Outline of the Chapter
- The Fundamental Question of Political Science: Who Rules?
- Understanding Politics: Ideas, Interests, Institutions
- Understanding American Political Development
- Understanding American Exceptionalism in a Comparative Context?
- Another Look at American Exceptionalism
I – Introduction↑
“U.S. Government and Politics” is a topic that in some ways needs no introduction. No matter where you come from in the world, you are probably familiar with American politics and American culture in at least some ways; this may be particularly true for Canadians, who share a border and, to some extent, a common North American culture with the USA. Yet even a deep familiarity with the daily drama of American politics is very different from understanding American politics and American political institutions as a whole. We should not assume that familiarity with American culture, or even familiarity with the day to day mass media coverage of political campaigns and speeches, can be a substitute for more serious consideration of American politics. We are familiar with American politics; this is not the same thing as understanding American politics.
What makes American politics worthy of study? American politics is interesting because of conflict and power. The cultural and political divisions of the United States, exemplified by the contrasting visions of government propounded by the Republican and Democratic parties, are the central attraction of the American political spectacle. The deep political differences that divide Americans have many possible sources. While almost all nations are divided by issues of economics, Americans seem to be particularly divided over questions related to race and religion. In few other Western societies has the problem of race relations loomed as large over the political scene as in the United States. Similarly, there are few other Western societies in which disputes over religious values play as significant a political role.1 Particularly in comparison with Canada. American political leaders and the American public appear to have deeper disagreements about fundamental aspects of political life: the scope of the state, the proper function of political institutions, the nature of individual rights. This gives American politics a sense of urgency that often seems lacking in Canadian politics. This perspective may be incorrect; there is a long and venerable tradition which suggests that the political differences between the Republicans and Democrats are minuscule and of no practical relevance. We will take this alternative perspective into account, but I think that the deep truth about American politics is very close to what appears on the surface—Americans are profoundly divided over political questions, and those divisions have become more stark over time. This might not make the USA more admirable than other countries; it does make the United States an interesting country to study.
Canadians have an additional interest in American politics because we are all affected by the USA’s immense power and influence. However, the same can arguably said about the rest of the world as well. The USA is the Rome of the contemporary world– which is not to say that it follows the political practices of Rome, or that it will share its fate. Politics in the USA, for the foreseeable future, will have an impact on politics throughout the world, and thus we all have an interest in understanding how the American political system operates.
The current era of American politics is of particular interest, not least because of our sense that America is in a state of crisis, or a state of decline. In the mid-1990s, the United States appeared to be at the zenith of its power. The Cold War against the Soviet Union and international communism had been won, or at least had come to an end; dire predictions that the American economic juggernaut would be halted by the rise of Japan had proven to be wildly off the mark; great American cities, in particular New York City, were experiencing a renaissance after a period of frightening decline; the economic possibilities of the internet were only beginning to be explored. Times were good, circa 1995. There were political disagreements, to be sure– many scholars and journalists observed at that time that the beliefs of political partisans were becoming much more polarized than they had been in the past.2 Yet these divisions did not prevent the American national government from taming what, at the time, appeared to be a serious debt crisis (if only they knew what was coming).3 The campaign of 2000 even suggested that the GOP (The “Grand Old Party,” familiar to you as the Republican Party) was pivoting to the centre, as former Texas Governor George W. Bush ran on a campaign of “compassionate conservatism.”4
We all know what happened next– a decade of terror, the (continued) rise of the security state, two failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; deepening divisions over domestic policy; a metastasizing national debt; a financial crisis in 2008 that left the economy crippled and left close to a quarter of Americans struggling to feed themselves. Major industrial cities such as Detroit, once the backbone of the American economy and the American middle class, have experienced shocking declines over the last half century. Washington D.C. and its environs has become, by some measures, the wealthiest urban region in North America. Developments in the Middle East, from Iraq to Syria to Egypt and beyond, suggest that, in matters of foreign policy, the American political class is both disoriented and divided, much to the delight of masters of realpolitik such as Vladimir Putin and the millenarian zealots of ISIS. Perhaps even more seriously, the apparent emergence of North Korea as a nuclear power constitutes a threat that is as difficult to manage as it is horrible to contemplate.
The divisions and disorders extend to the domestic sphere as well. The election of Donald Trump rivals the fall of the Berlin Wall in terms of being one of the most unexpected political events of the past half century. Trump entered the American Presidential race in 2015 as a complete political neophyte; very few political commentators (or political scientists) thought that he would be able to win the Republican nomination, let alone the Presidential race. How is it possible that a political outsider was able to seize control of one of the longest-lived political parties? How was a political amateur able to defeat one the most experienced political candidates in the United States? What does Trump’s electoral victory tell us about the state of American society today? One thing is certain: today, Americans– and their neighbours– are forced to live in very interesting times, and this makes the study of American government particularly timely.
