Rethinking the continental divide .. is the end of American exceptionalism at hand?

Feb 8th, 2007 | By | Category: USA Today

The death of the unusually influential American social scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, on December 31, 2006, prompted a wave of admiring obituaries in January 2007. Canadians could also join in on this party, because as CNN’s Bill Schneider explained, “Lipset’s ideas were so compelling” that he could even “make Canada interesting to Americans.”

As others have pointed out, Lipset was “struck by the legacy of monarchy and elitism in Canada compared to the revolutionary background and egalitarianism in the US.” But Canada itself is struggling to lose this legacy nowadays. (Well, sort of struggling: it is Canada after all.) In his own country “Marty Lipset” was best known as “the most thoughtful contemporary authority on American exceptionalism.” And his sad death at the age of 84 can finally make you wonder if this exceptionalism has started to reach the end of its tether too?

1. Why did socialism never put down solid roots in the USA?

Seymour Martin Lipset was born in New York City in 1922, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who wanted him to become a dentist. He joined a “legendary group of New York Jewish socialists who gathered, in the late 1930s and early ’40s … at the City College of New York” (CCNY), and finally became a political sociologist instead.

All in the legendary CCNY group “moved, in varying degrees, to the political Right in the ’60s and ’70s.” Many were ultimately even “regarded as leaders of the highly influential neo-conservative movement in the US.” But (on some accounts at any rate) Lipset officially remained “a man of the Left and often described himself as a social democrat.”

One of several big questions that obsessed Lipset throughout his career was why, contrary to many early expectations, a vigorous socialist movement never took serious root in the United States, as in Europe and even other parts of the world? This led to his first book, Agrarian Socialism: The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan (1950).

Agrarian Socialism was based on Lipset’s Columbia University PhD thesis, which had taken him to Canada to study Tommy Douglas’s “first successful socialist party in North America” (ancestor of today’s New Democratic Party in Canada, which has so far managed to win occasional provincial governments in all of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and even Ontario – and might soon do the same in Nova Scotia too – but has never come at all close to a Canadian federal government in Ottawa).

The more exact question here was why did Canada finally create such an at least modestly successful socialist political organization, while even this attenuated version of the European model remained out of reach in the USA?

In Agrarian Socialism in 1950 Lipset did not quite hint at the answer to this question proposed by the younger Canadian political scientist Gad Horowitz in the late 1960s, based on Horowitz’s Harvard University PhD thesis and the insights of the American intellectual historian Louis Hartz. But Lipset’s ultimate sense of the “value differences” between the United States and Canada (as revisited, e.g., in Revolution and Counterrevolution in 1970 and his 1990 book Continental Divide) points in the same direction.

[CW EDITOR’S NOTE: This article goes on to discuss Mr. Lipset’s views on the United States and Canada at some length for those who are especially interested. Other readers might want to skip directly to section 8 below, which notes a few of the most interesting January 2007 obituaries and tributes from the United States and the United Kingdom, and adds some related brief Canadian perspective.]

2. Legends of the Canadian “feudal fragment” in Horowitz and Lipset

You can spin out the details of the argument here in various more and less intriguing specific ways. But the general thrust is straightforward enough.

On the Horowitz-Hart variation, e.g., Canada, because it remained directly within the cultural universe of the British Empire, well into the 19th and even 20th centuries, retained a European “feudal fragment” in North America, that was effectively destroyed in the USA by the American Revolution or War of Independence, 1775-1783. And this surviving feudal fragment finally and ironically gave modern Canada two progressive things absent in the modern USA: a communitarian “Red Tory” fifth column in its local conservative culture; and a more or less serious and more or less socialist third political party.

(Along with, in the very end it has now become all too clear, yet another francophone sovereigntist variation on the theme in the provincial Parti and then federal Bloc Quebecois.)

Seymour Martin Lipset’s own ultimate variation on this theme has somewhat different nuances, while remaining clearly in the same ball park. His story runs something more like: The “counterrevolutionary” survival of an obsolete European feudal fragment in Canadian values ultimately made some approximation of socialism necessary in the wider interests of progress. The “revolutionary” destruction of the old-world aristocratic culture made socialism unnecessary in the United States. (And one of the secrets of Lipset’s influence outside academia no doubt was that he would never himself use a term quite like “feudal fragment.”)

