The United States currently finds itself in a very difficult position. The nation is beset with an extremely high budget deficit, enormous national debt, increasing racial tensions, a continuing tax revolt, and numerous governmental scandals. Concurrently, the world is witnessing the resurgence of the economies of Japan and western Europe. Ironically, the United States is bitterly divided just at the moment it needs unity to meet the coming economic challenges. To find out why the United States is having such difficulties in adjusting to the new world of global economic competition, we review social scientific theories that explain American character and society.

Max Lerner (1957), in America as a Civilization, has a section entitled "Why Was America a Success?" In it he summarizes several social scientific theories that emphasize the uniqueness of the American experience. These theories stress the nation's wonderful "exceptionalism." According to popular belief and these complimentary social scientific theories, the nation should not currently be in a difficult situation. What did these theories miss? Chapter 1 discusses the complimentary theories, while chapter 2 treats theories that are critical of the United States. Common to both sets of theories, however, is an underplaying of the full impact of racism. Conservative theorists underplay racism because they do not believe the country is fundamentally racist. Liberals underplay racism because they claim it is an American dilemma that the nation is slowly working to overcome. And Marxists underplay racism because they place almost all their emphasis on the workings of the capitalist economic structure.

Chapter 3 presents the model of the American South as an example of the way sociological analyses of the United States as a whole should proceed. Chapters 4 and 5 apply this analysis to the entire United States. Chapter 4 examines the theory of the distribution of wealth, status, and power in the nation: the equality-of-opportunity thesis. This thesis is at the heart of American racism. Chapter 5 discusses the consequences of racism for the American nation as a whole. Chapter 6 presents a model of American society that better fits the historical data. Chapter 7 explains why American sociologists are racist and Chapter 8 explains why the social sciences (and sociology in particular) are composed primarily of politically acceptable lies.


Religious Versions

In the thirteen colonies, the notion of being "American" developed in the eighteenth century. When the colonists began to think of themselves as distinct from Europeans, they said they saw the hand of God working to guide America to a beneficent history. Early historians uncritically adopted this view and wrote of Americans as God's Chosen Ones. This view was certainly comforting to many of the descendants of the religious groups that founded the country.

Closely associated with a stress on the importance of religion in the work of historians were the then popular ideas of social Darwinism (which was really social Lamarckianism), racism, and imperialism (see Curti 1987:553). Historian John Fiske felt that God worked through evolution to create the greatest nation on earth and that the country had a mission to lead lesser races and countries. Alfred Thayer Mahan (see Burns 1957:48), adopting the European theories of the natural superiority of Anglo-Saxons, wrote that America should follow in Britain's imperialist footsteps.

This religious interpretation of America may seem like old- fashioned, but it is an idea that continues to influence American politicians, who often spout it from the speaker's platform. President Harry Truman (quoted in Burns 1957:14) declared at the 1952 Democratic National Convention that, under his administration, America had "finally stepped into the leadership which Almighty God intended us to assume a generation ago." And as president, Ronald Reagan made numerous references to God in his crowd-pleasing speeches.

The Genius of American Government

Another traditional approach to explaining American uniqueness has been to emphasize the importance of the ideas of political liberty, the Constitution, and American government. Writers in this vein see the founding fathers as virtual geniuses, who added something unique to the world.

Clinton Rossiter was an outstanding spokesmen for this view. In Seedtime of the Republic: The Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (1953) he stressed the importance of political ideas to the development of America; of these, he viewed political liberty as the most important. In Parties and Politics in America (1960) he continued this thesis, noting the impressive longevity of the American government and rejoicing in its durability.

This school can wax eloquent about the wonders of America. Brock (1965) wrote how the country rapidly expanded without disunion and without recourse to despotism. He praised the nation for being nonsocialist and seemingly without great class conflict. The author viewed this as especially praiseworthy in a multiethnic society. Brock also admired the confidence of American business, which he found so ready to remake the world.