This text aims to help you understand how the American government functions, as well as some of the most prominent features of American politics and society as a whole, in order to better understand the times we live in, and the future that we face. In addition, you will be introduced to some of the ways political scientists analyze and explain political life. My goal is to both introduce you to American politics and the discipline of political science– though I should note that we should not hesitate to criticize either. To begin with, we should consider what we mean by “political science.”
II – The Fundamental Question of Political Science: Who Rules?↑
Many of you, for very good reasons, will find the idea of a political science rather puzzling. Perhaps, like my younger brothers– both engineers– you will find the idea of “political science” hilarious– like astrological science, or the science of palm-reading. In the early to mid-20th century, many political scientists predicted that, by adopting the orientation of the behavioral sciences (such as psychology), and techniques of statistical analysis, political science would be able to provide concrete social benefits in the manner of, say, medical science.5 This prediction proved overly optimistic, to say the least. . Yet even though political science (and social science in general) have failed to contribute concrete social benefits in the manner of modern biology or modern physics, many political scientists think that it is useful to aspire to the level of predictive accuracy that is found within some of the natural sciences, and is supposedly found within the discipline of modern economics. Other political scientists continue to use traditional historical or “interpretive methods,” relying on the study of historical documents, laws, interviews and so on. I will try to introduce you to both modes of political science, though I admit that one of the main lessons I hope to convey is that we should be suspicious when political scientists claim to be certain about cause and effect relationships in political life. This is not because I am against science; on the contrary, it is because I think moderate skepticism is the best attitude to take towards all scientific claims.
Consider the following claim by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, in one of the very first books of political science, The Politics. Aristotle argued that, amongst other characteristics, human beings are political animals. This is not unique to human beings– there are many other political animals, such as bees or wolves, who live as societies or in groups– but human beings are more political than other animals. The reason for this, according to Aristotle, is that human beings, endowed with the capacity for reason and speech, also have the capacity to dispute over the conditions of social and political existence. Unlike bees, however, human beings have the ability to question the terms of political existence; we can dispute over the just and the unjust, the advantageous and disadvantageous. Now, what has this to do with the limits or difficulties of political science? In studying politics, we often allow our own partial understandings of the just and the good to shape our view of reality; even worse, our interests and prejudices can prevent us from understanding political life. Political science must strive to transcend ordinary partisan rancour, not in order to be indifferent to political life, but in order to properly assess political life.
Conflicts over the meaning of justice and injustice, political advantage and disadvantage are rooted in one fundamental question: who should rule? This is still the fundamental question of political science and political life, even if we do not always ask it directly, and even if we assume that we have already answered it. During the Presidential debates of 2016, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump did not debate whether it is best to be ruled by a wise philosopher king, or a hereditary aristocracy, or an entrenched oligarchy; the question of political theory, the question of “who should rule?” has essentially been answered in the American political order. The American answer is that the people should rule, and democracy is the best form of government. Much of American political science investigates whether this public claim about the American regime is actually true in practice. Do the people rule? Who actually exercises power in the American political order, with “power6” understood as the ability to get someone else to follow your will, or the ability to shape the will of others? Do the American people have power over their own government? If not, why not? And if so, how is that power maintained?
Now, it is true that the theme of “how democratic is the USA?” is not always front and centre in political science research. Some political scientists would claim that they are only interested in analyzing causal relationships between “variables.7” Yet concerns about democracy almost always lurk in the background. Political scientists are interested in the relationship between Congress and lobbyists because of the general concern that interest groups do not represent the public, and that their power corrupts the political process by making it less responsive to the will of the people. Studies of the role of campaign financing, bureaucracy, and even courts and constitutional law have a similar motivation. Yet as we investigate the empirical question of “how democratic is the USA? Do the people in fact rule, or exercise power, within the American regime?” we will occasionally catch a glimpse of philosophical questions—in particular, the question of whether political legitimacy can be established on the basis of democracy alone.
Over 2000 years ago, Aristotle claimed that, if you want to preserve and maintain a democratic regime, you must place limits on democracy. If you attempt to make your democratic regime “more democratic,” you will not necessarily help preserve the regime. It is an interesting claim, but more than that, it is a claim that is in some ways built into the American constitutional system. American democracy is limited– the rule of the people is limited within the American political order—because American democracy is based upon a set of rules, known as the Constitution of the United States, that determine how political power can be exercised, rules that cannot be altered by simple legislative majorities: The American Constitution– the supreme law that established the political institutions of the USA– was designed to limit the power of the people, even as it acknowledged their ultimate sovereignty. The rule of the people is limited in order to preserve the rule of the people: that is the paradox of American democracy. Thus, we should not be surprised that when political scientists investigate the question of “who rules?” in American society, they find that “the people” do not rule, at least not entirely.8
III – Understanding Politics: Ideas, Interests, and Institutions↑
The question of “who actually rules in America?” leads to an assortment of associated questions. For what purposes do people seek power? How is power attained? How is power exercised? What does it mean to try to answer these questions as political scientists? Like all scientists, political scientists are interested in explaining why certain things occur– what are the causes of revolution, war, electoral victories, major changes in public policy, and so on. When investigating questions about politics, political scientists tend to focus on three major categories of causes: ideas, institutions, and interests.9 The first category– “ideas”– can encompass everything from highly developed philosophical and religious systems, to half-baked lunatic conspiracy theories, and everything in between. If you wish to understand why people desire power, or why people choose to use political power in one way as opposed to another, you should consider how they view the world and the place of human beings within it. It would be strange to try to understand Nazi Germany– the ways in which it was governed, the ways in which it engaged in war, the goals that its leaders pursued– without taking into account the ideology of Nazism.10 It would be strange– though some have tried11— to explain the development of the Soviet Union in the 20th century without considering the influence of Marxism on Soviet elites. This applies to the study of the United States as well. If we wish to understand how power is exercised, and for what purposes, we have to investigate what people believe about politics, and the possible sources of those beliefs. Whether we call it culture, or political ideology, what people think and believe will influence how they act, and how they use power. To understand politics, we must try to understand the claims that people make about the just and the advantageous.