On its best sides, the new democratic “Americanism” forged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries endorsed both a republic based in principle on popular sovereignty and a broad social egalitarianism, as opposed to the continuing “legacy of monarchy and elitism in Canada.” Of course there was still the problem of African slavery. It would finally take one of the world’s bloodiest civil wars to even start to deal with that. Yet the America of Lipset’s generation that also endorsed the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement did carry on the struggle for the ideal Americanism of his dreams. And he could seriously enough write in Revolution and Counterrevolution in 1970: “Property relations apart, the social aspects of the doctrine of Americanism have a close resemblance to those advocated by socialists.”

Moreover, on this kind of analysis, as Lipset explained in his introduction to a late 1960s new edition of his 1950 study of Tommy Douglas’s old “first successful socialist party in North America,” the political history of “agrarian socialism in Saskatchewan … was a consequence of anachronistic forces within the society, rather than a wave of the future.”

3. The empirical problem with American exceptionalism in Canada today

One big difference between the Horowitz-Hartz and Lipset variations on the broad theme of revolution and counterrevolution in the United States and Canada, you might say, is just that Horowitz’s picture flatters Canada, while Lipset’s flatters the United States. (Go figure: after their respective PhDs Horowitz went back to Canada and Lipset went back to the United States.)

Lipset might have liked to see something a little more like European social democracy in the USA. But as his academic career blossomed he was also a grateful child of Russian Jewish immigrants, and a “proud American.” He became “the most thoughtful contemporary authority on American exceptionalism” – or the ideology of “Americanism” which says, among other things, that the revolutionary USA has, by casting aside its European feudal fragment right from the start, avoided all the traditional cultural, economic, political, and social pathologies of the Old World, including “working-class radicalism.”

By the mid 1990s Lipset was stressing how, even just among such English-speaking countries as Canada, it “is not difficult to show for example, that the two great political parties in America represent only one English party, the middle-class Liberal party. . . . There are no Tories [let alone Red Tories] . . . and no Labor Party.” (And by this point he was explicitly noting as well that the “logic of studying societies” in this way was “also followed by Louis Hartz.”)

One problem with Lipset’s American exceptionalism, from some points of view, is that, though he apparently continued to see himself more or less on the left (if no longer at all into his City College of New York socialism of the 1940s), his theory of the ideology of Americanism increasingly became part of the right-wing justifying rhetoric of the late 20th century neo-conservative movement, that others among his early socialist colleagues finally landed in.

Up in Canada in the early 21st century there is another more empirical kind of problem. The “legacy of monarchy and elitism in Canada compared to the revolutionary background and egalitarianism in the US” – which is central to both Lipset’s doctrine of American exceptionalism and the Horowitz-Hartz thesis on the Red Tories and the NDP – is at best fading rapidly beneath the northern lights.

It may have been true at one time that, as Lipset’s student at CNN Bill Schneider explained last month, “Canada was a country defined by its rejection of the American Revolution.” But that does not really make much sense nowadays, when both the Canadian Liberal and Conservative parties (and even some branches of the NDP?) take so much inspiration from their ideological peers in the USA. (No less monarchist and elitist a figure than Howard Dean was the keynote speaker at this past fall’s Liberal Party of Canada convention in Montreal, and so forth.)

4. Trudeau’s new Canada and the republican Charter of Rights

Seymour Martin Lipset himself, who aspired to be an accurate social scientist along with everything else, also shrewdly anticipated the fading Canadian legacy of monarchy and elitism as early as his 1970 book on Revolution and Counterrevolution.

“Many Canadians,” he noted aptly enough there, “now seek to defend the integrity of Canada against the United States by defining their own country as more humane, more egalitarian, more democratic, and more anti-imperialist than the United States.” And he noted that “Canada’s swinging’ Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, fits the new’ Canadian image better than any previous political leader …”

Not quite four decades later, we now know that Pierre Trudeau’s own greatest legacy to Canada was the Constitution Act 1982 – which (in the wake of the first failed Quebec sovereignty referendum of 1980) at last “patriated” the legal power to amend the Canadian Constitution from the United Kingdom, and entrenched an American/French revolutionary style “Charter of Rights and Freedoms” in the “free and democratic society”prescribed by the new Constitution Act.

Canadians being so busy watching US TV, the deepest implications of all this have still only begun to sink in. But in the early 21st century things actually have begun to change. In 2003 the Canadian political scientist Frederick Vaughan published a book arguing that “Trudeau’s 1982 Charter quietly undermined the [old] monarchic character of the [Canadian] constitution by introducing republican principles of government.”

