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American Exceptionalism: Home of Equality or Opportunity?

by oldfrog Sun Jan 14th, 2007 at 07:39:34 PM EST

I found the following interesting topic on TPM café :

American Exceptionalism: Home of Equality or Opportunity?

By Jo-Ann Mort

David Brooks has a provocative column in today's New York Times about American exceptionalism. It's an homage to Seymour Martin Lipset, the monumental political sociologist who died on New Year's Eve, and who was the intellectual most responsible for the phrase "American exceptionalism" entering modern political discourse.

Lipset, who died in his eighties,was a democrat and Democrat was born of the era when defense of the social welfare state meant defending a commitment to a social democratic ethos of equality. He spent decades examining why the trade union movement was among the weakest in the industrial world, and why Americans believed in a non-class based system. Brooks posits the notion of equality against opportunity, and challenges the Democratic Party to listen to those centrists who promote "opportunity" against the leftward populists who "advocate an activist state." The question is, however, how can we become a nation of true opportunity without the state making certain interventions. This is not only where the Democrats and Republicans part ways, but where the Democrats and the Democrats part ways.

While the election last November was more about Iraq than anything else, as will be the 2008 presidential election, this underlying debate of how all Americans can enhance their ability to be equal is also a critical debate. That's where a Jim Webb comes in and where the new found populism surging following the congressional election will play out. It's a critical debate to be had in the Democratic Party--it encompasses how we debate issues like trade, health care, job creation, public education, taxation and more. Equality is impossible to achieve flying on a wing and prayer of personal responsibility and opportunity means little to those who have little.

An interesting economic argument is beginning along these lines. Check out the Economic Policy Institute for their introduction of a new economic agenda for the nation, released this week. John Edwards is clearly banking his presidential bid on the American people feeling the populist nod. How the others in the Democratic field promote issues of equality will indeed make a big difference in who takes the lead for the party and the nation.


I haven't access to the original article, not being a subscriber to the NYT.

But the issue is surely worth to discuss by Eurotribbers, since it relates to the actual "European exceptionalism" as some want to present it today...

Americans want to lead a decent life just like other people do, and most have no problem with the state intervening in the economy to make that possible. So America is not exceptional in that way. How it is exceptional is that its government is much more corrupt than that of most European countries. For that reason, the government does not act in the general (public) interest, but rather in the special interests of those groups which have captured the state.

A bomb, H bomb, Minuteman / The names get more attractive / The decisions are made by NATO / The press call it British opinion -- The Three Johns
by Alexander on Sun Jan 14th, 2007 at 08:42:16 PM EST
American exceptionalism is a much wider concept
by oldfrog on Sun Jan 14th, 2007 at 09:28:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was responding to the title and first sentence of Friedman's op-ed, which I take it are representative of the whole thing, especially judging by Jo-Ann Mort's blog entry. If you want to discuss American exceptionalism in the wider sense, you're free to do so.

A bomb, H bomb, Minuteman / The names get more attractive / The decisions are made by NATO / The press call it British opinion -- The Three Johns
by Alexander on Sun Jan 14th, 2007 at 11:01:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How it is exceptional is that its government is much more corrupt than that of most European countries

You've got to be kidding me. Name me a major European country that is clearly less corrupt than the US. Last I checked Chirac et Cie. were still in power. Berlusconi was until very recently. The CDU ain't exactly a model of probity. Tons of corruption scandals under various Spanish governments. And don't even get me started on Poland.

by MarekNYC on Mon Jan 15th, 2007 at 03:08:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The kind of corruption I was writing about doesn't involve breaking the law. It is Congressmen being dependent upon campaign contributions from corporations and other special interests to get elected. That leads to lobbies writing legislation, and the normal outcome being that voters' wishes are ignored.

This is why universal health care is viewed as a non-starter in Washington, even though a vast majority of Americans want it. Washington is so corrupt that what would be viewed as corruption in other countries—dollars instead of votes determining what Congress legislatess—is viewed as quite normal, simply "the way the system works".

