Still the Exceptional Nation?

Sunday, April 30, 2000

It was, of course, Alexis de Tocqueville who first gave birth to the idea of "American exceptionalism," a concept he coined. In Democracy in America (1835–40), the young Frenchman wrote that the United States, the lone successful democracy of his time, differed from all the European nations in lacking a feudal past and in being more socially egalitarian, more meritocratic, more individualistic, more rights-oriented, and more religious.

In nineteenth-century America, the ideology of the American Revolution was transformed into an all-encompassing classical liberalism stressing liberty, antistatism, and individualism. In Europe, a dominant conservativism was wedded to the state—it was conservatives such as Britain's Benjamin Disraeli, for example, who invented the welfare state—and it naturally gave birth to state-centered opposition, social democracy. Because its libertarian ideology stifled the emergence of a state-centered opposition, the United States became an anomaly.

Today, however, the United States once again finds itself the apparent image of the future. Not only is it the world's sole superpower and its economic colossus, but it seems to be pointing the way toward the political future. The American political system, long considered an aberration because its two main parties embrace liberal capitalism, now looks like the model for the developed world.


The old economy of General Motors, U.S. Steel, and Standard Oil has given way to the economy of Microsoft, Citigroup—and McDonald's.


Nothing symbolizes this change more dramatically than the political pep rally–cum–summit meeting that brought four social democratic heads of government to Washington in April 1999 under the auspices of America's centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Britain's Tony Blair, Germany's Gerhard Schröder, the Netherlands' Wim Kok, and Italy's Massimo D'Alema did not come to press the cause of democratic socialism on their backward cousins across the Atlantic. They wanted to cooperate with Democrat Bill Clinton in affirming what they called the Third Way. And they have done so more than once, meeting most recently in Florence last November, where they were joined by Brazil's Fernando Henrique Cardoso. These putative social democratic leaders, as Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne notes, "accept capitalism as a given, but promise to do something about its inequalities and uncertainties. They talk not of 'socialism' but of 'community,' not of 'collectivism' but of 'solidarity.'" They sound, in other words, very much like America's New Democrats.

But if this trend continues, will it make sense any longer to speak of American exceptionalism? Will the political cultures of other advanced societies increasingly converge with that of the United States?

Breakdown of the Old Order

The change in the character of Europe's political parties largely reflects the remaking of Europe's economic and class structures along American lines. The European emphasis on stände, or fixed, explicitly hierarchical social classes, rooted in a feudal and monarchical past, is increasingly a thing of the past. Growing economic productivity is opening access to everything from clothes, cars, and other consumer goods to advanced schooling, powerfully muting the "lifestyle" differences, including accents and dress, that traditionally separated Europe's social classes. The new economic order has been accompanied by demographic shifts, notably a drastic decline in birthrates and an extension of life spans, that have confronted all the developed nations with a common dilemma: raise taxes significantly to pay for more social security, health care, welfare, and other expensive government services or find ways to cut spending.

The United States has led the economic transformation, shifting sharply away from the old industrial economy built on manual labor, a process that was especially agonizing during the 1970s and '80s. The old economy of General Motors, U.S. Steel, and Standard Oil has given way to the economy of Microsoft, Citigroup—and McDonald's. The proportion of workers employed in manufacturing fell from 26 percent in 1960 to 16 percent in 1996. In the United Kingdom, manufacturing employment declined from 36 percent of the total to 19 percent, a pattern that prevails from Sweden (with a drop from 32 to 19 percent) to Australia (from 26.0 to 13.5 percent).

The Old World societies are also following the American lead away from class awareness and organization. Union membership, for example, is declining almost everywhere. Between 1985 and 1995, the proportion of the American labor force carrying a union card fell by 21 percent. Today, only 14 percent of all employed Americans—and only 10 percent of those in the private sector—belong to unions. The proportional losses in France and Britain have been even greater, 37 percent and 28 percent, respectively. In Germany, the decline is a more modest 18 percent.

During the post–World War II era, the distribution of income and occupational skills in Europe has reshaped itself to fit American contours. It has changed from something best illustrated by a pyramidal shape, enlarging toward the bottom, to one better illustrated by a diamond, widest in the middle. The traditional working class, in other words, is shrinking. The middle class is growing, creating solidly bourgeois societies in Europe. Political parties on the left now have little choice but to appeal more to the growing middle strata than to their traditional constituencies, industrial workers and the poor.

Why the Left Keeps Moving Right

Many political analysts here and abroad still do not fully appreciate the extent to which the left's new course, its centrist Third Way, is the product of common developments throughout the economically advanced democracies rather than events or leaders peculiar to each country. The collapse of communism, though a heavy blow to the socialist idea, was not the decisive factor. The earliest signs of change came well before anyone dreamed that the Berlin Wall would not survive the millennium. During the 1980s, the Labor Parties of Australia and New Zealand cut income taxes, pursued economic deregulation, and privatized important industries.