As one more recent reviewer has noted as well, Vaughan now “counsels Canadians to understand how and why” this happened and “to design and embrace a truly distinctive and bold Canadian republic.” Increasing numbers of his fellow citizens are listening to this advice. A 2005 opinion poll conducted by Ipsos-Reid for CTV and the Globe and Mail reported that 55% of Canadians now agree with the statement: “When Queen Elizabeth’s reign ends, Canada should end its formal ties to the British Monarchy.”

(It is of course important to remember that strictly “formal ties” are all that is involved here. The last altogether practical act of the British monarchy in the true north took place when Queen Victoria was said to have decided that Ottawa would be the capital city of the new Canada, just before the present confederation of 1867. Moreover, as Seymour Martin Lipset himself explained in the mid 1990s: “In dealing with national characteristics it is important to recognize that comparative evaluations are never absolutes, that they always are made in terms of more or less … Figuratively, on a scale of 0 to 100, with the United States close to 0 on a given trait and Britain at 100, Canada would fall around 30.”)

5. Canadian democratic reform in the early 21st century

Some might want to argue that Stephen Harper’s new Conservative Party of Canada has been most recently trying to turn the clock back on all this. It is the one Canadian political party today that has continuing loyalty to the British monarchy written into its constitution. And last summer new minority Prime Minister Harper, on a visit to the old anglophone mother country, did say some nice things about the civilizing legacies of the British Empire.

Yet caveat emptor: As long ago as the 1940s the one near-great Canadian historian Harold Innis was observing that while Eastern Canada may have something of a counterrevolutionary tradition, Western Canada does not. And the driving energy of Stephen Harper’s new Conservative Party today is still the same Western Canadian populism that drove both the old left-wing CCF of Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan and the old right-wing Social Credit of Preston Manning’s father in Alberta, in an earlier era.

Thus high on Mr. Harper’s current hopes for a 2007 parliamentary agenda are his plans for “step by step” democratization of the unreformed Senate of Canada – still an archaic and highly obsolete non-elected hybrid of the old US Senate and the old British House of Lords.

The current quiet gathering passion for democratic reform in Canadian institutions goes beyond federal politics as well. The provincial governments of both British Columbia and Ontario, e.g., have now opted for fixed election dates, on the old revolutionary US model.

When Lipset himself anticipated the possibility of this kind of change in Canada back in 1970, as he pondered the early career of the then new swinging Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, he also offered some particular advice to Canadians. It came from another eminent Canadian historian of Harold Innis’s generation, Frank Underhill, who had always emphasized the North American side of the old “British North America” (and who collected all his advice on such matters together in his 1961 book In Search of Canadian Liberalism).

Lipset reminded the admirers of Pierre Trudeau that “a democratic leftist ideology is synonymous with the social content of Americanism. As Frank Underhill has pointed out to his fellow Canadians: If we are eventually to satisfy ourselves that we have at last achieved a Canadian identity, it will only be when we are satisfied that we have arrived at a better American way of life than the Americans have.'”

6. Gad Horowitz on the Americanization of Canada since the 1960s

In the early 21st century this would also seem to be advice with much wider relevance for at least democracy in the wider Western world – and perhaps even beyond, in at least some ways. And it is this that can finally make you think Seymour Martin Lipset’s old American exceptionalism may nowadays be fading at last as well.

Gad Horowitz himself had some interesting things to say on the Canadian version of the wider case here, in an interview he gave to a learned publication in 2003. Horowitz was “born in Jerusalem” but “came to Canada when I was two years old, and I grew up mostly in Calgary, Winnipeg, and Montreal. So I am a Canadian and I always felt myself to be a Canadian.” (In 2003 he was still “Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto” as well.)

Asked if the current state of the “Hartz-Horowitz thesis” and “your analysis of the Canadian political scene” had “changed since the 1960s,” he replied: “I think that Canada has become significantly more Americanized than it was when I wrote Canadian Labour in Politics [published in 1969 – a paper on the Hartz-Horowitz thesis had appeared a few years before], and that both Toryism and socialism have been losing a lot of their distinctiveness, have been blurring into liberalism at their boundaries.”

Horowitz went on: “my most glorious moment at Harvard was when I would jokingly suggest to my American friends that the American people should re-convene the Continental Congress, draw up articles of apology for the American Revolution, and petition to be brought back under the British Crown for their own good … Well, you know, there’s just not that much intensity in it any more … And I do love New York and San Francisco. Does that make me a good Canadian?” (The answer to this last question is of course yes.)

The most neurotic strains of Canadian political culture today can still express alarm that talk of this sort only means some ultimate US political annexation of Canada – as so many Americans have long thought was the most sensible thing to do in any case.