But what if ideas about political life hide more fundamental causes of political action? What if our claims about the just and the advantageous are determined by our economic interests, that is, our desire to maintain and increase our wealth? Stated more broadly, what if our conceptions of political justice are shaped or even determined by technological and economic forces? The mid-twentieth century political scientist Harold Lasswell gave a vivid description of this view of politics: “politics is about who gets what, when, where and how.”12 Lasswell’s formulation suggests that the outcomes of political life are shaped, in a decisive way, by the struggle over economic goods. There are numerous variations of the view that “economics” is the basis of politics and power, Marxism being the most elaborate version. Marxists claim that conflict between economic classes is the most important facet of political life; according to Marxist doctrine, class conflict will eventually be overcome through violent revolution. Marxism is also a theory about how the political and social elements of any given era are determined by its stage of technological development. Now, the extreme version of Marxism—the view that technology determines economic interests, and that economic interests determine political outcomes– is not so prevalent today. Yet it is more than merely plausible to think that economic power is related to political power, and more than plausible that technology shapes how all forms of power are obtained and exercised.
These approaches to understanding politics are not mutually exclusive. Consider the example of American Civil War. Any attempt to explain the causes of the Civil War would have to take into account ideas, whether the ideas of the abolitionist movement in the North or the development of pro-slavery ideology in the South. But it would be foolish to ignore the economic and technological dimensions of the conflict, whether in regards to its origin or its outcome. Without the cotton gin, might slavery have died out without the need for warfare? Without the industrial revolution, can we confidently say that slavery would not have continued to exist indefinitely?
If we wish to understand political power, we also have to consider the role played by political institutions. The term “institution” here refers to enduring norms or rules about how things are done in political life– the rules that govern the game of politics. The primary political institutions are the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government; if you arrange these political institutions in different ways, you are likely to have differing political outcomes. The institutional features of the Constitution– starting with the separation of powers, but including checks and balances, bicameralism, federalism, and so on– have shaped the development of American political parties and interest groups, which in turn will help account for the peculiarities of the American political process and American public policy.
We can analyze the concept of “political institutions” by considering three different institutional dimensions: policy agency, policy authority, and policy process. “Policy agency” refers to ways institutions structure who gets to exercise power. To understand policy agency, we have to pay attention to the differing modes of selection (most simply, popular elections versus elite selection), the geographic basis of representation (for elected offices), and the differing time-frames for the various national political officials (two year terms for the House of Representative, staggered six year terms for the Senate, four year terms for the President, and life appointment for federal judges.) However, we should note that it is not the Constitution alone which establishes policy agency: political parties play a crucial role in determining how officials are selected and elected, and the selection and terms of office of bureaucrats and executive branch officials raise a host of important political questions. Policy authority refers to what elected officials can do; the American Constitution does this by dividing power between the states and the national government (federalism), and by allocating different powers and responsibilities to the House, Senate, Presidency, and the federal courts (the separation of powers.) To understand policy authority, however, we must do far more than simply read the Constitution (as important as that might be). The policy authority established by the American Constitution has altered over time, whether as a result of formal constitutional amendments, judicial decisions that altered the constitutional structure, or the long, slow agglomeration of political decisions made by Presidents and legislators. The policy process refers to how decisions are made—for instance, the constitutional requirement that a legislative proposal (a “bill”) must be adopted by the House and Senate in identical form before it can become a law. The Constitution only creates a basic framework for the policy process; in practice, the process alters over time. Sometimes those changes fit within the Constitutional framework; sometimes those changes—particularly changes associated with Presidential power—appear very much at odds with the original constitutional design. 13
Rather than adopt a “value neutral” approach to the role of political institutions, I will argue that the development of political institutions can be evaluated according to the following criteria: the strength and effectiveness of the political institutions of the government, the procedural fairness of political institutions (broadly equivalent to the “rule of law”), and the accountability of institutions.14
The Strength and Effectiveness of Government
What does it mean for governing institutions to be strong? One classic answer to this question comes from the German sociologist Max Weber, who defined the state as an organization which successfully monopolizes the legitimate use of force within a given territory. This is only a minimal definition of the strength of the state, even though it captures the most fundamental thing that we want the state to achieve. Yet in addition to monopolizing the legitimate use of physical force, we also want governments to prevent other kinds of harm (such as fraud, or pollution, and so on). We also want governments to facilitate economic growth, scientific discovery, and perhaps even artistic achievement. The list could be extended further. A strong government is able to prevent not only criminal violence, but also the other kinds of harms that people might attempt to inflict on one another. In addition to preventing harm, a strong government is able to effectively promote the general interests of the community (keeping in mind that most communities will disagree about how their interests should be promoted, or even what their interests are).
