Why American exceptionalism?

By Razib Khan | October 21, 2008 3:45 pm

Matt Yglesias moots the reasons behind America’s anti-socialist/individual tendencies. This is no illusion. America’s Left party, the Democrats, have links with the Centrist Democrat International. This is an organization which roughly represents the international Center-Right, e.g., the Christian Democratic parties of Europe. The Democrats used to have observer status when this organization was more explicitly termed the Christian Democrat International. The point being that dirigiste and One Nation tendencies are much more common among Right parties than classical liberalism (in Germany the free market party is the FDP, which is mildly libertarian in orientation and traditionally represents the Protestant anti-clerical bourgeois). The mapping between European Left and Right is not perfect because on many social issues, such as abortion, speech, and ethnicity & race, Europeans are arguably much more conservative than Americans (remember white nationalists parties such as Vlaams Belang regularly get well above 10% of the vote, and lack of judicial supremacy results in incremental changes on social issues like abortion). But when in Europe when it comes to the market even the right-wing ordoliberals are probably most analogous to moderate Democrats, not economic conservatives.


But back to the original point, why is America exceptional? Matt alludes to one major hypothesis: that socialism flourishes in societies where class is the primary independent variable. Think of Sweden in the early 20th century, a homogeneous white Lutheran Swedish speaking society (and one where the nobility was relatively small as well and the monarchy had a history of populism back to the Vasas). The argument is that America, and in particular the American South, have been riven by racial tension to the point where redistributionist policies run up against the block of the color line.* This implies that states where the populace is relatively homogeneous, such as Minnesota, would be on the forefront of social experimentation because of fewer cross-linkages cutting across class which might slow action due to perceived disparate impacts and interests.
I have another idea. How about size? The United States is very big, and operationally has never had a servile peasant population. Unlike European nations the United States never pushed up against the Malthusian trap before the demographic transition began. The Populist Party was I think a step in this direction, and I think it is no coincidence that it arose just as Frederick Jackson Turner declared that the frontier had closed. With the rise of a post-agricultural economy just as the agrarian populist movements began to crystallize the moment was lost, and so perhaps the contingent confluence of parameters necessary for the deep well of class resentment never built up in the United States (remember that many of the urban workers who created the industrial economy were immigrants from Europe who might not immediately have been able to ally with the native working classes transitioning from the farm to the factory).
Note: To some extent I stole this idea from Philip Jenkins, a religious scholar who suggests that American’s size combined with its population’s mobility makes the prefab civil society which Protestant denominations offer more important than in Europe. This might then explain why Americans are both much more pluralistic and religious than Europeans; small dense European polities require less religious social capital to tie together localities because people already have much in common.
* It is important to remember that prior to the fixation on sectionalism, the American South was a redoubt of religious liberalism. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are well known, but John C. Calhoun, the great senator from South Carolina, was a Unitarian. Calhoun and John Quincy Adams were in fact both Unitarians while they served as Vice President and President respectively.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Herd behavior is a defense against predators. But if you want to become a predator yourself, you won’t tie yourself to the rest of the herd.
    Perhaps the relatively great potential for upward mobility the US once offered helped prevent large social movements founded on class distinctions? If you can’t leave a social niche, you’re more motivated to fight for it, both offensively and defensively.
    Or maybe it has to do with the perception that class status is deserved. If you believe you won’t be held into a low status if you can do better, you won’t want to associate yourself with people who ended up low-status.

  • http://adversecity.blogspot.com/ Oran Kelley

    The herd analogy doesn’t seem to be particularly enlightening, particularly once you talk about herd members turning into predators . . . which doesn’t happen in very many herds.
    Anyhow, I think capitalism always encouraged some social mobility, but in Europe, opportunity was never the major selling point of capitalism, and folks who did rise up from the bottom tended to hide rather than vaunt the fact. The capitalist elite sought to be absorbed into the hereditary elite.
    So it may be less the existence of social mobility than the perception of social mobility–in Europe it may well have been undersold. In the US, oversold.

  • Danny

    How about size? The United States is very big, and operationally has never had a servile peasant population
    Australia and Canada are also white settler states with no history of feudalism, and both are significantly more left-wing the the US.
    I find that when talking about any aspect of American Exceptionalism, bringing Canada and Australia into the discussion is very useful.

  • Danny

    Another related reason is the idiosyncratic American constitution which makes passing something like Health Care exceedingly difficult (though going to war is nevertheless rather easy). I suppose that this is indeed ‘American Exceptionalism’.