A bomb, H bomb, Minuteman / The names get more attractive / The decisions are made by NATO / The press call it British opinion -- The Three Johns

by Alexander on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 03:59:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Alexander has a point here : the financing of the electoral system (presidential etc..) would be illegal in most European countries. Most of the French corruption scandals (besides some expensive flats and cronyism) are about illegal financing of political parties. The new laws passed some decade ago, make that these practices have been widely reduced. Top politicians like Juppe have been recently indicted and condemned for illegal funding, but it's very rare that you find politicians putting BIG money in their own pockets.
by oldfrog on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 04:23:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is why universal health care is viewed as a non-starter in Washington, even though a vast majority of Americans want it.  

Sort of. That vast majority drops fast when you get into the details. And then you have the problem of America's de facto super majority system for legislation. Given a large minority of the population that will oppose whatever plan you come up with and the need of sixty votes to pass legislation in the senate, seeing the insurance lobby as the only major obstacle seems simplistic to me.

And if you think that Chirac and company don't have an incestuous relationship with corporate interests, well...

by MarekNYC on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 04:39:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Too bad Brooks is behind a subscription wall! (His article begins: "The American Way of Equality: Will Americans demand new policies to redistribute wealth, to provide greater economic security?") As a substitute, I recommend this commentary by James K. Galbraith (it is been cited a couple of times at EuroTrib): The Predator State
In the mixed-economy America I grew up in, there existed a post-capitalist, post-Marxian vision of middle-class identity. It consisted of shared assets and entitlements, of which the bedrock was public education, access to college, good housing, full employment at living wages, Medicare, and Social Security. These programs, publicly provided, financed, or guaranteed, had softened the rough edges of Great Depression capitalism, rewarding the sacrifices that won the Second World War. They also showcased America, demonstrating to those behind the Iron Curtain that regulated capitalism could yield prosperity far beyond the capacities of state planning. (This, and not the arms race, ultimately brought down the Soviet empire.) These middle-class institutions survive in America today, but they are frayed and tattered from constant attack. And the division between those included and those excluded is large and obvious to all.

Today, the signature of modern American capitalism is neither benign competition, nor class struggle, nor an inclusive middle-class utopia. Instead, predation has become the dominant feature--a system wherein the rich have come to feast on decaying systems built for the middle class. The predatory class is not the whole of the wealthy; it may be opposed by many others of similar wealth. But it is the defining feature, the leading force. And its agents are in full control of the government under which we live.

Our rulers deliver favors to their clients. These range from Native American casino operators, to Appalachian coal companies, to Saipan sweatshop operators, to the would-be oil field operators of Iraq. They include the misanthropes who led the campaign to abolish the estate tax; Charles Schwab, who suggested the dividend tax cut of 2003; the "Benedict Arnold" companies who move their taxable income offshore; and the financial institutions behind last year's bankruptcy bill. Everywhere you look, public decisions yield gains to specific private entities.

For in a predatory regime, nothing is done for public reasons. Indeed, the men in charge do not recognize that "public purposes" exist. They have friends, and enemies, and as for the rest--we're the prey. Hurricane Katrina illustrated this perfectly, as Halliburton scooped up contracts and Bush hamstrung Kathleen Blanco, the Democratic governor of Louisiana. The population of New Orleans was, at best, an afterthought; once dispersed, it was quickly forgotten.

   The whole article is worth reading. (I have not followed my own advice yet.)

A bomb, H bomb, Minuteman / The names get more attractive / The decisions are made by NATO / The press call it British opinion -- The Three Johns
by Alexander on Sun Jan 14th, 2007 at 09:06:08 PM EST
Just read it, Alexander, and I think Galbraith hits as close as it is possible to hit on what has happened in US since Reagan.

This subject deserves serious analysis(think the phenom turned up first in Britain with Thatcher), with more reason and citation than rhetorical self-satisfied European snark and flammibles that has thus far dominated the discussion.

And thanks OldFrog, for keeping the "American Exceptionalism" pole-ax in the armory.

Maybe we can have a serious discussion on the issue.

Will write more tomorrow.

"When the abyss stares at me, it wets its pants." Brian Hopkins

by EricC on Mon Jan 15th, 2007 at 12:25:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually, once I read all of Galbraith's essay (and not just the paragraphs I posted), I was a bit disappointed. That's because he didn't relate the predatory economics he speaks of to capitalism in general.