The procedural fairness of political institutions: “The Rule of Law”
A government might be strong and effective, and yet still be unjust. In order to be good, a government must treat its citizens fairly and impartially, in accordance with what we can call the “rule of law,” (though always keeping in mind that there are massive disagreements over what the rule of law encompasses.)15 At the very minimum, we would hopefully all agree that a government cannot be good if it routinely kills citizens without any regard for their innocence or guilt. We would all agree that governments should subject citizens to the same general rules, and not allow some citizens to be granted special privileges or exemptions that are denied to others, with no plausible justification. Or would we? While most people agree with the basic ideas associated with the rule of law, in practice, the meaning of the rule of law is often subject to ferocious political disagreements. This does not mean that the rule of law is irrelevant or subjective; it does mean that the advantages of the rule of law can be obscured by partisan passion.
A government cannot be good unless it is accountable to its people in at least some ways. In a democratic age—or perhaps in any age—the best way to insure accountability is to subject political leaders to free and open political competition, whether in the form of discussion and criticism or electoral contests. In theory, one could imagine a good king who accepted no criticism and tolerated no rivals; in practice, this is almost impossible. As difficult as it is to measure the strength of states, or the fairness of political procedures, it is even more difficult to measure the accountability of government, for the very simple reason that individuals do not always evaluate outcomes in the same way. It is usually difficult to determine exactly what the people wants; it is usually just as difficult to determine whether a government has actually given the people what it wants, even if it has attempted to do so. The question of whether governments are actually accountable is, as mentioned above, the perennial topic of American political science. Is accountability, particularly responsiveness to “the will of the people,” the most important criteria of government? Many people have doubted this, including more than a few of the people who helped create the American constitution.
These criteria provide a decent picture of what we mean by “good government,” one that would win the consent of a large number of citizens in liberal democratic nations. We will have to define the categories more carefully, and it is unlikely that complete agreement can be achieved regarding the meaning of these categories and how they apply to actual political life. Nevertheless, the three basic criteria—the strength and effectiveness of the political institutions of the government, the procedural fairness of political institutions, and the accountability of institutions— capture a good deal of what we mean by good government: a government is good if it can establish order, in accordance with the rule of law and subject to some mechanism of public accountability, while at the same time providing citizens with a decent measure of well-being. It is reasonable to evaluate the political institutions of the United States in light of these criteria—though it is also reasonable to expect that our conclusions and evaluations will be far from certain, and far from uniform.
If we want to explain political life, in the USA or elsewhere, we will need to pay attention to what people think and believe; whether the public in general or elites in particular; we will have to pay attention to the economic interests that motivate political action; we will have to consider how political institutions shape how ideas and interests are expressed. In order to understand these things, we must come to understand how the American political order has evolved over time. To understand America today, we must understand American political development.
IV – Understanding American Political Development: Ideas, Interests, and Institutions and History↑
The central idea of American political development is relatively simple: the institutions of American government and the dynamics of American politics can best be understood by considering how those institutions have developed over time. A “political development” is different from a political event; political development refers to fundamental or qualitative changes in the ways political institutions operate. A tax increase is just another change in policy; the relative power of political parties can wax and wane; different individuals win or lose elections– all of these things are part of what we might call “normal politics.” A revolution such as the American Revolution, however, is a political development in the more precise sense– a critical juncture that rearranges how politicians and governments exercise of power. Now, not all political developments are revolutionary in character. In the United States, however, there are several critical junctures that have revolutionized political power, critical junctures that altered the character of political institutions in fundamental ways.
The Founding and The Constitution
Few would claim that you can understand the peculiarities of American politics without taking into account the American Constitution,16 the ways in which it allocates executive, legislative, and judicial power, the way in which it structures elections, the ways in which it both empowers government while at the same time dividing and limiting that power. We will examine the creation of the Constitution mostly in terms of the ideas that inspired it (though we will also consider some of the ways in which political and economic interests determined its final form) and in particular, we will try to understand the logic of the Constitution, as articulated by some of its earliest defenders in the Federalist Papers. In other words, before we can evaluate the effects of the institutional structures created by the Constitution, we have to consider what its creators wanted it to achieve, and how they expected it would operate.
The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Failed Attempt to Complete the American Revolution?