Yet, barring what currently seems a rather unlikely altogether serious resolve among the historic Canadiens et Canadiennes in Quebec to create a genuinely independent new francophone country with its own seat at the United Nations (when even Western Canadian anglophone politicians like Stephen Harper have already gone to such trouble to learn more or less acceptable French), the practical prospects for US political annexation of Canada seem dimmer now than they have ever been since 1776.

As further Americanized as Canada may yet continue to become, e.g., it still seems almost certain to keep more democratized versions of its current British parliamentary institutions.

For one thing, as even commentators on CNN point out these days, if the US had a modern parliamentary system of government George W. Bush would almost certainly have been expelled from office after the 2006 mid-term elections – on the quite democratic grounds that he has lost the confidence of the majority of the people’s elected representatives (and as Margaret Thatcher was shown the door in the United Kingdom itself not too long ago now).

7. If we are all Americans now, can there really be any American exceptionalism?

The ultimate wider point of course is that it is not just Canada that “has become significantly more Americanized” since the 1960s. As long ago as the 1980s, the British writer who lived in “French-speaking territory” in Europe, Anthony Burgess, was observing that: “There is much talk in France these days of le mal francais, and many Anglo-Saxons are glad to hear that the French are finding something wrong with themselves.” But it was all a Gallic charade in the end. The French were still just a bit reluctant to accept that, in the broad sweep of world history which lies ahead, “France, like everywhere else, has to become a kind of small America.”

And then there is the case of the recent rather profound Americanization of the United Kingdom itself, which is bound to strike all anglophone Canadian visitors to that place today, born before, say, 1950. For many anglophone and francophone Canadians today the old anglophone mother country’s capacity to offset any lamentable US influence in northern North America has been all but exhausted by the sad spectacle of the British Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s staunch support of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. (Which Canada of course has not supported, though it has put troops into Afghanistan, as Stephen Harper is still so concerned to stress).

And then yet again there is the fate of the big question about socialism that so obsessed Seymour Martin Lipset’s career. Ever since the collapse of the old Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the old socialism, defined as a progressive usurpation of the private sector free market economy by public sector government bureaucracies, in the interests of bringing real social justice and democracy to the old industrial working class, etc, has been in retreat, virtually throughout the global village. Much of what the 1960s called the developing world has at last begun to develop economically, under at least some version of the “free” market institutions that continue to play such an important role in Lipset’s concept of the ideology of Americanism.

A few months ago now, when Time magazine asked the current glamorous Socialist candidate for president of France, Segolene Royal, what she thought her country might learn from the USA today: “There was a long pause before she answered: A spirit of enterprise, perhaps?'” Or, it can reasonably enough be said, at the very least in all of such places as Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Spain, and on and on (and ultimately even including, e.g., South Africa and India too), “We are all Americans now!”

This finally does raise the big question of how much longer Seymour Martin Lipset’s concept of American exceptionalism itself can last, when so many other parts of the world have now embraced so many aspects of his concept of the ideology of Americanism? It is not George W. Bush’s overly aggressive promotion of this Americanism ideology that has come to so annoy so many other parts of the global village. It is his apparent aggressive embrace of the old European imperialist and militarist traditions – in a quite illogical, ironic, and ultimately impossible defense of Lipset’s kind of American democratic values.

In the USA today itself this message does seem to be getting through: “The share of the public that says the United States should increase its military presence overseas has dropped from almost one-half in 2002 to less than one-third in 2006. According to an October 2006 study by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, 65 percent of Americans think the Bush administration has been too militaristic, while 67 percent say it should focus more on diplomacy. Americans perceive that the primary lesson of the September 11th attacks,’ declared the study, is that the United States needs to cooperate more with other countries.'”

8. The double-edged sword (and the future of socialism in China too?)

It is also true that Lipset himself described “American Exceptionalism” as “A Double Edged Sword.” As summarized in The Economist‘s obituary on January 11, 2007: “America is much better than Europe in some ways and much worse in others: more open and dynamic, but also more violent, crime-prone and unequal. America’s virtues and vices are part and parcel of each other. Its commitment to meritocracy explains both its dynamism and its harshness towards failure. Its moralism explains both its reforming zeal and its suffocating self-righteousness.”