So I would suggest supplementing his essay with the following speculations.

Let's say there are three kinds of capitalism: unrestrained capitalism, regulated capitalism, and predatory capitalism. Clearly, it is possible to imagine economies falling under the unrestrained/unregulated capitalist model that don't exhibit the predatory qualities that Galbraith writes about. So how does one relate the two?

Well, as we know since Hegel (Marx simply followed him here), unregulated capitalism leads to an increasing differentiation between the rich and the poor, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Sooner or later, this begins to undermine the political principle that each individual's voice must be considered equally, no matter how much income or wealth that person has. In other words, when the difference between the wealthy and the rest of the population, not to mention the poor, becomes sufficiently extreme, it is inevitable that the wealthy acquire a dispraportionate influence over the political system. And that gets you to predatory capitalism. In other words, unregulated capitalism inevitably leads to predatory capitalism (unless society comes to its senses and regulates the economy), but the two represent different periods of historical development.

A bomb, H bomb, Minuteman / The names get more attractive / The decisions are made by NATO / The press call it British opinion -- The Three Johns

by Alexander on Mon Jan 15th, 2007 at 04:39:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I wonder when Galbraith starting using this language.

Hubert Vedrine, former foreign minister of France, has been writing very similar if not same for quite some time now.

Love Galbraith, but on this, I think he's picking up Vedrine's ball and running with it.

Certainly no knock-ons in politics though, play on.

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Mon Jan 15th, 2007 at 04:04:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
in his Après l'empire (2002), speaks of l"Amerique predatrice". This is with regards to its "foreign policy". Do you think Todd got that from Vedrine, or the other way around? (I don't know anything about Vedrine.)

A bomb, H bomb, Minuteman / The names get more attractive / The decisions are made by NATO / The press call it British opinion -- The Three Johns
by Alexander on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 04:06:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hasn't Lenin been first ?

"Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism"

"...Monopolies, oligarchy, the striving for domination and not for liberty, the exploitation of an increasing number of small or weak nations by a handful of the richest or most powerful nations -- all these have given birth to those distinctive characteristics of imperialism which compel us to define it as parasitic or decaying capitalism. More and more prominently there emerges, as one of the tendencies of imperialism, the creation of the "rentier state", the usurer state, in which the bourgeoisie to an ever-increasing degree lives on the proceeds of capital exports and by "clipping coupons". It would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay precludes the rapid growth of capitalism. It does not. In the epoch of imperialism, certain branches of industry, certain strata of the bourgeoisie and certain countries betray, to a greater or lesser degree, now one and now another of these tendencies. On the whole, capitalism is growing far more rapidly than before; but this growth is not only becoming more and more uneven in general, its unevenness also manifests itself, in particular, in the decay of the countries which are richest in capital..."

good old Vladimir Illitch...

by oldfrog on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 04:36:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wonder what he would think today, having thought he called the top once?

He'd at least have to write a second edition.

"When the abyss stares at me, it wets its pants." Brian Hopkins

by EricC on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 04:55:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
societies would do better to look at the reality they exist as and within, and at their exceptional failings. This whole arrogant and ethnocentric notion of American Exceptionalism has done nothing to help Americans or any other members of the human race and hopefully Europeans will not go down this flawed route of national or continental superiority.
by observer393 on Mon Jan 15th, 2007 at 12:11:35 AM EST
A commenter, Tony Foresta, wrote this at TPM, with which I heartily concur:

Here is where the mangling, distortion, and shapeshifting of language deceives us, and alters the basic discourse. ""American exceptionalism" morphed too easily into a rhetorical justification for what George Soros apty terms "Supremist America." The applications of descriptives are critical.

Exceptionalism in terms of providing equality in and access to economic, political and social opportunties entirely diffenent and nobler application or use of the term, than the Bush government current mangling of Exceptionalism as a fundamentalist... assertion of a supremist ideology.

Any discourse along these lines must consider and carefully mark the astronomical divides and disconnects between the academic and rhetorical definitions, and the actual practical real world applications of these terms and ideologies.