The issue of race—and in particular, the place of African Americans in the U.S. political order—looms over every issue in American political life, and we cannot understand disputes over the character of American political institutions without taking the question of race and the legacy of slavery into account. The most egregious failure of the American Constitution—its compromise with slavery—was corrected during the course of the Civil War, as the rebel states of the Old South were defeated militarily, and the Constitution was amended to abolish all constitutional protections for slavery. Yet what was granted in principle—equal status as citizens, and equal protection under the law—was not achieved in practice. The failure to “complete” the American Revolution would shape almost every aspect of American politics for the next one hundred and fifty years.
The politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction17 are important not only because they help us to understand the contours of contemporary politics in the USA, but also because they illustrate some of the most fundamental problems in political life in general. In particular, the tragedy of Reconstruction can help us to understand the dilemma of constitutionalism. In most contemporary liberal democracies, almost everyone thinks that there are certain issues and claims that should be placed beyond politics. At the same time, we disagree about what those limits should be, and the conditions under which they can be violated due to the higher demands of justice. The history of American constitutionalism has shown us that, in practice, the methods of modern constitutionalism can constrain, but never eliminate, the natural human tendency to disagree over the meaning of the just and the advantageous. The dilemma of constitutionalism is that a constitution is meant to establish the ground rules of politics, but the rules themselves tend to become the focal point of political conflict.
The Progressive Revolution, The New Deal, and The Great Society
The Revolutionary Era and the Civil War-Reconstruction era established the fundamental institutions of American government. The political developments that occurred in the 20th century were just as significant, however. The “New Deal” refers to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s programmatic response to the crisis of the Great Depression in the 1930s, but the underlying institutional changes introduced by Roosevelt and his allies had been gestating in the American political order for more than half a century. These constitutional innovations would influence the American political order long after many of the specific policy initiatives adopted during the New Deal period had been abandoned. The New Deal represented the triumph of what is often referred to as Progressivism, a doctrine with many variants, rooted in the belief that the institutional order of American political life had to be altered fundamentally, thereby enabling national and state governments to establish a comprehensive welfare state, regulate the modern industrial economy, and reconstruct the meaning of “rights.” The shape of contemporary Progressivism—in particular, the Progressive conception of judicial power—was not fully evident until the 1960s. In the aftermath of the John F. Kennedy assassination, President Lyndon Johnson, supported by huge Democratic majorities in the House and Senate launched an ambitious series of policy interventions that transformed health care, education, civil rights, and other aspects of political life. The new policies and new institutional practices that emerged during the “Great Society era,” despite being half a century old, continue to be sources of contention. Disagreements over how to extend or preserve the modern regulatory-welfare state—or whether to preserve it—are the fundamental sources of partisan conflict in contemporary American politics.
The Revolution, the Civil War, and the New Deal-Great Society reformation are not the only examples of “political development” in American history, but they have had the most profound impact on the constitutional order that shapes American politics today. Many of the peculiarities of American politics derive from the fact that the first constitutional order—the one initiated by the Revolution and completed (in some ways) by the Civil War—is incompatible with the constitutional order initiated by the New Deal and completed by the Great Society era. Americans disagree about the terms of political life because their constitutional “system” is a contradictory mish-mash of incompatible principles—and thus the conflicts of American politics can often be traced to this dilemma of American constitutionalism.
V – American Exceptionalism in a Comparative Context↑
We cannot understand American politics unless we understand how it has changed over time. It is also difficult to understand American politics in isolation; we cannot appreciate how or whether the United States is “exceptional” unless we consider American political history in a comparative context. To investigate this question, we first have to clear up some misconceptions about the meaning of the word “exceptional” and “exceptionalism.” If we call someone an exceptional student, we mean that the student possesses some peculiar excellence that distinguishes them from their colleagues. If we call a giant mid-winter storm an “exceptional” event, we mean that the storm is unusual and noteworthy– we do not mean that it is better or superior to other weather patterns. When politicians and pundits discuss “American Exceptionalism,” they often think of exceptionalism in the former sense. If you “google” newspaper articles on the question of American exceptionalism, you will find numerous discussions of whether it is legitimate to talk of the USA as a peculiarly blessed exemplar of cultural and political righteousness, or whether adherents of the “doctrine” of American exceptionalism are deluding themselves, and so on. We are not, for the most part, concerned with the debate over the latter understanding of American exceptionalism.
When political scientists, sociologists, economists, and other members of the social science tribe debate “American exceptionalism,” they are concerned with whether the United States is distinct from other similarly situated nations in ways that are unusual or unexpected. Many of the social scientists who agree that the United States is exceptional in the descriptive sense also believe that this exceptionalism is deplorable. For many political scientists who study comparative political economy, the mix of laws and policies that characterize American liberal democracy are inferior– vastly inferior– to the mix of laws and policies that characterize northern European social democracies such as Denmark.
Francis Fukuyama, in his 2011 book The Origins of Political Order, argued that “getting to Denmark” is the entire purpose of history! The point is not to have legalized drugs and prostitutes dancing in windows, but to have the political order enjoyed by the Danes– a strong economy, a robust welfare state, and minimal social disorder. But what has allowed the Danes to achieve the pinnacle of history? Are there reasons to think that the achievements of the Danes could be replicated elsewhere—perhaps in the United States?
