The Dynamics of American Politics: Approaches and Interpretations

By Lawrence C. Dodd; Calvin Jillson | Go to book overview

5
American Exceptionalism Reconsidered: Culture or Institutions?

SVEN H. STEINMO

America is one of the world's richest nations, yet its government takes a smaller percentage of this wealth than does any other democratic government in the world. I believe that the most obvious and common explanation for America's exceptionally small state -- that we have a uniquely individualistic political culture -- is wrong. It is clearly true that the rhetoric and symbolism of individualism is particularly strong in America. And it is also true that Americans are increasingly skeptical of their public institutions. I do not think, however, that these values and attitudes explain the size and structure of America's welfare state.

This chapter will present an institutionalist explanation for this country's small welfare state. I will suggest that the fragmentation of political power in America biases the political system in favor of certain kinds of interests and strategies, while it disadvantages others. This fragmentation profoundly shapes who can effectively participate in politics, how they must be organized, and what is possible to achieve -- irrespective of our ideologies or values. I argue further that the fragmentation of power and authority has stripped our political system of efficacy. When American governments do act, they too often act badly. In short, Americans have come to distrust their government because it doesn't work very well.


POLITICAL CULTURE AS AN EXPLANATORY VARIABLE

The cultural explanation for American exceptionalism is both plausible and logical: America is a country founded by immigrants who sought to escape oppressive governments. These people, moreover, were the most individualistic and entrepreneurial members of the societies they left. Thus America was built on antistatist beliefs and attitudes, on an unwillingness to defer to authority, and with emphasis on liberal freedoms and

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