polls while his own party held many seats in the Reichstag. Only after the Russian Revolution in 1917 did the Left and its liberal sympathizers begin to look elsewhere for a vision of the future. Now Europe set the standard and America followed -- all too sluggishly, in the minds of many.

How could the world's most advanced capitalist society also be the most impervious to the socialist idea? Even the Great Depression failed to alter its course -- America's minuscule Socialist and Communist parties emerged from the 1930s with even less support than they had enjoyed at the beginning of the decade. The American experience cast doubt on the inner logic of historical materialism, the essential Marxist doctrine which holds that the shape of a nation's culture and politics is determined by underlying economic and technological forces. The question engaged the attention of many socialists, as well as Lenin and Trotsky; Stalin attended a special commission of the Communist International on "the American Question."

What was a source of perplexity to some was, of course, a source of pride to others. To scholars, it was a phenomenon in need of explanation. Out of this puzzlement came the rebirth of the idea of "American exceptionalism," a concept first developed by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835--40). The young Frenchman wrote that the United States, the lone successful democracy of his time, differed from all the European nations in lacking a feudal past and in being more socially egalitarian, more meritocratic, more individualistic, more rights-oriented, and more religious. These American tendencies were reinforced by the country's religious commitment to the "nonconformist," largely congregationally organized Protestant sects, which emphasized the individual's personal relationship with God, a relationship that was not mediated by state-supported, hierarchically organized churches of the kind that prevailed in Europe.

In 19th-century America, the ideology of the American Revolution was transformed into an all-encompassing liberalism stressing liberty, antistatism, and individualism. In Europe, a dominant conservativism was wedded to the state--it was conservatives such as Britain's Benjamin Disraeli, for example, who invented the welfare state--and it naturally gave birth to state-centered opposition, social democracy. Because its liberal ideology stifled the emergence of a state-centered opposition, the United States became an anomaly.

Today, however, the United States once again finds itself the apparent image of the future. Not only is it the world's sole superpower and its economic colossus, but it seems to be pointing the way toward the political future. The American political system, long considered an aberration because its two main parties embrace liberal capitalism, now looks like the model for the developed world.

Nothing symbolizes this change more dramatically than the political pep, rally cum summit meeting that brought four social democratic heads of government to Washington last April under the auspices of America's centrist Democratic Leadership Council. …

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