Americanism

2006-07-09

In my continuing effort to understand American society (an effort that smarter people than I are also engaged in, as witness Jim Bennett's post yesterday), recently I've read the following books:

All three are highly recommended, especially The Culture Code -- it's only 200 pages long but packed with insights into not only American culture but also France, Germany, England, and Japan.

As Lipset points out, America is different from the other advanced industrial nations in that socialism never happened here. The early American labor movements fought for worker rights and power, but were suspicious of government (the AFL was syndicalist, the IWW anarcho-syndicalist). The New Deal led to greater unionization and an acceptance of government power (especially among the CIO), but efforts to create a viable socialist or labor party floundered (unlike even our parents in England or our cousins in Canada and Australia), in part because America's two-party system works to co-opt third-party efforts. Unionization levels in America have almost always been lower than in the other industrial nations, and since the 1950s have slowly returned to pre-Depression levels (even here, unionization is by far the highest among old-line industries and government). American workers tend to think of themselves as "middle class" and don't have the kind of class consciousness that provides fertile ground for socialism. America has never had the kind of aristocratic Tory paternalism (opposed by working-class laborism) that England, Canada, and Australia have had -- we threw out the Tories in 1776 (Canada took them in) and have been essentially a Whig nation ever since. American conservatives are not Tories and are not to be confused with conservatives (Tories) in other parts of the Anglosphere; similarly, American liberals are not socialistic (e.g., they never pursued a strategy of nationalized industry) and are not to be confused with laborites in other parts of the Anglosphere. Instead, both liberals and conservatives are mostly Whig in America -- after all, Democrats are the party of Jefferson and Republicans are the party of Lincoln (or at least they claim to be -- we know that the Democrats tend toward the laborite end of the Whig spectrum through their patronizing the unions and that Republicans tend toward the Tory end of the Whig spectrum through their patronizing the modern-day aristocracy of big business).

Just as all inviduals are unique, so are all nations. America is not special in being unique, but in being an outlier in terms of so many statistics and values. Other countries have a high radius of trust (England, Germany, Japan), but few other countries couple that high radius of trust with high openness. Other countries are open to new people and ideas (especially immigrant cultures such as Australia, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina), but few other countries couple openness with a high radius of trust. The same goes for productivity, religiosity, entrepreneuralism, optimism, and the like.

If I were to summarize my reading so far, I would say that America is full of optimistic, work-focused, religious, sectarian, freedom-loving, patriotic, rebellious, energetic, ever-moving, adaptable, pragmatic, can-do, individualistic, youth-obsessed, generous, philanthropic, hopeful, innovative, entrepreneurial dreamers. Naturally, not every American is optimistic or work-focused or religious or whatever, but those are the general tendencies of American culture.

These differences are, as Lipset points out, something of a double-edged sword. Americans live in material abundance but also experience more poverty and crime. Their rights are respected but they are more litigious. They get things done but they don't enjoy the more sophisticated pleasures of life. They are educated for specific professions but they are anti-intellectual. And so on.

Realizing that America is different does not imply claiming that it is better. As an American, I tend to like American optimism, opportunity, individualism, freedom, and all the rest. I even tend to think that the world would be a better place if more nations were more like America, but I have no interest in forcing American values on other nations since it is (and always has been and, I hope, always will be) easy for people who find those values attractive to emigrate to America and pursue their dreams here.

American historian Richard Hofstadter is said to have observed that "it has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one." That feels right to me. The word "Americanism" sums up the many traits and values of Americans (as far as I know there is no comparable "ism" derived from the name of any other nation), and Americans are always fighting over what is American and what is un-American (it's that sectarianism again). We don't care what the global villagers (China, Japan, Russia, etc.) think, what our grandparents (Europe) think, what our parents (England) think, what our cousins (Canada, Australia) think, or even what our fellow Americans think (if I don't like your approach, I'll start my own sect or company or whatever). We're a noisy, rebellious, adolescent bunch -- and we like it just fine that way. We don't always succeed, do the right thing, or live up to our ideals. But woe to anyone who bets on American failure, decline, or decay, because we seem to learn from our mistakes better than any other people in history.

(Cross-posted at Albion's Seedlings.)


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal