The Grumpy and Violent State of an Exceptionalist Nation

By McSween, Harold B. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

The Grumpy and Violent State of an Exceptionalist Nation


McSween, Harold B., The Virginia Quarterly Review


A Double-Edged Sword. By Seymour Martin Lipset. W. W. Norton. $27.50 and American Exceptionalism: The State of the Nation: Government and the Quest for a Better Society. By Derek Bok. Harvard. $35.00

Lipset the sociologist and political scientist has written his 23rd book, one he says he has been writing all his life. He also says he is trying to explain contemporary America by reference to its organizing principles and founding political institutions. America, he holds, developed as an outlier. It differs from older Western nations just as Japan, with the world's second-largest economy to ours, is seen as the Asian outlier. Our heritage, though, Lipset warns, cuts as a double-edged sword. Some of America's negative traits are linked to its admirable open democratic society. He lists four primary faults: income inequality, high crime rate, low electoral participation, and a tendency to moralize that verges on intolerance toward political and ethnic minorities.

Bok, the former president of Harvard University after an early career on the Harvard law faculty and there its dean, has responded to a commission to write about why the U.S. government seems to encounter dissatisfaction. He decided to write this initial volume to compare the progress here with that of other democratic nations. He wants to determine whether American pessimism is justified. If so, he wants to know whether the government should be blamed and to try to reach a balanced account of its strengths and weaknesses. In a sequel, he would make a deeper probe into why policies might not measure up. Bok is justified in his concern. According to a finding by the American Enterprise Institute and the Roper Center, trust in the Washington government fell from 76 percent in 1958 to 21 percent in 1997. This should alarm everybody.

These two valuable if ambitious-and surveyistic-works appear for vetting in juxtaposition. Both scholars reveal an anxiety about how the nation is responding to modernity. Most Americans live this angst without the benefit of such deep reflection and broad intellectual canvasses. It is a matter of concern that a citizenry blames local, state, and national governments in a decentralized federal system for inevitable difficulty with intractable conundrums. Voter participation has declined as information overwhelms through excess. Lipset and Bok provoke reflection as children take guns to school but cannot identify the founding fathers and as one of the nation's influential lobbies resists a response to a surfeit of handguns and of automatic weapons designed neither for sport nor self-protection.

Lipset reminds of our exceptional origin from a revolutionary event. The U.S. arose as the first new nation, other than Iceland, to gain independence-and that on an ideological footing instead of from a common history and by birthright. He posits the American Creed in five terms not a compatible fit: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, laissez-faire. He reviews the nation's intricate government, the product of a deliberate decision by our founders to create a weak and internally-conflicted system. The Constitution was written by delegates wary of a central government. They represented former colonies that themselves were nascent nations. This followed a war not supported by an enthusiastic majority of colonials-the first of two American civil wars instead of a revolution, according to Samuel Eliot Morison in The Oxford History of the American People (1965) and C. Vann Woodward in The Future of the Past (1989), a view that could alter a premise. The new Constitution reserved all but specific delegated powers to the several states. It established a divided national government through a byzantine separation of powers: a president, two chambers of Congress, a federal judiciary.

Some complain now of the very gridlock intended but also of a bloated and insensitive bureaucracy unintended. American exceptionalism, or millenarianism, as some saw it, antedates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. …

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