But the pivotal event in this late-twentieth-century political transition was the British election of 1997 (on May Day, ironically), which the Labour Party won by an overwhelming margin after it had abandoned its historic emphasis on public ownership and class politics. Tony Blair's victory marked the end of a century of socialist efforts to eliminate private ownership of the economy in Europe. As a London investment banker observed, "We have got fundamentally two parties now far more like the Democrats and Republicans, instead of socialists and capitalists."

Blair has deliberately followed the free-market, smaller-government policies of President Clinton. It was Blair, then Britain's opposition leader, who in 1995 first uttered the words "The era of big government is over," which became the sentence of the decade when Clinton repeated them a few months later. Blair's New Labour no longer automatically takes the side of trade unions. Organized labor, he emphasizes, must cooperate "with management to make sure British industry is competitive." Blair promised in a 1997 interview that his administration would "leave British law the most restrictive on trade unionism in the Western world."

One of Blair's first actions after taking office was to shift authority over monetary policy and interest rates from the Treasury to the Bank of England, thereby reducing the power of the party controlling the government to affect the economy. Another initiative, launched after his first postelection meeting with Bill Clinton, was a welfare reform designed to sharply reduce the number of Britons on the dole by pressing single mothers to take paying jobs. Blair promised to "be tough on the long-term unemployed who refuse jobs." In Parliament, he declared that "for millions, the welfare state denies rather than provides opportunity." Not surprisingly, the Iron Lady found much to approve of in Blair's New Labour. "Britain will be safe in the hands of Mr. Blair," Baroness Thatcher declared.

At his jubilant meeting with Clinton, held barely a month after Labour's triumph in the British elections, Blair noted that both prefer "reason to doctrine" and are "indifferent to ideology." Clinton and Blair agreed that the "progressive parties of today are the parties of fiscal responsibility and prudence." The two leaders called for partnership with business to create jobs, replacing the "old battles between state and market."

The story is much the same among left parties outside the English-speaking world. The Swedish Social Democrats, who held office with only two interludes out of power (1976–82 and 1991–98) from the early 1930s on, have also reversed course. The Social Democrat finance minister during most of the 1980s, Kjell-Olof Feldt, sharply reduced the progressivity of his country's tax system and emphasized the necessity of "accepting private ownership, the profit motive, and differences of income and wealth." Feldt wrote: "The market economy's facility for change and development and therefore economic growth has done more to eliminate poverty" and "the exploitation of the working class" than any political intervention in the market's system of distribution.

Across the Oeresund, the Danish Social Democratic government has also been speaking in terms that no American Republican could reject. In Spain, before he left office in 1996, Felipe Gonzalez converted his party—which was Marxist in its initial post-Franco phase—to support of privatization, the free market, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Echoing Winston Churchill, Gonzalez argued that a competitive free-market economy is marked by greed, corruption, and the exploitation of the weak by the strong—but is also "the least-bad economic system in existence."

Then there is Germany, where Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has proclaimed that his Social Democratic Party (SPD) is part of a "new middle" rather than the left. John Vinocur of the International Herald-Tribune notes that the new middle "is a place where words like 'risk,' 'entrepreneurial spirit,' and 'flexible labor markets' coincide with expressions of allegiance to social justice and fair income distribution."

The editors of The Economist, noting a few years ago that in most Western countries "the left keeps on moving right," summed up the situation elsewhere in Europe: "In Central Europe, ex-Communists running Poland and Hungary . . . have been boldly trying to reinvent their states on a basis of free markets and respect for private property. The shift of gravity within the left-wing parties in the south has been no less striking. In Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece the left has moved sharply to the right."

There are two interesting European exceptions to the retreat from socialism. One is Norway, whose abundant North Sea oil revenues make it easy to underwrite an expansive welfare state. The other is France. The French left operates in a society where dirigisme, the concept of a strong directing state has been as powerful a cultural organizing principle as antistatism has been in the United States—producing a French "uniqueness" that may be the counterpoint to the American exceptionalism.

France is that rare country where a solid majority of citizens still tell pollsters that the word bureaucrat has a positive connotation and that they would like their children to work for the government. The right and left both approve of a strong state, a tradition going back to the monarchy, the empire, and the Revolution. Although the Socialists, who resumed power following France's 1997 parliamentary elections, have instituted some modest market-oriented reforms, they are stuck in a curious position. As journalist Roger Cohen observes, "The Gaullist attachment to the state and rejection of market reform [has] encouraged the Socialists to keep further to the left, to distinguish themselves." At the Third Way summit in Florence last November, French prime minister Lionel Jospin pointedly turned his back when Clinton spoke, facing what the New York Times described as a "somewhat bemused" Gerhard Schröder.

