Lipset – American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword
Chapter One: Ideology, Politics, and Deviance
America, unlike other countries, is organized around an ideology, not a language or shared national narrative. Liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire philosophy are at the root of what it is to be American. Opposing these values, in some sense, is “un-American”, a unique adjective, since nothing can be “un-English” or “un-Swedish”.
America, as a result, has neither a true conservative party nor a socialist party. Both of America’s major parties would fit within Britain’s old Liberal Party.
The notion of “American exceptionalism” first gained renown as an explanation for why labor was not a strong political force in America, like it was in Europe. The idea is that culturally, Americans believe so strongly in individualism that socialism has no constituency. Thus, though Marxist logic predicts America should have been the first country to have a socialist revolution, it never really came close.
There is extensive literature on this: from Crevecoeur to Tocqueville to Engels, Weber, and contemporary writers, a frequent topic of discussion has been whether America is fundamentally different from other societies, and why. Part of the reason, it seems, is differences between Europe and the Americas, but some things are unique to the United States.
Liberalism, Conservatism, and Americanism
America is often described as a conservative country, but really, it may be “the most classically liberal polity in the developed world”. In other countries, old-fashioned conservatism merged with socialist parties to form welfare states, based in part on notions of noblesse oblige (think Bismarck).
What Europeans consider “liberal”, Americans consider “conservative”. American liberalism is basically just a slightly less libertarian strain of European liberalism; it is not socialism. Real socialists (say, Dennis Kucinich) are on the ideological margins of American politics. European conservatism, rather than emphasizing limited government and individual freedom, believes in the right of the community to restrain freedom for the common good.
American politics have changed somewhat since the early 20th century, with the Progressive movement and the New Deal making government intervention more acceptable. Still, Americans remain far more anti-statist than their European counterparts. Even the American labor movement, for a long time, was anti-statist, favoring more union power (not more state power), and with a deep strain of anarchism present, evident in the IWW (even the AFL had anarchist overtones in its early days).
Though the New Deal was not socialist, it led to a “Europeanization” of American politics that lasted until Reagan. The revival of classical liberalism in America is one of the distinctive political traits that make America exceptional.
Why is any of this relevant?
At first it might not seem that the Lipset reading has much to do with foreign policy; it talks more about ideological differences regarding domestic economic intervention. But the point is that if Americans are exceptional in that they have a distinctive ideology, it might explain why Americans conduct their foreign policy differently from Europe as well. All of the five strains Lipset identifies (liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire philosophy), have relevance for international relations. Moreover, Americans might be more likely to conduct their foreign policy along ideological (rather than realist) lines than other countries, where there is no unifying national ideology, just a national interest. In America, our national interest, to some degree, is our national ideology.