"When the abyss stares at me, it wets its pants." Brian Hopkins

by EricC on Mon Jan 15th, 2007 at 07:49:53 AM EST
Just read some reviews of Lipset's American Exceptionalism.

They are interesting in what they say obliquely. The first, Publisher's Review is most interesting:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/product-description/0393316149/ref=dp_proddesc_0/105-9631699-272843 2?ie=UTF8&n=283155&s=books

Then I checked out Lipset's biography:


1975-1990 Professor at Stanford University.
During the last quater of his life he was a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution(Stanford University), and Hazel Professor of Public Policy(George Mason University, Virginia). This at a time George Mason was attempting to hire nationally known rightish academics to improve it's academic street cred.

In 1960, the world changes for Lipset.

The word begins with n and ends with n and contains six letters.

Why would any leftist care what Lipset thought?

I certainly wouldn't buy a book on American labor history or cultural history that he wrote.

"When the abyss stares at me, it wets its pants." Brian Hopkins

by EricC on Mon Jan 15th, 2007 at 06:51:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That Americans think of themselves as something special is not new, de Tocqueville wrote about it in detail (1835).

The US has several foundational myths, a good book which goes into this is Richard T. Hughes - Myths America Lives By.

The publisher's blub linked above gives a summary of his thesis on the four types of exceptionalism.

One of the reasons there is so much dissent in the US at present is that the failure of these myths to match reality is causing a rethinking of the basis of US society. Some are retreating into escapism, either by consumerism or by religion, some are developing modified versions of the old myths as seen by the new varieties of neo-con ideas, and some are still denying reality altogether.

However, you can't fool mother nature...

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Mon Jan 15th, 2007 at 09:25:47 AM EST

The primary resistance to the advance of Gramscian ideas comes from an opposing quarter that I will call contemporary Tocquevillianism. Its representatives take Alexis de Tocqueville's essentially empirical description of American exceptionalism and celebrate the traits of this exceptionalism as normative values to be embraced. As Tocqueville noted in the 1830s (and as the World Values Survey, a scholarly comparative assessment, reaffirmed in the 1990s), Americans are different from Europeans in several crucial respects. Two recent books -- Seymour Martin Lipset's American Exceptionalism (1997) and Michael Ledeen's Tocqueville on American Character (2000) -- have made much the same point: that Americans today, just as in Tocqueville's time, are much more individualistic, religious, and patriotic than the people of any other comparably advanced nation.

What was particularly exceptional for Tocqueville (and contemporary Tocquevillians) is the singular American path to modernity. Unlike other modernists, Americans combined strong religious and patriotic beliefs with dynamic, restless entrepreneurial energy that emphasized equality of individual opportunity and eschewed hierarchical and ascriptive group affiliations. The trinity of American exceptionalism could be described as (1) dynamism (support for equality of individual opportunity, entrepreneurship, and economic progress); (2) religiosity (emphasis on character development, mores, and voluntary cultural associations) that works to contain the excessive individual egoism that dynamism sometimes fosters; and (3) patriotism (love of country, self-government, and support for constitutional limits).

Among today's Tocquevillians we could include public intellectuals William Bennett, Michael Novak, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Marvin Olasky, Norman Podhoretz, and former Clinton White House advisor and political philosopher William Galston, and scholars Wilfred McClay, Harvey Mansfield, and Walter MacDougall. Neoconservatives, traditional conservatives of the National Review-Heritage Foundation stripe, some students of political philosopher Leo Strauss, and some centrist Democrats are Tocquevillian in their emphasis on America's special path to modernity that combines aspects of the pre-modern (emphasis on religion, objective truth, and transcendence) with the modern (self-government, constitutional liberalism, entrepreneurial enterprise). The writings of neoconservative Irving Kristol and National Review-style conservative Charles Kesler clarify this special American path to modernity. Like thoughtful scholars before them, both make a sharp distinction between the moderate (and positive) Enlightenment (of Locke, Montesquieu, and Adam Smith) that gave birth to the American Revolution and the radical (and negative) Enlightenment (Condorcet and the philosophes) that gave birth to the Revolution in France.