  • jayh

    Perhaps the relatively great potential for upward mobility the US once offered helped prevent large social movements founded on class distinctions?
    Probably a lot of truth here. Class barriers exist, but are highly permeable, we all know many people who’ve crossed barriers (sex and race barriers too, though they’re a bit tougher).
    Where many workers eventually become managers, where many people are landowners (even if just a small house and lot) rather than tenants, where it’s not uncommon for ‘working Joes’ in the factory to own stocks in their employers and other companies, people’s perception of themselves is different.
    That tends to defuse the effect of political groups that are centered around class distinction (indeed it sometimes seems that some ideologies almost depend on class barriers)

  • John Emerson

    The Spartans were a predatory herd, as were the Athenians,the Romans, and the Mongols. Lone wolves driven from the pack have short life expectancies.

  • John Emerson

    I’ve done a fair amount of studying of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, (1918-1946; controlled state government 1930-1938), which was American’s most successful leftist movement. (Wisconsin is much the same). Reasons below are reasons both for the successes and the failures of Minnesota’s socialists.
    1. Minnesota wasn’t really homogenous (Catholic / Protestant / Orthodox; Scandinavian/ German / Slav) but it did not have the racial antagonisms of the South, and the Anglo-Saxon Yankee influence was broken after about 1920.
    2. As of about 1920 70% of the population was foreign-born or the first American-born generation, mostly from countries with Socialist traditions.
    3. States west of the Mississippi were virtually third world raw material colonies, totally at the mercy of finance and big business. By 1930 it was so bad that independent small town bankers were in coalition with Socialists and even Communists. A kind of depression hit the Western states before the big depression hit.
    4. I think that Minnesota was hard hit enough and rural enough to be angry, but prosperous and urban enough to be able to resist. People in a lot of the West was just too poor and few to put up much of a fight.
    5. After about 1934 Roosevelt coopted a lot of Socialist issues while blocking socialism.
    6. Repeatedly (WWI, WWII, Red Scare ~ 1950, Vietnam War after 1968) wartime questions of loyalty were used to go after all leftists and some or all unions, even the ones who supported the war.
    7. (Possibly). Turning immigration on and off in the context of a geographically and otherwise expanding economy reduced labor solidarity.
    8. Federalism made action at either the state or the national level more difficult.
    9. Valelly in “Radicalism in the States” (recommended) also argues that the East and South were politically saturated with effective pork-distributing political machines, whereas the West was not.
    10. Rauchwau “Blessed Among Nations” argues that early globablization through immigration and trade made the U.S. distinctly different. I still haven’t quite processed his argument.

  • http://fountain.blogspot.com Ross

    “I have another idea. How about size? The United States is very big, and operationally has never had a servile peasant population.”
    Ireland has never had a mass socialist movement and both of its main parties are on the right of the European political spectrum. Yet it is very small and has had a servile peasant population.

  • R E G

    Several years ago I read an article that argued socialism had it’s roots in extreme geography. In Canada, Sweden, or Minnesota you simply cannot live 12 months of the year without some form of shelter. This creates a culture of interdependance among people, where being a “good neighbour” is a form of insurance against the day your own luck runs out.
    The leap to formally organizing a social safety net is therfore shorter than in California or Texas.
    Sory I don’t recall the source. I found it a very compelling argument.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    i don’t i have time to respond to comments right now, but i want to say that i really appreciate the style and substance of the ones i’ve received so far. IOW, i feel like i’ve gotten further in mulling over this idea as opposed to being irritated by people brain-farting ;-)

  • deadpost

    Several years ago I read an article that argued socialism had it’s roots in extreme geography. In Canada, Sweden, or Minnesota you simply cannot live 12 months of the year without some form of shelter. This creates a culture of interdependance among people, where being a “good neighbour” is a form of insurance against the day your own luck runs out.

    One could argue that the Sonoran or Chihuahan deserts or American Midwest are just as harsh to go out in, without the support of a society, than Canada or Minnesota though.

  • James

    I thought Minnesota *was* in the American Midwest.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    perhaps he meant the great plains?

  • Markk

    Minnesota is an edge state of the Midwest. The Dakota’s are generally not considered part of the Midwest but Plains states. Having driven across Minnesota many times I would say it actually has the border inside of itself.

  • G.D.

