Seymour Martin Lipset is
a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University.
He is a past president of the Sociological Research Association, the American Sociological Association, the American Political Science Association and the World Association for Public Opinion Research.
He is the author of American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword; Political Man; The Politics of Unreason; The First New Nation, and other works.
Seymour Martin Lipset
QUESTION: How did Frederick Jackson Turner account for the differences between America and Europe?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Well, Frederick Jackson Turner, who was a very prominent and important historian, emphasized the fact that the United States was a society which moved West, [which] made the country a much more open system than Europe. European society was more densely populated. There was no open land [to which] people [could go to] start farms, towns. And so one of the things that made America different from Europe was the fact that it was a frontier society, that it had a frontier.
But then, in his judgment, the frontier ended at the turn of the century, and this for him meant that there would be a qualitative change in the character of America. And America without a frontier would necessarily be a different sort of place. He assumed that this meant opportunity would decline, that a more fixed class system would emerge.
QUESTION: How did the frontier set America apart from other countries?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: The difference between the American society and European society is fairly clear and fairly obvious. Europe is much more stratified, Europeans had a feudalism with a greater respect for the privileged classes. The United States was called a settler society, formed by people coming here.
But it wasn't the only settler society. Canada is a settler society in the same sense that the United States is. Australia is a settler society, New Zealand, Argentina, [some] Latin American countries [are settler societies]. And [so you might think that] they all should look like the United States. [But] they don't, in large part, because their history is different. It's not only the frontier which [accounts] for America being exceptional.
If you look at Canada and the United States, [despite their similarities,] these are two quite different countries. [One] striking difference between their [frontier and ours is evident in] the Indian wars. The biggest event which is commemorated - or commiserated - in the American-Indian wars was Sitting Bull's and the Sioux's triumph over Custer and the army, where they wiped out the whole American Army that faced it, that whole eight hundred or so.
Well, the history books don't tell you what happened [next] to the Sioux. After they finished with Custer, they moved North, and they crossed the Canadian frontier border, and they surrendered to six Mounties. And one of the reasons for this is that the Indians felt that the word of the Canadians could be trusted. [They knew] that treaties were made [with] the Canadian government [and they] were maintained. Treaties were made with the United States and they weren't maintained.
And, again, if you trace this back, Canada had a frontier in which central authority - first the fur companies, later Ottawa - maintained control over the frontier. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were the authority there. They came there before the settlers came, and retained authority. The American frontier was a populace frontier. They had sheriffs [who] were responsible to the population. And the local populace dictated social relations on the American frontier, and they were interested in more land, they were interested in making money, and they really had no respect for the rights of the Indians. So, you might have a treaty that [said] the Black Hills, or the Dakotas, were supposed to be Indian [territory]. But then you find gold there, and that's the end of [the treaty] because the settlers simply moved in and took over. You couldn't do that in the same way in Canada.
Australia, again, is quite a different place. Australia, while much of it is desert, it has less water and the like, and [so it] didn't have the kind of small farms in most of the country that you had in the United States, and for that matter, in Canada. [Instead,] you had big sheep stations, enormous farms, some of which went hundreds of miles, and had hundreds of workers. So these were sort of like rural factories, and there [was] strong trade unionism. And [so you had] class relations in the Australian frontier which one couldn't get in the United States. Latin America is still another case.
QUESTION: What did Turner mean when he called the frontier a "safety valve"?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: When Turner spoke of the frontier as a safety valve, he meant, in part, a political safety valve. Namely, that people who were troublemakers, people who wanted to change the society, people who were frustrated because they'd lost their job or gone bankrupt - instead of trying to change things at home, make a revolution, or what-not - took up and went to the frontier to start all over again. And that was not possible in other societies. So the frontier was a place that helped [release] the pressure, [that's what a] safety valve implies. The pressure was reduced because people could go there.
QUESTION: What precisely does the term "American exceptionalism" mean?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: The term "exceptionalism" has been used in different ways. One, [as] Tocqueville [used it], simply refers to the fact that America is qualitatively different from Europe, and he mentioned a lot of things, but the class structure was particularly important for him, [the religious differences were] important.