Curiously, the country most often cited as a model by European social demo-crats is the Netherlands, once considered a model nanny state. With an unemployment rate of about 3 percent, far below those of the major continental economies (and a point below the U.S. rate), and rapid economic growth, the Dutch under a government headed by a former union leader, Wim Kok of the Labor Party, have accepted wholesale changes. Unemployment benefits have been cut, and the rules for sick and disability pay have been tightened. Rules for hiring and firing and for opening new businesses have been eased. Social security taxes have been cut. In a "social pact," the unions, then led by Kok, agreed to limit wage increases to 2 percent a year, in part on the premise that more jobs would be created. One government official says that "the Dutch miracle . . . is that our labor unions could be convinced to rally around a free market economy."

Value Differences Remain

Yet for all that, the United States remains exceptional in other important ways. It is still an outlier at one end of many international indicators of behavior and values. It is still much less statist and welfare-oriented, and its governments (federal and state) tax and spend much less in proportionate terms than European governments. It is the most religious country in Christendom, the only one still strongly influenced by the moralistic and individualistic ethos of Protestant sectarianism. It has higher rates of mobility into elite positions than any other nation. It combines exceptional levels of productivity, income, and wealth with exceptionally low levels of taxation and social spending and equally exceptional levels of income inequality and poverty.


France is that rare country where a solid majority of citizens still tell pollsters that the word bureaucrathas a positive connotation and that they would like their children to work for the government.


Despite the European left's embrace of the free market, European governments are still, by American standards, deeply involved in the economy and society. The differences stem in part from historical identities and values, in part from institutions that have been established over the last century. Once in place, government policies are defended by those who benefit from them, even as they continue to shape expectations about what government can do. The major European countries provided important social services long before the United States, which did not enact pension, unemployment, or industrial accident insurance until the 1930s. It is the only developed nation that does not have a government-supported, comprehensive medical system, and it is one of the few that do not provide child support to all families.

Today, Americans are still more opposed than Europeans to government involvement in economic affairs, whether through wage and price controls, publicly funded job creation, or the length of the work week. Nor are they favorably disposed toward government regulation in other realms, such as seat belt laws. Only 23 percent of Americans believe it is government's responsibility "to take care of very poor people who can't take care of themselves," according to a 1998 study by the late public opinion expert Everett Carll Ladd. They are less disposed than Europeans to believe that the state is obligated to supply a job for everyone who wants one, to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed, or to guarantee a basic income.

The value differences between the United States and Europe are also reflected in attitudes toward social mobility and personal achievement. Americans are more likely than Europeans to see personal effort, hard work, ambition, education, and ability as more important for getting ahead in life than social background. Confronted with the proposition that "what you achieve depends largely on your family background" in a 1990 survey, only 31 percent of Americans agreed, compared with 53 percent of the British, 51 percent of the Austrians, and 63 percent of the Italians. Asked to choose between hard work and "luck and connections" as the most likely route to a better life, 44 percent of Americans pointed to hard work. Only 24 percent of the most like-minded European group, the British, agreed.

Still Exceptional?

Does it still make sense to speak of the United States as the exceptional nation? As social democratic parties the world over shift toward the free market, the differences between the United States and other Western democracies may continue to narrow. Yet deeply rooted institutions and values do not easily lose their influence. The Western democracies may now all fit the liberal mold, but liberalism, too, has its divides. Europe still tends toward the economically egalitarian side, with a penchant for active government; Americans prefer a competitive, individualist society with equality of opportunity and effective but weak government.

There is no reason, moreover, to believe that we have seen the end of change—much less the "end of history." For all its rewards, the free market is not a source of great inspiration. Capitalism does not pledge to eliminate poverty, racism, sexism, pollution, or war. It does not even promise great material rewards to all. Neoconservative thinker Irving Kristol echoes a long line of capitalism's defenders when he allows that it offers "the least romantic conception of a public order that the human mind has ever conceived."

It is hard to believe that the West's now-contented young will not some day hunger again for the "exalted notions" that Aristotle described more than two thousand years ago. Yet when they do, America will still have an ideological vision, the individualist, achievement-oriented American creed, with which to motivate its young to challenge reality. The evolving social vision of Europe will necessarily harken back to the very different ideals of the French Revolution and social democracy.

One does not have to peer far into the future to see that the contest between the forces of change and the defenders of the status quo is not over. In the formerly communist countries of Europe, left and liberal advocates of the free market and democracy confront conservative defenders of the power of state bureaucracies. Elsewhere in Europe, Green Parties press the cause of environmentalism and other postmaterialist concerns. And nobody can predict what forces may be put into play by future events, from economic crisis to the rise of China. New movements and ideologies will appear and old ones will be revived. Economic hardship may bolster communitarian efforts to relegitimate the state's role in attacking social, sexual, and racial inequalities.

Even looking only at what is already in view, the United States still stands out. For instance, in every one of the thirteen richest countries in the European Union, Green Parties are represented in the national parliament or the country's delegation to the European Parliament. Greens have recently participated in ruling government coalitions in Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, and Italy. Only the United States lacks even a minimally effective Green Party. One of the great puzzles of the twentieth century was posed by the title of German sociologist Werner Sombart's 1906 book, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? The puzzle of the twenty-first century may be, Why is there no Green Party in the United States?