Americans push unique mystique

March 28, 2000|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- Are Americans different? The question has been asked by scholars and writers at least since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote "Democracy in America" in the 1830s. His answer was, "Yes, they are" -- and he became the father to regularly emerging theories of American "exceptionalism."

The American, de Tocqueville thought, was exceptional because he lacked a feudal past, was more socially egalitarian, more meritocratic, more individualistic, more rights-oriented and more religious.

Now, in our globalizing world, ideas like that should be moving toward anachronism. If you listen to all the talk of free-market or e-market democracy, all people are becoming more like one another -- at faster or slower rates depending on where they began the journey. Depending on who is doing the talking, everybody else (usually) is becoming like us, or (less often) we are becoming like everybody else.

Maybe. In a provocative article in the current issue of the

cf03 Wilson Quarterly,

cf01 the journal of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Seymour Martin Lipset, a man of many impressive credentials, argues that they, basically other Westerners, may or may not be becoming like us, but we sure don't seem to be becoming like anyone else. (The description of de Tocqueville's ideas above comes from Mr. Lipset's essay.)

He argues that even as globalization rises and industrialism declines in developed societies, ideas and self-images have not followed proportionately. For instance, from 1960 to now, the number of workers in American manufacturing declined from 26 percent to 16 percent of the work force. During the same period, the number in Swedish manufacturing declined from 32 percent to 19 percent. But while the Swedes are more tolerant of capitalism and individualism than they were 50 years ago, they and almost all other Europeans have only combined American notions about income inequality as a prerequisite of economic growth with their continuing belief in egalitarian and communitarian values.

On that one, Mr. Lipset reports that survey research indicates that about half of Americans say they would choose earnings based on production, while two-thirds of British, French, Spanish and German respondents said they would choose fixed salaries. Along those same lines, he reports that in 1991 surveys, only 31 percent of Americans said they agreed with the statement, "What you achieve depends largely on your family background." The comparable figures for Great Britain and Italy were, respectively, 53 percent and 63 percent.

Interesting. I do think Americans are different, and I am certain I will not see a time when we are not. My own unscientific list of what makes us different would begin with this:

We are the only people I know of who raise our children to leave home -- to find themselves. Others raise kids to serve the family, the tribe or the state. Italians, for instance, don't waste energy debating family values. They have the classic kind. We don't.

Then I might add these other American exceptions:

We believe in the right to fail -- and move on. That is why we are so mobile and why our bankruptcy laws are so lenient.

We believe we are who we say we are. That is why half the resumes in the country are phony.

We are anti-history. The past is just that, past. And that is not always a bad thing by any means. We don't kill each other over something that happened hundreds of years ago. We don't even know what happened hundreds of years ago. We try things that have failed before -- and sometimes they work now.

We are much more religious, perhaps because we believe we are so superior that we must have been created by something far greater than man or chemistry.

We are vividly bipolar, believing in good and bad, Democrats and Republicans, and that there are two sides to every question. There are, of course, more sides than we understand, but it is easier to work with two.

We believe in continuing education. Most other adults think the idea of going back to school is daft; school is for children.

We believe we are going to get rich one way or another. Genius. Hard work. Luck. Regis Philbin. One way or another it's going to happen -- if not to us, then to our kids.

That's why we're Americans. I'm not sure globalization can change that.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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