Writers in this tradition ignore the fact that the founding fathers actually created a very weak government. And they certainly underemphasize the influence of racism on the creation of American government. It is naive to assume that because the founding fathers chose not to deal with the race issue that it did not affect their governmental designs. As we show later, the entire emphasis on the power of the individual states as opposed to the federal government resulted from the southern states' slave economies.

Those who praise American government are overly impressed by the nation's long history of democracy. A number of European democracies have also been long-lived. (One such is Switzerland, which has serious ethnic problems that result from different ethnic groups being concentrated in separate geographic areas.) Yet these nations do not have the serious internal strife plaguing the United States. Moreover, to view American government as a great achievement, one has virtually to ignore such major events as the Civil War, the southern apartheid system, and continuing racial injustice. Theorists who praise American government have not realized how weak American government is in actual practice. It may have appeared as a marvelous invention during the early stages of capitalism, but as capitalism enters a new phase requiring considerable governmental involvement, the weaknesses of the American system have become all too apparent.

The Frontier

Frederick Jackson Turner (1986; first published 1893) wrote the classic The Frontier in American History, in which he stressed the frontier element in the determination of the American character. The author wrote that what made the United States unique was its frontier democracy and individualism. He argued that the western frontier kept fresh the agrarian-democratic values of America. Turner's writings provided a very flattering picture that emphasized America as a blessed and fortunate nation. To him, the frontier was the real melting pot for the national heritages of the ethnic groups that went west. This mixture supposedly resulted in a unique blend that created the new American.

Certainly the West had an important influence on the political development of the United States, but it did not fundamentally alter the character of the nation, which had already been set by the experiences during the colonial era. One simply has to contrast the planned and deliberate methods of Canada's settlement of its western provinces with the lawlessness and disorder of the American approach to reveal the inherent flaws in Turner's approach. Turner failed to see that the main reason why the West was such an important political factor in American history was that North and South were virtually deadlocked over the slavery issue. Any change in this unhealthy standoff would have to come from states not so industrial or not so deeply enmeshed in slavery; in other words, from the West.

The Melting Pot

One of the reasons frequently given for American "exceptionalism" is immigration and the consequent blending of different ethnic groups. While the theory of Anglo-conformity has always been the dominant one in America, in 1908 an English Jewish writer named Israel Zangwill gave a particularly eloquent rendering of this popular view. In that year Zangwill wrote a drama entitled The Melting Pot, in which he had several soliloquies that developed a melting-pot theory. His view saw Americans as the result of a unique blend of the best cultural features of various immigrant groups.

The idea of the melting pot has been challenged by various theorists of cultural pluralism. Will Herberg (1955) in Protestant, Catholic, Jew wrote that the idea of the melting pot was misleading and that the nation was actually a transmutation pot wherein immigrants adapted to the dominant culture. Citing such evidence as the increasing number of intrafaith marriages of people from different nations, Herberg actually saw three transmutation pots differentiated by religious heritage. Within the three pots, national origin was decreasing in significance.

Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1970) in Beyond the Melting Pot criticized Herberg's thesis. They maintained that national origin was still very much alive in this country. While the authors are correct, their thesis was true mostly of the family values of each group. Certainly the ethnic groups coming to the United States have accepted, rather than challenged, the "American way."

The melting pot and cultural pluralism tend to be self- congratulatory theories. They encourage further tolerance, but they underplay America's continuing racial and ethnic difficulties. The theories also deemphasize race while overemphasizing ethnicity as an important factor in the nation's history.

Ethnicity has never been the divisive factor that race has been. The United States lost more than 624,000 men in the fight over the slavery issue, but only a fraction of that number in ethnic violence. Racism is still very much with us today; it haunts our every discussion of the nation's past, present, and future. While immigration has been an important factor, it is of secondary importance to the racial division. Indeed, all white immigrant groups are placed above blacks in American society. In fact, new immigrants economically and socially benefit from the racism that provides a permanent caste of workers to do the most unpleasant and least- rewarded tasks in the nation.