    ‘Another related reason is the idiosyncratic American constitution which makes passing something like Health Care exceedingly difficult’
    In fact, the whole attitude towards the country’s constitution – apparently treating it as more or less a sacred text – is a strikingly American phenomenon. In Europe, the attitude towards a constitution is usually rather like “if it isn’t perfectly adjusted to present conditions, change it (obviously)”, whereas in the US, saying “it’s
    against the constitution” will actually carry some weight in a lot of contexts. Can someone tell me where that attitude originated?

  • johannes

    > in Germany the free market party is the FDP
    This is counterweighted by the corporativism of the FDP’s traditional clientele: Physicians, dentists, lawiers, tax accountants and other such professional people. They have an vested economical interest to remain a closed-shop system and keep interlopers out. They are also absurdly fond of tax write-offs (in most cases little more then ponzi schemes), even when a sense of self-preservation should dictate otherwise: Investing in tax write-offs often leads the average German dentist to the edge of economic self-destruction, or beyond.
    If the FDP would take its libertarian principles too serious, and would begin to promote a radically simplified taxation system, without priviliges and tax write-offs like shipbuilding fonds or closed real estate fonds, it would scare away its electorate.

  • TGGP

    Ed Glaeser has a paper titled “Why Doesn’t the U.S Have a European-Style Welfare State?” on this question. I think the paper on why social & fiscal conservatives go hand in hand in the U.S but not Europe has been pointed out here before.

  • jayh

    whereas in the US, saying “it’s
    against the constitution” will actually carry some weight in a lot of contexts. Can someone tell me where that attitude originated?

    Some additional thoughts on this.
    In the US, this view of the Constitution as a binding contract enables the citizens to challenge innappropriate government actions. We can go to court, we can challenge government behavior against a standard, we can say “you can’t do that”.
    In many places, including democracies, citizens don’t have that option. They can try to elect other reps, they can start a referendum, but when the government oversteps its bounds, their options are much more limited.

  • http://adversecity.blogspot.com/ Oran Kelley

    The Spartans were a predatory herd, as were the Athenians,the Romans, and the Mongols. Lone wolves driven from the pack have short life expectancies.
    Groups of predatory animals are usually called packs (or something else more particular) rather than herds.
    Herds (as opposed to societies) aren’t particularly differentiated, there’s little in the way of associated infrastructure, etc., etc., etc. “Feeding” is a pretty complex matter, since social elites actively & extensively exploit (not just compete with) nature, other societies, and other members of their own group.
    Anyhow, point being that the complications elided by the herd analogy are precisely the details we ought to be considering.

  • deadpost

    Yeah I was thinking of the plains.
    Actually, the comment about collectivism in harsh environments does make me see the trend colder=more socialism, but extreme individualism and self-reliance is also associated with harsh conditions (a lone herder or rancher for example).

  • http://manwhoisthursday.blogspot.com Thursday

    Australia and Canada are also white settler states with no history of feudalism, and both are significantly more left-wing the the US.
    Quebec was very feudalistic for much of it’s history and the British tried to introduce feudalistic elements into Ontario and both these places are now quite left-liberal. Western Canada, on the other hand, had none of this and its politics tend to be quite similar to those of Red State America.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    In Europe, the attitude towards a constitution is usually rather like “if it isn’t perfectly adjusted to present conditions, change it (obviously)”, whereas in the US, saying “it’s
    against the constitution” will actually carry some weight in a lot of contexts. Can someone tell me where that attitude originated?

    Americans make a great deal of the idea that their country was founded on specific principles, instead of an existing country deciding to adopt some principles. The original expressions of those principles are therefore held to be quite important.

    Actually, the comment about collectivism in harsh environments

    I’d say ‘altruism’, not ‘collectivism’. There is a non-trivial difference between them.

  • Tod

    Vlaams Blok is basically a seperatist movement, as is the Northern League. France and Italy had strong communist parties too. In proportion to their population. European countries like Denmark have admitted far more immigrants than the US. That White Nationalist parties are absent from US politics might be for the same reasons that Socialist are. I can assure you that in the UK the US is not seen as more liberal on social issues especially race. You might want to refresh your memory about what Steve Jones said in relation to sexual openess in London between populations. How can you say the US is more liberal on race.
    The US may have free speech but some points of view are not represented; Robert Fisk is a good example he has no equivalent in the US mainstream.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    tod, as usual you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. and most europeans don’t either when it comes to race & the USA. colored people who have lived in both places do know.

  • Yorger S.