Like their ideological opposites, Tocquevillians are also represented in business and government. In the foundation world, prevailing Gramscian ideas have been challenged by scholars funded by the Bradley, Olin, and Scaife foundations. For example, Michael Joyce of Bradley has called his foundation's approach "Tocquevillian" and supported associations and individuals that foster moral and religious underpinnings to self-help and civic action. At the same time, Joyce called in "On Self-Government" (Policy Review, July-August 1998) for challenging the "political hegemony" of the service providers and "scientific managers" who run the "therapeutic state" that Tocqueville feared would result in "an immense and tutelary" power that threatened liberty. As for the political world, a brief list of those influenced by the Tocquevillian side of the argument would include, for example, Sen. Daniel Coats of Indiana, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. All have supported Tocquevillian initiatives and employed Tocquevillian language in endorsing education and welfare measures that emphasize the positive contributions of faith and responsibility.


by oldfrog on Mon Jan 15th, 2007 at 10:23:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The part of de Tocqueville's analysis that neo-cons seem to overlook is his criticism of American materialism. In his world "gentlemen" (that is the aristocracy) went into public service as a disinterested effort. Since their source of funds was from their family wealth they could devote themselves to social causes. After all the purpose of his trip was to study the US prison system.

The Americans, according to him, were mostly interested in making money. Only those who couldn't succeed in this effort went into politics. The result was a succession of second-rate leaders. We see a similar dynamic these days. Those most adept at innovation go into business while dimmer bulbs go into politics. What is new is that those entering politics now see it as a way to self aggrandizement. The US has turned into a kleptocracy.

You won't find the neo-cons talking about this discrepancy between the national myths and reality. Those with neither the brains to make it in business or the greed to become kleptocrats end up as intellectual prostitutes (also known as "pundits").

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Mon Jan 15th, 2007 at 11:18:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are some interesting nuggets in that article, but they're marred by being embedded in an ultrareactionary and distorted understanding of modern American society.

What is it about some lefties that they seem to lack the confidence in their own values and feel as if it somehow bolsters their arguments to point to people on the far right who happen to agree with them on some issues. In this case someone straight out of the most paleo fifties National Review vision of the world. Someone whose political ideology is directly descended from de Maistre agrees with you. Given that his reasons for doing so rest on values that are diametrically opposed to yours, it is not something which reinforces your position. If anything the opposite.

It seems to be primarily an anglo-saxon disorder. You don't get this in France and Germany, or at least I haven't noticed it.

by MarekNYC on Mon Jan 15th, 2007 at 03:25:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think there is an issue that we in Europe see American Exceptionalism in its international mnifestation. Wheras much of the discussion about it should really focus on its domestic impact, as the "5 myths" books exemplifies.

I think the crisis in american self-confidence is more related to the analysis that Will Hutton applied in response to the diea of global competition leading to job loss. It is more related to the inevitable result of the Anglo-american capitalist model destroying the economic environment that sustains it.


In Britain and America a business culture has developed where the share price is the be-all and end-all. Under desperately weak and unreformed corporate governance arrangements, CEOs have in effect written their own pay deals.

To deliver higher share prices, they have embarked on the world's biggest takeover boom. In hard cash, the cumulative value of deals in the US between 1995 and 2005 was over $9 trillion. In Britain over the past three years there has been a no less astonishing £500bn worth of deals. These are the chief driver of job losses and downsizing - and typically for negligible productivity gains.

The "enlightenment" obstacles to this - regulation, a sense of long-term ownership, media scrutiny, competition rules, strong trade unions and a belief in equality - have been progressively weakened. Western capitalism is losing its embedded checks and balances, its morality and, ultimately, its legitimacy.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Jan 15th, 2007 at 03:00:10 PM EST
You are probably right. Christian fundamentalists, with their absurd belief that Jesus was a free marketeer, would oppose any sensible plan.

A bomb, H bomb, Minuteman / The names get more attractive / The decisions are made by NATO / The press call it British opinion -- The Three Johns
by Alexander on Tue Jan 16th, 2007 at 07:24:18 PM EST

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