A second meaning of [exceptionalism], which you find in later literature, was used by many American radicals, and radicals in Europe also. [What] they meant [by] exceptionalism was that every other country - every other industrialized country - had a large socialist movement, labor party. The United States never had a significant labor party or socialist movement. Hence, it was exceptional.
The third meaning is a more generic or more general meaning, namely that [American society] is qualitatively different from other societies in all sorts of ways - some good ways and some bad ways. I wrote a book some years ago, American Exceptionalism: The Double-Edged Sword. The double-edged sword refers to the fact that America is different in good ways and in bad ways. And, you know, we can list the various good ways. But, you know, we have a very high crime rate; we have very high rate of violence; we have a low rate of voting. We have more people in prison now than any other country has. Well, in that way, you could say America is [also] exceptional.
Well, you know, we have an exceptional class structure, and so the positive and the negative are both different, both exceptional. And, in fact, one can suggest that these are related, the good and the bad.
QUESTION: Can you give a specific example of how the good and the bad aspects of American exceptionalism are connected?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: We're a populist country, [where] the people have more power to elect. But we also have a very low voting rate. And these two get connected. There are over 500,000 elected positions in the United States, counting dog catcher[s], and county officers, and mayors, and so forth. In most European countries, the number of elected officers run into the thousands. In some countries they run into the hundreds. And we have many elections; they have relatively fewer elections.
Well, I would suggest the fact that we have many elections reduces the number of people voting, that people are tired of voting, that they don't see the point of it. They're constantly approached to vote. So, in a sense you can go overboard, which I think in some respects the United States has. So these get connected.
QUESTION: What prompted Frederick Jackson Turner's concerns about American society?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Well, there was a lot of conflict in the late nineteenth century. There were strikes, violence, radical movements. And this, people began to see as European. [They began to think] that the country was going to the European direction. The cities, of course, had slums, and those are dirty things. We've always had for a long time in the United States a "Mr. Clean" syndrome of people who see the dirt that's there. And they used to be called conservationists before World War I, and Teddy Roosevelt was one of the progressives.
And the cities, particularly with immigrant slums, were seen as changing the country. [So] you had anti-immigrant movements, because they thought the immigrants were undermining the nature of American society. It wasn't just a question of economic competition with immigrants, but for many - particularly the better-educated elements - it's that [the immigrants] were [actually] dirtying the society. And in this context, they really didn't want them.
And all of this harks back to [the ideas of Thomas] Jefferson. Because, for Jefferson, cities were a bad thing. Jefferson thought that America was great as an open rural society of yeoman farmers, of self-employed farmers. And, of course, he then saw it, like Turner, as different from Europe. Europe was primarily a rural society, but the Europeans were peasants, were underlings who had to bow down to the people above them. Whereas, America was a system in which the independent farmer not only was economically independent but he was politically independent.
[But, now] workers in the city, workers in the factory, weren't [economically or politically independent anymore].
QUESTION: Was the Lynds' study of Middletown an attempt to chronicle the growing class struggle in America?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Well, the Lynds, of course, did focus on class relations. But there was an unfortunate thing about the choice of Muncie because in the book there's a family called the X Family, which dominates. And this family of the Balls, they own, I think, the glass factory, the biggest factory in town. And the thing about it was that that was one family controlled, one industry controlled [the town]. So, [for] Muncie, it wasn't just class [that determined the power structure], it was the control of a family and an industry. And this was not true for many other cities, and many other places. So, I think you've got an exaggeration of power. Power in Muncie clearly was power of the rich, of this family. To get ahead [people] had to be able to work with this dominant group.
