January 22, 2012


Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: Norton, 1996) ("The emphasis on Americanism as a political ideology has led to a utopian orientation among American liberals and conservatives. Both seek to extend the 'good society.' But the religious tradition of Protestant 'dissent' have called on Americans to be moralistic, to follow their conscience with an unequivocal emphasis not to be found in countries whose predominant denominations have evolved from state churches. The dissenters are 'the original sources both of the close intermingling of religion and politics that [has] characterized subsequent American history and of the moral passion that has powered the engines of political change in America. As Robert Bellah documented: 'The millenialism of the American Protestant tradition again and again spawned movements for social change and social reform." 'Americans are utopian moralists who press hard to institutionalize virtue, to destroy evil people, and eliminate wicked institutions and practices. A majority even tell pollsters that God is the moral guiding force in American democracy. They tend to view social and political drams as morality plays, as battles between God and the Devil, so that compromise is virtually unthinkable. To this day, Americans, in harmony with their sectarian roots, have a stronger sense of moral absolutism than Europeans and even Canadians. . . " "A sense of moral absolutism is, of course, part of what some people see as problematic about American foreign policy. . . ." Id. at 63. And for those of you who think American political cynicism is a recent phenomenon, remember Lipset is writing in the early 1990s when he, in a section titled "The Growth of cynicism," he notes the following: "Popular involvement in civil society apart, the evidence has been growing that all is not well with the American polity. Over the past three decades, opinion polls show that the citizenry is increasingly distrustful of its political leaders and institutions. When asked about their 'confidence' in government, large majorities, here as in almost every country, report that they have 'none,' 'little,' or 'a fair amount' of trust in the president and the legislative bodies. Those who are strongly positive are minorities, usually small ones." Id. at 281.).