Indeed, the ethnic system in the United States is an extension of the racist system -- it is similar to what is known in criminology as the pyramid scheme. White ethnic groups are generally expected to start at the bottom of the white ladder of social mobility and work hard without complaining in their climb to the American dream of relative economic wealth. They are not expected to ask for governmental assistance, since the attitude of the dominant groups is that new immigrants should be thankful for being allowed into the country in the first place. Obviously, white ethnic groups that arrived earliest in time greatly benefit from this system of economic exploitation and help ensure conservative political views.

Laissez-faire Theories

One of the most popular theories explaining the success of the United States is its ready adoption of the laissez-faire philosophy. There have been many proponents of this philosophy. In fact, a whole school of thought, popularly known as the Scottish philosophers, promoted the laissez-faire view (see Schneider 1967). Nevertheless, Adam Smith became the most best known of the writers in this vein when in 1776 he published The Wealth of Nations. The laissez-faire thesis is a very mechanistic theory. Influenced by Isaac Newton's discovery of basic scientific principles, economists reasoned that without governmental interference, the economy would reach a natural equilibrium.

Two outstanding later theorists in this tradition were the Englishman Herbert Spencer and the American William Graham Sumner. These men stated the old philosophy in terms of the new Lamarckian, not Darwinian, theory of survival of the fittest. (Darwin's ideas were too radical for nineteenth-century America; see Bowler 1988 and Russett 1976.) Sumner is especially notable for his defense of the moral aspects of America's economic system. This in turn led the way for the growth of the laissez-faire school of American economics.

The laissez-faire model is based on an old-fashioned equilibrium model of nature developed by various biological thinkers. Recently, a revolution in biological thinking has taken place regarding the basic theory of nature (Pickett 1991). Any theory of equilibrium is misleading, it is argued, given that more than 90 percent of all species that have ever existed on the face of the earth are now extinct. Indeed, how can one be content with a soothing balance theory when humans themselves face extinction through ecological pollution? The fact is that the laissez-faire theory is much too conservative and selfish, and given the massiveness of the ecological problems facing us, potentially suicidal.

The laissez-faire philosophy is at the cornerstone of the American belief system. It is most forcefully expressed in the equality- of-opportunity thesis that is the basic theory of the distribution of wealth, status, and power in the United States. One can hear it stated at any meeting of one's local chamber of commerce. And with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, laissez-faire ideas achieved renewed life. (Since this theory is so central to American life, it is discussed at length in chapter 4.)

Structural-Functional and Value Interpretations

Most American social scientists are anti-Marxist. In sociology, this sentiment has created a literature that emphasizes social stability as the most important concern. These theorists, greatly influenced by the writings of Herbert Spencer, are known as structural functionalists because they emphasize that the various parts of the overall social system are so tightly interwoven and interdependent that the system as a whole tends to stabilize in an equilibrium process.

The group followed the sociological tradition set by the German theorist Max Weber, who emphasized values as an antidote to Marxism. Consequently, structural-functional theorists stress the importance of values over structural and economic variables. Some of the outstanding theorists in this tradition are Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton.

In many ways structural functionalism is an application of classic laissez-faire theory to society. In other words, all the parts balance each other for an overall beneficial equilibrium. These theorists are largely politically liberal, yet they tend to underestimate and deemphasize the injustices and conflicts inherent in the nation's distributive system.

The same forces that affected sociology deeply affected the discipline of history. Whereas progressive historians had tended to see American history as a struggle between the privileged and the less privileged, the new consensus school writers emphasize cultural homogeneity, consensus, and continuity (see Bernstein 1968 for a review of this school). Members of the consensus school include Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter (after a previously Progressive start), and Louis Hartz.

Like the structural functionalists, political scientists have also been affected by consensus approaches. Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba (1965) published The Civic Culture, in which they emphasized that many nations have great difficulties in instituting democracy because they do not have a political culture that is democratic. In other words, people in the third world have no traditions of free speech and voting that are necessary to the establishment of a long-lasting democracy. The authors' work puts too much emphasis on the role of values and culture in political democracies and does not adequately stress the internal conflicts and divisions that are ultimately responsible for the lack of democratic traditions in Third World nations. In addition, the assumption that the United States should be a model for Third World countries is a very questionable one. Conveniently, there is little mention of the fundamental importance of race in American society. These writers are certainly not alone in this as the books on comparative politics also downplay or ignore the influence of race and ethnicity on American history and government (see Epstein 1967 and James and Hardgrave 1973).