At least in the eyes of some of his readers, Lipset’s writing might be said to have a left and right double edge as well. If he actually did remain “a man of the Left” in his own mind, his work is still often borrowed by the Right. The reasonable American conservative David Brooks ended his January 17 tribute to Lipset in the New York Times with: “the most amazing thing about the past week is how modest the Democratic agenda has been … compared with the vast economic problems they described during the campaign … They grasp the realities Marty Lipset described. They understand that in the face of inequality, Americans have usually opted for policies that offer more opportunity, not those emphasizing security or redistribution. American domestic policy is drifting leftward, but there are sharp limits on how far it will go.”

The Economist‘s tribute on January 11 voiced some parallel less partisan notes of caution, on various further potential double edges in Lipset’s analysis of the doctrine of Americanism: “American exceptionalism is flourishing these days, after a brief retreat in the 1960s and 1970s. Hence the growing differences with Europe over everything from military intervention to capitalism. Many people are predicting a great coming together of Europe and America once George Bush leaves office. There will certainly be a good deal of making up for a while. But anybody who expects the pleasantries to last forever should read Seymour Martin Lipset.”

Yet once again Lipset himself quietly anticipated that the ongoing late 20th century Americanization of the world beyond the USA was placing some limits on the continuing power of his concept of American exceptionalism. Good social scientist that he was, he could also see that by the start of the new Western millenium the great feudal aristocracies of the Old World had been largely consigned to Karl Marx’s dustbin of history too.

So Daniel Finkelstein in the Times of London reported on January 10: “One more episode in the intellectual journey of Seymour Martin Lipset is worth recording. Very near the end of his life … the great political scientist turned his attention to … the third way social democracy of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schrder … America, he argued, was still different, but it had become less exceptional. Europe – now more meritocratic, more rights-orientated, more libertarian – was becoming like America, and it too no longer provided good soil for the traditional Left … It’s a change I welcome but, reading Lipset, I wonder. Perhaps modern anti-Americans do not really dislike how different they are. They fear how similar we are becoming.”

Just two very final points on the subject seem worth adding from a particularly Canadian perspective. (And Canada, whatever its many other contemporary faults may be, is at least closer to the USA today than any other country in the world, with the partial exceptions of Mexico and Cuba – well, adding Cuba is a bit of a joke of course, but perhaps not altogether in the end?)

First, Seymour Martin Lipset’s fans on the right might also want to bear in mind his advice to the Canadian admirers of Pierre Trudeau in 1970: “a democratic leftist ideology is synonymous with the social content of Americanism” – and: “Property relations apart, the social aspects of the doctrine of Americanism have a close resemblance to those advocated by socialists.”

Practically speaking, e.g., it remains very difficult for most Canadians to see how the current US health care system is more egalitarian than the current Canadian health care system (allowing that neither is close to any ideal). Social egalitarianism, as Marty Lipset also reminds us, finally is a key ingredient in the ideology of Americanism. Many Canadians nowadays do tend to think like many Americans about such things, and vice-versa. Many Americans will cheerfully buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada as they celebrate their proud Americanism. And the current “drifting leftward” in “American domestic policy” may not have quite as sharp limits as David Brooks is hoping for. You can at least read the works of Professor Lipset and still quite reasonably entertain such thoughts. (That is another one of its subtle scientific attractions.)

The second point relates to the broader question of the ultimate fate of the socialism that continued to obsess Seymour Martin Lipset, in the wider global village today. And it springs from whatever remains of the scale that puts Canada at 30, where the US is 0 and the UK 100 (or France for that matter, though in this case Canada would be only 20 or perhaps just 15). Canadians who still read the London Review of Books (as well as the New York Review of Books), that is to say, may have noticed a recent intriguing article by the Indian author Pankaj Mishra, on a trip to the great economic miracle in contemporary Shanghai:

“Cui Zhiyuan, a professor at Tsinghua University … told me: We are still in a phase of development where we can innovate, build new institutions designed for Chinese conditions, whereas things are fixed in Europe and America, and all even left-wing politicians do is some minor tinkering.’ … Hu and Wen’s public commitment to building a socialist countryside’ may be no more than an attempt … to build national cohesion around quasi-socialist values and ideas, especially since social unrest, attested by the large number of protests registered last year, is growing across China. Nevertheless, the choice of words reveals how potent the word socialist’ remains in China … its growing appeal suggests that the post-Mao reversals of ideology and politics based on a simple moral opposition between socialism and capitalism, the free market and the state, private and public property are beginning to lose their force as the storm of progress blowing through China continues to scatter debris everywhere.”

Randall White is the author of a number of books, including Voice of Region: The Long Journey to Senate Reform in Canada and Is Canada Trapped in a Time Warp? Political Symbols in the Age of the Internet.

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