July 09, 2006


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 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-focuused, 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 people in history.

(Cross-posted at one small voice.)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at July 9, 2006 06:40 PM

I think one of the main differences between America and other advanced nations is the absence of a safety net. Yes, we have things like welfare but nothing like socialized medicine in Canada nor the huge social programs implemented in France. If you don't show up to work, you get fired, simple as that. I think this attitude of sink or swim is infinitely better for society as a whole and explains why we are so advanced. Yet even with this the only way you are kicked to the curb in the literal sense is if you don't have enough gumption to go out and get a simple job - ANY JOB. All you really need to do is get up and go to work on a regular basis and you will be rewarded with food, shelter, a car and a relatively comfortable existence.

Even the unions are making it harder to slack off, at least the ones I deal with in the heating and air conditioning (HVAC) industry here in the Midwest.

Another point if I may is that in our capitalist society we must work efficiently or die. I work in the field of HVAC distribution and am always interested in conversations with vendors of mine that have a European presence. Every single one of them wishes they had distribution models like the ones here in the US. So much efficiency is lost by not allowing the manufacturers "farm out" the work of distributing their products. Guys like me stock their products locally, allowing the manufacturer to have a presence in the market. I am told that in Europe and elsewhere there are very few methods of distribution and the manufacturers have to spend valuable time and energy ensuring their customers in the field can get parts and equipment timely and cost effectively. Here in America we have a huge business devoted exclusively to distribution (whether it be electrical, HVAC, plumbing or whatever) which realizes huge efficiencies. The flipside is that if we slow down innovating ways to distribute more effectively, someone else will, and we will be kicked to the curb - fast.

Maybe these are not larger points that you are trying to make, but I thought that a few real life examples would help the conversation. Is the distribution system in the US part of the maverick attitude that sets us apart from other parts of the world and the Anglosphere? Possibly.

Posted by: Dan from Madison at July 10, 2006 07:29 AM

Peter, I would generally agree with what you have said. The only thing I would point out would be the presence of a sort of middle ground consisting of the rest of the core Anglosphere. The British Tories haven't really been pure pateralist Tories since the 1880s, when they became, strictly speaking, "Conservatives and Unionists" after the inflow of Liberals opposed to Irish Home Rule; a second, and perhaps more significant inflow of Liberals (including Churchill) happened after the collapse of the Liberal Party in the 1920s. So the modern Conservaives have included both Whig and Tory strains; Thatcher was certainly from the latter. And in Australia the Tories disappeared entirely, and the rather Whiggish Liberals are the party of the Right. In Canada of course the Western conservatives have been quite Whiggish, and only recetnly reunited with the paternalist Tory side of the party.

And the paternalist streak has not been entirely absent in America; both Roosevelts were rather paternalistic. Maybe it's significant that they came from the old Dutch Hudson Valley regional culture, which had the closest thing to an Old World peasant tenantry that the US has seen.

And of course Canada has not had a mass socialist movement of the European type, either -- it has had a more paternalist Conservative party, and a social-democratic strain in its Left politics, but no mass support for a planned, systematic nationalization of the economy. Things like its Medicare system (not socialized medicine, which would entail the doctors being state employees, but nationalized health insurance) come from a more case-by-case pragmatic paternalism than a systemized socialist ideology.

Even the British Labour Party was distinct from its Continental counterparts. Although it was programmatically socialist, calling for nationalizing of all major industry (but never got much further than coal and rail, and briefly, steel) it was never formally Marxist, and had roots more in dissenting Protestantism and moral egalitarianism than in Marxist ideology. In general it preferred to have weak private industry and strong unions than to take over the industries and actually have to make the difficult tradeoffs themselves. And in the end, when Blair abolished the (long-dead) nationalization plank, it made very little difference. They had always been more liberal or at most social-democrat than socialist.

And "non-socialist" America actually has a fair amount of goverment-run industries, particularly when state and city governments are considered. At this point the US probably has a higer percentage of government-run industries than Britain, Canada, or Australia. Thatcher privatized Britain's airports and air traffic control; Reagan never maaged that here.

So, many of the differences between America and the rest of the Anglosphere are a matter more of degree than kind, and often just atmospherics. My power and water are provided by gvernment; my in-laws in England use private providers. In America we budget for health insurance, while in Britain people expect the government to provide it (although they buy supplemetal insurance for private care if they're middle class or above); in Britain people budget for school tuition for their children, while in America even middle-class or upper-middle-class parents expect the school district to do a damned good job tuition-free, unless they live in a big city. Which set of assumptions is more "socialist"? My own impression is that it's six of one, half-dozen of the other.

The big differences are in perpection, attitude, and narrative. Americans like to believe they're rugged individualists but scream like stuck pigs if somebody tries to curtail a government service they're used to; Brits like to believe their society is "fairer" but their institutions are often more ruthless (and less egalitarian) than ours.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at July 10, 2006 05:31 PM

IIRC, Chesterton claimed that the US is a sort of shared religious belief, or at least a vowed religious order. (Can't remember where I saw this, though I think it was connected to a riff on the form he had to sign when he visited the US, promising he wasn't there to foment anarchy, etc.)

Posted by: Maureen at July 11, 2006 11:55 AM