    “that socialism flourishes in societies where class is the primary independent variable.”
    This is 100% correct. Think about American politics before the 1960′s. When both parties were the same regarding “social issues,” the Democrats used to win every election because they were the party of the working class. People understood, and voted for their economic interests. But when the Democratic party became the de-facto anti-white party, these people became “Reagen Democrats” and started championing free trade.
    Here’s another way of looking at it. When America still recognized freedom of association, didn’t have affirmative action, and was segregated, people felt their communities were safe and voted for Dems (who guaranteed that unions were strong, and wages were fair). But after the 60′s, when communities became under the threat of blacks, the people turned their backs on strong government, and started to depend on themselves to keep communities safe. The basic strategy here was to make enough money so you could move away from the undesirables. All of a sudden, people became concerned with taxes, becuase they didn’t want blacks (and latter Hispanics) to receive their tax money, or to live near them. NO, people wanted to get as far as possible from NAMs (Non-Asian Minorities).
    I guess the simplest way of explaining this is as follows:
    If there are no competing ethnic groups, class issues will dominate politics. If there are competing ethnic groups, ethno-politics will take precedence.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    It seems clear to me that humans naturally exercise their political power to benefit the interests of the group they belong to. What matters is how and why people perceive themselves as belonging to different groups.
    It’s a matter of shared interests, labels, and self-identity.
    A society in which there are de facto social classes based on income, but in which members of the low-class believe they can raise themselves higher, will (I suspect) not become socialistic or have the masses organize against the elites, because the competent people in the masses don’t want to stricture the class they want to join. You have to have competent people who don’t believe they can improve their position before they’ll band together to dominate the elites.

  • Eric j. Johnson

    Re the ‘sacredness’ of the usa constitution, i wonder if some of that might stem from the personal influence of madison (who was so deeply disquieted by the limited duration of previous republics, and the specters of demogogues and activist factions, and considered the constitution to be the indispensable fortification). I have no evidence. This is just an idea. Certainly, i admit, madison didnt succeed in making a big constitution lover out of his bud t-jeff.

  • http://httpadversecity.blogspot.com Oran Kelley

    “that socialism flourishes in societies where class is the primary independent variable.”
    This is 100% correct. Think about American politics before the 1960′s. When both parties were the same regarding “social issues,” the Democrats used to win every election because they were the party of the working class. People understood, and voted for their economic interests. But when the Democratic party became the de-facto anti-white party, these people became “Reagen Democrats” and started championing free trade.

    Well, Democrats had a a mixed record pre-1960. The Depression gave them the Presidency and control of congress and a pretty hard-to-beat electoral coalition, but things were pretty different pre-1932.
    And of course, in 1960 America already didn’t have socialism. Werner Sombart posed the question “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” in 1906, not 1960.

    Here’s another way of looking at it. When America still recognized freedom of association, didn’t have affirmative action, and was segregated, people felt their communities were safe and voted for Dems (who guaranteed that unions were strong, and wages were fair). But after the 60′s, when communities became under the threat of blacks, the people turned their backs on strong government, and started to depend on themselves to keep communities safe. The basic strategy here was to make enough money so you could move away from the undesirables. All of a sudden, people became concerned with taxes, becuase they didn’t want blacks (and latter Hispanics) to receive their tax money, or to live near them. NO, people wanted to get as far as possible from NAMs (Non-Asian Minorities).
    I guess the simplest way of explaining this is as follows:
    If there are no competing ethnic groups, class issues will dominate politics. If there are competing ethnic groups, ethno-politics will take precedence.

    Certainly racial tension in big northern cities, and southern resentment of the Democrats changing sides on civil rights have been two of the biggest factors in the political realignement we’ve seen over the past few decades.
    But the interesting thing is that those racial tensions do not appear to be a force of nature: they arose out of pretty specific historical situations, and the children and grandchildren of those who ran away from Detroit or Chicago have very different attitudes toward the cities and the people who live in them than their parents did. For one thing they are very unlikely to conceive of “economic competition” as something that pits one race against another. That’s the kind of talk that screams “loser” to most folks today.
    Solving the problems cities face still won’t be easy. But race is a diminishing factor–very much as white ethnic rivalry diminished in years past.
    The current reconfiguration (Starbucks-Democrats/WalMart-Republicans) going on is a strange one. I can’t think of too many ways the Republican can continue serving their big corporate masters and their dime-store constituency simultaneously without going the fascist route.
    It should be interesting.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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