Even in the context of powerful economic factors that we might expect to produce similar political outcomes across political societies, we often find persistent, deep differences. One thing that we have learned, particularly over the past twenty years, is that the “globalized” economy still allows for a wide range of political responses to changes in technology and modes of production. Trade and technology might impose some constraints, but they do not eliminate political choice altogether. It would be very difficult to argue that any given three industrialized democracies have been forced to converge over the past twenty years—as political scientist Sven Steinmo points out, Sweden, the USA, and Japan have all developed a distinctive array of public policies which, while not exactly unique, are nevertheless distinct: the role of unions, the nature of government regulations, the practices of management, the role played by government in education and training: all of these nations have their own approach, and there is no clear sign that, say, the policies of Japan will be rendered inoperative by globalization.18
Yet even if political choices are not determined by economic conditions and technology, history and culture might place constraints on the choices certain people are inclined to make. Students of comparative political economy usually contrast the American “liberal market economy” with the “social market economy” of certain European nations, most notably Denmark, Sweden, and Germany (there is a debate as to whether the “continental social market economy” is distinct from the “nordic-scandinavian social market economy; the political economy of southern Europe is distinct as well). What distinguishes the “liberal market economies” or LMEs (including countries like the United States and Canada) from the “social market economies” or SMEs found in nations like Germany, Sweden, and Denmark? In a word—organization. Unions typically encompass a broader percentage of the labour force in the SMEs, and just as importantly, major business firms in these nations are often organized along sectoral lines. Under these circumstances, it is easier for government, unions, and employers to cooperate and coordinate—whether in terms of union-management negotiation, or in terms of greater integration and involvement of the private sector in training and education. Differences in organization also affect business financing; large banks play a greater long-term role in financing economic activity in most of the SMEs, in contrast with liberal market economies, where firms tend to rely on stock offerings to finance new projects. Finally, and perhaps most obviously, SMEs tend to provide a broader range of universal welfare services.19
Many scholars argue that there is a connection between the organizational characteristics of the SMEs and the kinds of welfare states that they have created. This raises the question of whether or not the social conditions that permit a co-operative economy and expansive welfare regime are readily exported to nations that have had very different historical experiences. What if the policies of Denmark, or of social market economies in general, are not simply a result of choice, but are instead a result of historical experiences and even geographic circumstances that cannot be easily reproduced elsewhere? How much does a country’s past or even its location and climate determine its politics?
It is only a little bit of an exaggeration to say that political science in the United States has aimed to answer a single question: why is there no socialism in the USA? There are two basic responses to this question.20 The first is that the historical trajectory of the United States produced a nation-state with a distinct set of ideas, interests, and institutions that were inimical to social democracy. In regards to ideas, the United States possesses a “liberal” political culture, a culture in which people tended to be somewhat suspicious of state power. In terms of interests, the relative geographic isolation of the USA made it less necessary to develop a powerful state for defensive purposes. Furthermore, conquest and expansion in the west helped to ameliorate, to some extent, the conflict between capital and labour that existed in many European societies in the 19th century, as disgruntled American workers were able to acquire property in land more readily than their European counterparts. Finally, ethnic and racial diversity in the USA inhibited class-based solidarity, in contrast with the much more homogenous societies of Europe. Ideas and interests interacted in ways to inhibit socialist or labour movements; the development of the state was also constrained by the fragmented electoral institutions of the USA, which inhibited the rise of third parties and make it incredibly difficult for any single party to achieve a stable majority.
The second response to the questions of “why is there no socialism in the USA?” is that the American state, while distinct, is just as expansive as any found in Europe. The American welfare state may be less effective, and it may have some peculiarities, but it is not qualitatively distinct from other industrialized nations. By some measures, the scope of government is greater in the USA than in many European nations.
Before considering this question further, we should take a step back to consider what we mean by the term “welfare state.” The aim of all welfare states, at minimum, is to moderate the impact of economic inequality, to provide a basic standard of living for all citizens. In pursuit of these goals, all welfare states followed a somewhat similar path– though the details have varied, often enormously. Welfare states aim to provide the following things:
i) economic assistance for the aged
ii) subsidized health care to the public, or some portion of the public
iii) some measure of assistance to the poor
iv) expanded educational opportunities
Of course, providing health care, economic assistance for the aged and the poor, and support for education is only a partial list of the tasks undertaken by modern states, but in many ways these things are the most distinctive elements of modern welfare states. Many policies that appear novel– modern environmental regulations, for instance– are just extensions of the things that governments or states have always done (e.g. prevent people from harming one another.) I am sure that if we dig around in history we could find antecedents of the welfare state—consider the phrase “bread and circuses” from Roman times. Nevertheless, what we are concerned with here is transformation that occurred in the United States and similar countries in the 19th and 20th centuries, in which governments began to provide things– housing, medicine, education, charity– that were once provided through private actions, or not provided at all.