But seeing class and class conflict [in America] was very prevalent [at the time of the Lynd's study]. But [in America, that] conflict never took the form of a socialist party which would try to transform the democracy. But it did take the form of militant unions, unions which, again, were not socialist. In fact, some people [who] have written about them have made the mistake, to my mind, of calling them conservative. And they weren't conservative; they were what in the labor history is syndicalist. They believed in workers' power, they increased power of the workers. But [they didn't believe in] taking over factories, and nationalizing industry, and so forth. So that the old American Federation of Labor under Sam Gompers was a very militant organization which not only struck, but also engaged in violence. And this was an environment [in which] the Lynds were operating.
QUESTION: Did Muncie, Indiana [Middletown] represent the typical American town?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Well, you know, Middletown - if you think of it as being somewhat of a typical American town - exhibits a number of things which we think of as American. One is this pride in country, and pride in place. The people in Middletown were very proud of America, they were also very proud about Muncie, proud of their community. And this kind of boosterism certainly was very prevalent in Muncie. I think Muncie was [also] typical in its religiosity in its churchgoing habits, which again is a very American thing.
QUESTION: How did the American sense of pride in their country figure into the idea of American exceptionalism?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: The whole idea that Americans have pride in the country, gets into another meaning of [American exceptionalism], that [the country] was providential, that it was God's country, that it was the New Jerusalem. Which, you know, the [American] Revolution was thought of, as creating a new and better society, that the hand of Providence, the hand of God was on the country. And, clearly, many of the people before the Civil War, particularly in the North, thought of it in these terms.
In fact, there was an interesting event which sort of reinforced this. You know, the two men who were most important to the Declaration of Independence were Thomas Jefferson, who wrote it, and John Adams, who [as a member of] the Committee of the Free, really pushed Jefferson into writing it. Well, these two men [both] died on July 4th, 1826, which was 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
When the country learned of this, the notion developed that this was proof positive that this was a providential country. That this couldn't be coincidence that these two men would have died on the same day, the same way, and that God, after these 50 years, had taken back his two servants that had helped found America. And it reinforced this sense that this was the providential country, the country of the New Jerusalem, and the essence that we were a better country, a superior country, a country that set a model for the rest of the world. And the notion that somehow we were a better society, more democratic society, a freer society, a wealthier society, a more religious society.
Today, we have opinion polls taken in almost every country. And if you ask people in different countries to react to the statement, "I'm proud to be an American; I'm proud to be British; I'm proud to be Russian; I'm proud to be whatever," a much larger percentage of Americans will say "I'm proud to be an American" than will people from other countries. I think it's in the 90th percentiles. The British, who are second, are in the 70s. And other countries roll down.
So, you find [that] this positive feeling about the country is very strong within the United States. And it's [a feeling for which] we don't have quantitative measures going back into the nineteenth century. But we have what's known as the foreign travel literature, [written by] the thousands of foreigners, mostly Europeans, who came to the United States to study it. And [these writers] comment on the extent to which Americans boast of their country. And people, many of these people, felt that this was kind of vulgar, that you don't do this.
QUESTION: Do you see any parallels between Middletown in the 1920s and America today?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: Americans today could understand the 1920s, because the 1920s [were] a period of enormous prosperity, of [nearly] full employment, of tremendous growth of consumer goods, and of a great deal of satisfaction, because things were going well. People looked forward to the country doing better, and they looked forward to themselves doing better. The Lynds were, I think, a bit cynical about this, because they had more of a critical view [of] America, American society, American capitalism.
But this aspect of being a consumer society, again, that's been characteristic of the United States as compared to other places going way back. And Tocqueville was already noticing the fact that the average person in the city wore the same sort of clothes that the well-to-do people did. Well, that wasn't true in Paris, that wasn't true in London.
QUESTION: What factors made America unique even after the closing of the frontier?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: I think the new machines, the consumption patterns, the automobile which was coming in; the telephone opened the door to communications. We talk of the [Inter]net doing the same thing. People could call each other up, people could speak not only within the city, but one city to another, across the country. And that changed distances, it changed the nature of social relationships, of friendships, of families, and just as the [Inter]net does now in different ways.