Cycle Theories

Cyclical approaches to American history are usually optimistic in that the cycles are seen as moving ever forward in a progressive manner. In the 1960s there was considerable discussion of the Third World and its problems. Americans were extremely worried about the apparent appeal of Marxism to many of the leaders and people of the developing countries. The United States needed a strong anticommunist answer. Seymour Martin Lipset (1963) in The First New Nation provided such a theory with his interpretation of the United States as the first new nation. He wanted to show Third World leaders that they could follow America's example. He even emphasized the American Revolution as the source of the country's national identity. (Later, we argue that it is closer to the truth to state that racism was the source of the country's national identity.)

While Lipset notes many criticisms of America, he argues that these critiques have always existed. He presents a cyclical theory in that he emphasizes that there are two basic values in America: equality and achievement. They can complement each other or contradict each other, but they provide the dynamism to the American system. In conservative times Americans emphasize achievement; in more liberal times, they emphasize equality.

The problem with Lipset's overall thesis is that given America's exceptionalism, the United States probably will never be taken as a model of economic and political development. The nation also has such serious problems with race that most of the Third World has rejected America as a model for economic development.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1986) in The Cycles of American History (1986) develops a cyclical theory of American history. The author sees the nation's history as one of swings back and forth between liberal reforms and conservative restabilization. Samuel P. Huntington (1981) in American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony thinks the cycles occur every third generation. Kevin Phillips's (1990) The Politics of Rich and Poor has drawn a great deal of attention in political circles. He discusses the Republican party cycles of the twentieth century.

While the concept of cycles is useful heuristically and pedagogically, it tends to be very restrictive. Analysts start counting the number of years between cycles, as if cycles occurred every thirty or forty-five years. This is not only an ahistorical but also an atheoretical approach. Moreover, the theories do not explain why the swings occur. Another problem with cyclical theories is that, with the elections of Presidents Reagan and Bush, one had to include the existence of counter cycles in supposedly progressive America.

The Influence of Racism

The liberal tradition dealing with race has been to underplay race because racism does not touch the core of American values. This comforting attitude owes a great debt to Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, published in 1944. Myrdal wrote that there is a fundamental contradiction between the nation's values of liberty, equality, justice, and equal opportunity and the degraded position of blacks.

The problem with this analysis is that it does not see that the values of America, summed up in the equality-of-opportunity doctrine, are both a cover and an excuse for racism. Racism is not an American dilemma; it is at the heart of American values because it is at the core of the American social and economic structure.

Related to the falsehood of the American dilemma is the concept of the American paradox. When discussing American society, one of the most frequently heard and used phrases is, "It's a paradox." One can think of hundreds of examples of these paradoxes (some of which are discussed in the chapter on American values and culture). In fact, there are so many paradoxes that one wonders why it has not called into question the validity of the liberal theories that purport to explain the nature of American society. Once we take into account that the heart of America is racism itself, these paradoxes disappear. If the United States is going to move beyond racism, liberals will have to adopt what is now seen only as a radical position: that America is racist to its core, including its cultural values.

Max Lerner

Max Lerner (1957:48) in his America as a Civilization combined many of the factors listed by various observers and students of America into a standard orthodox liberal theory of American society. He saw American uniqueness resulting from such factors as a fresh start with a nonnobility culture, rich natural resources, the frontier, racial and ethnic pluralism, a system of economic opportunity, optimism about the nation, pragmatism, and the idea of equality. While having an appropriate level of liberal skepticism and criticism, Lerner's book is a virtual celebration of the American nation and spirit. All the influences that Lerner cited are real influences on the United States. But what Lerner left out is perhaps the most important influence: racism.


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