The United States developed a welfare state that is similar in many ways to the welfare states of Europe21—similar, but of course not identical. We can see this by considering three different types of information: public revenue of a nation expressed as a percentage of “gross domestic product” or GDP, gross domestic product per capita, adjusted to take into account “purchasing power parity,” and net social expenditure (see Figure One below). If we only evaluate the scope of the state on the basis of “public revenue as a percentage of GDP, then the differences between a “liberal market economy” like the USA and a social market economy like Denmark seem vast. As row 2 of Figure One indicates, however, the USA is considerably wealthier than most major European nations. Take this into account, and the differences between the actual amount of resources available to the respective governments (per individual) do not appear quite as large. Governments can pursue social objectives through the tax code—rather than taxing and spending, the state can simply forego tax revenue in certain areas (e.g. in health care). There may be reasons to criticize this mode of achieving welfare objectives, but there is no reason to exclude “tax expenditures” from welfare state spending.22 Furthermore, if we want to have a realistic comparison of welfare state spending, we have to take into account the various ways in which states tax welfare state benefits—particularly the social market economies of Scandinavia. The Danes and Swedes give with one hand, and with the other taketh away. Take into account differences in tax policy—the widespread use of tax expenditures in the USA, and the widespread taxation of welfare benefits in the “SMEs”—and the United States no longer seems so “exceptional.”
Table 1.1: Liberal Market Economies vs. Social Market Economies
|1.Public Revenue as %GDP23||25.4||30.6||32.9||45||36.7||42.8||48.6|
|3. Social Expenditure as % of GDP25||28.8||20.7||26.1||31.3||25.3||24.6||26.1|
The point is not that the American welfare state is equivalent to that of the social democracies of Scandinavia. The American welfare states is indeed peculiar—but it is easy to exaggerate the “exceptionalism” of the welfare state. The United States is exceptional not because it has a minimal welfare state, but rather because of the form the American welfare state has taken and the methods it typically employs.
This is only the beginning of our discussion of the American welfare state; it will be a key issue in the course, for the simple reason that it is central to contemporary politics in both the United States and elsewhere. The welfare state cannot continue as currently constituted– which is very different from saying that it cannot continue. Part of the problem is that the welfare state, at least in some ways, was based upon mistaken assumptions, or perhaps mistaken predictions. Consider the American Social Security system (essentially a public pension system). In 2012, fondly remembered Republican candidate Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, called Social Security a “PONZI scheme26.” The success of a PONZI scheme depends upon enrolling new members; the continued existence of Social Security in America– and indeed, the continued existence of the American welfare state– depends upon the assumption (or prediction) that the American populace will expand at a relatively high rate; the taxes paid by the expanding base of workers will cover the costs of retirees. But the assumption proved to be incorrect– wildly incorrect. The ratio of tax-paying workers to beneficiaries in the United States is declining; in 1945 there were approximately 45 workers for every retiree; by 2020 the number of workers per retiree will be closer to two.27 To put it mildly, this is going to cause problems. The signs of the impending crisis of the American welfare state are apparent at the national, state, and local level, and this crisis is coinciding with the continuing fallout from the collapse of housing prices and the financial markets in 2008. Of course, this is only the tip of the economic iceberg. The USA is experiencing massive unemployment or underemployment, particularly amongst the young; the tools of macroeconomic management appear to be exhausted; the gap between the wealthy and middle class–not to even mention the poor– continues to expand. There is a sense that the American political order is fraying, exemplified in different ways over the past several years by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements, and more recently by the prominence of anti-establishment Presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
The crisis of the welfare state is in some ways easy to understand– there is a disparity between what American governments have promised to provide their citizens, and the taxes those governments are willing to collect in order to pay for those promises. Simple solutions come to mind– the 1%, or perhaps the affluent in general, must pay a larger share of their income in order to support the social safety net. In a cycle as predictable as the seasons or the moon, pollsters routinely report that many Americans are willing to tax the wealthy and redistribute wealth.28 Perhaps Americans are simply becoming more Danish. What accounts for the apparent disparity between public opinion and public policy– a disparity that exists, or at least appears to exist, in many other areas of public policy as well? As we begin to investigate this question, we will encounter curious problems and puzzles. We will find that it is not surprising that there is a gap between the policies the public claims to desire, and the policies that actually exist. The American constitutional order was designed to create a gap between “public opinion” and public policy– the rules that structure the creation of law and policy were meant to place restraints on democratic majoritarianism. If we think that the role of money distorts politics– a conclusion that many people hold as a kind of self-evident truth– we will also discover the great difficulties that arise as soon as governments attempt to equalize the political playing field. We might even come to question whether, or to what extent, public opinion polling can adequately reveal what the public truly wants or desires
VI – Another Look at American Exceptionalism↑
The American regime may not be utterly distinct from other industrialized nations, but it is peculiar enough to be considered exceptional. The American welfare state is massive, but it tends to rely on relatively complex tax and regulatory schemes as opposed to government provided services. Across the political spectrum, Americans tend to be less deferential to government, and less comfortable with claims to rule rooted in bureaucratic expertise. Americans are also divided on a host of social policy questions, some of which seem rooted in religion, some of which seem rooted in conflicting understandings of liberty. The list could be extended further.29 What can account for the unusual or exceptional aspects of American politics? The answer lies in the interplay of interests, ideas, and institutions in the American political system.