And of course, advertising [is also] something which I think was uniquely American, or at least something which came about here earlier. Advertisers make you want more. They tell you life can be better. And [this] demand [gave rise to], a whole flock of new inventions which occurred in the early twentieth century, just as we're having this tremendous pace of new developments today. And again, the United States leads in the rate of innovation.
[Another one of the areas where] the United States is unique in is education. We have had this desire to be better educated, and I think the roots of this can be traced to religion. Because Protestant sectarianism - which is the unique American form of Christianity - demands that people read the Bible and interpret it for themselves. Well, if you demand that people read the Bible they have to be literate. So this became an early emphasis on literacy, and we got schools, we got colleges to train teachers, and train preachers in larger numbers, and earlier than other countries. Well, more people graduated from public school than any other country. As high school became the norm, more Americans went to high school than any other country.
Now, today we complain - in many ways quite rightly - that our lower levels of education, which is a mass system for everybody, [are] inadequate. But our graduate education is unquestionably the best in the world. So at every point the upper levels of education were always better here than elsewhere. And this in turn was related to opportunity.
QUESTION: Do you think people still believe in American exceptionalism?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: In a book I recently published dealing with the absence of socialist movements in the United States, the last chapter is called "The End of Political Exceptionalism?" and [points to a decline] in exceptionalism. Now, in the political sphere, where we didn't have a socialist movement, one can say it has declined, not because of changes in America, but changes in Europe. The Europeans have become like the Americans in terms of education, standards of living, and the like. And today you have socialist parties, you have labor parties which call themselves that, [but] every socialist party in Europe no longer believes in socialism. They all explicitly accept the market, [believe] that the market economy is the best way to work the social system.
That means the differences between the Americans and the Europeans in this respect has declined. But, on the other hand, if you look at the opinion polls - which is our best measure of beliefs and the differences - you still find that even though the gap is narrow, it's still there. So that Americans are much less approving of state intervention. Americans want to have a much smaller role for the state than Europeans. And Europeans, even if not many of them are socialist, are still in favor of the welfare state, in favor of state intervention in different areas. It's a smaller gap, but it's a gap. In that sense, America is still exceptional.
But one has to stress, as I said before, that this doesn't mean we're necessarily better. And every country, in some sense, is exceptional. Every country differs from every other country, and the mixture that makes up a country varies from place to place.
QUESTION: To some, the idea of American exceptionalism is simply a variation on ethnocentrism. Is there any truth in this?
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: There's the whole question of pride in America. Now, one factor - it's a complicated thing to try to explain - is that we believe in something called Americanism. And, as many people have pointed out, Americanism is an ideology. It's not just being an American; it has a content of values. And we, therefore, say people are un-American, which means they don't believe or they don't practice the American ideology. You've never heard of anybody called un-Swedish, or un-British, or un-German, or un-Japanese, well maybe un-Japanese, because you don't have the same kind of belief in a doctrine. We say people should become Americans. People came here from abroad, they could become Americans, and if they became American, they're as American as everybody else.
We're not a political party abroad, but still we would like to see the rest of the world follow us, imitate us. Now, the rest of the world, much of the rest of the world, sneers at this, these people think what we stand for, what we believe in, is no good. And it's true, a kind of ethnocentrism isn't good. But, what underlies this is the fact that we have this ideology.
QUESTION: Clarify what you mean by "Americanism."
SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET: The most important factor in Americanism is equality, equality of opportunity, and social equality.
Many years ago there was an American socialist intellectual named Leon Sampson, who wrote a book in which he was dealing with this question of why the socialists were weak in America. And his answer, in part, was that the socialists were weak because America was socialist. Now, he didn't mean it was socialist economically, but he meant it was socialist socially. That what socialists thought they would get in a socialist society - a society of equality - Americans already thought they had. And so that when socialists came along and said, "You should change your system so we can get more equality," they couldn't appeal to people who thought they were living in an [egalitarian] society, that they were living in a society which didn't require deference. Again, it's a society with obviously enormous inequality on the economic side, but not on the social side.