Interests: Geography, Technology, History↑
What is an “interest,” and in what sense could interests determine the character of a regime? The attempt to understand politics as rooted in “interests” is distinct from the question of whether human beings are fundamentally self-interested or selfish. Political life cannot be understood if we ignore the ways individuals routinely transcend self-interest, narrowly understood. Yet even a society of relatively selfless individuals can, as a society, be shaped by interests— the interest that all humans have in survival, and the interest that all humans have in living well. As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed, most human beings fear death and long for commodious living—politically speaking, these are the passions to reckon upon. Yet how much choice do societies have in pursuing safety and security? Are the ways in which we pursue our interests determined by things that humans have little or no ability to control?
If we were to ask the question “Why is American society the way it is?” it might make sense to argue that the ways Americans pursue their interests has been determined by geography. This may be true of any political order. For instance, the French historian Francois Guizot began his lectures on English politics with the statement “Gentlemen, England is an Island.” Why might the fact that England is an island be a crucial feature of English politics? By virtue of being protected by the ocean, England had relatively minimal security needs; as a consequence, the English state did not need to develop its capacities as early as other European states.30 What was true of England was also true of the United States—the United States, in its early development, was insulated from serious conflict with major European powers31. As a consequence, the survival of the United States in the late 18th and early 19th century did not require a “strong state”; that is, the American national government did not have to extract a significant amount of resources from American society, and it did not have to develop a large, professionalized military bureaucracy. According to some scholars, military necessity led to early state-building on the European continent—and early state building would establish a tradition of statism that shaped public policies unrelated to war and defense.
The American state may have been shaped by the geographic situation of the American regime, much as the character of Inuit society was shaped by the climate of the Arctic. Others have argued that geography determined class relations in the United States—land was available for the taking in North America for much of the 19th century. The life of the settler was more appealing to some than the life of an industrial worker, though it was only possible because of the brutal slaughter and removal of Native Americans.32 Though the solution was based upon violent conquest, in the United states social conflict was mitigated and the rise of labour parties was inhibited by the geographic expansion of the American nation.33
Geography shapes politics, particularly if we take into account the geographic distribution of natural resources. Yet the role of geography is not constant; in many ways, the political significance of geography can be altered by technological and social changes. The economic significance of frontier settlement in the United States changed as the land became settled. The philosopher Hegel opined, in the 19th century, that American exceptionalism—the “absence of the state” in particular— would disappear or decline with the settlement of the West. Once the frontier was closed, once population density increased, the USA would follow the pattern of European politics: urbanization, class conflict, Prussian-style bureaucrats with fancy uniforms, and so forth. With regard to military interests, geography remains significant—but it no longer shelters the United States from foreign competitors. More broadly speaking it may be the case that the cultural, institutional, and geographic factors that contributed to American exceptionalism have been eclipsed by the homogenizing effects of technological and economic change.
Hegel’s reflections on America are an early example of “modernization” theory, the belief that the conditions of modern civilization—industrialization and urbanization in particular—would create a similar set of problems and a similar set of solutions for all societies. While geography caused nations to diverge, history would cause them to converge. This view of modernization leads inexorably to the question of American exceptionalism: if capitalism creates class conflict, then why are there no “class-based” parties in the USA? If modernization leads to disenchantment, why is religion such a powerful force in the USA? Again, one could answer in a Hegelian manner and suggest that the United States will eventually come to resemble other European states; history was just taking a little bit longer to end in North America. One could even argue that this has already occurred. Yet while it is certainly true that “modernization” creates similar problems wherever it exists, different political systems respond to modernization in different ways, just as different organisms can respond or adapt to climate change in different ways. American geography plays a less distinctive role in shaping American society than it has in the past, and the American economy is subject to the same disruptive technological forces as are other industrialized nations. If the American political system remains exceptional or at least unusual, it cannot be on account of geography and technology alone.
Ideas: From Political Culture to the American Political Traditions↑
Within the constraints imposed by nature and technology, human beings dispute over the purposes of political life. The general pattern of these conflicts can be called “political culture,” and these patterns of conflict, the relative strengths and weaknesses of different visions of political life, have an immense impact on what societies do, how they govern, the laws they create, the projects they pursue, and so on. Political culture could be defined in a variety of ways, but the simplest definition would be “general beliefs held by a society about the proper role and function of government.” Perhaps it would be better to refer to “general pattern of beliefs in a society,” in order to emphasize that a country can have a “political culture” even if there is no uniform set of common beliefs. A political culture thus encompasses a particular array of conflicting beliefs about government and political life. Some societies, though not many liberal democracies, have a relatively consensual political culture; American political culture, on the other hand is constituted by conflict more than consensus.
The most fundamental political conflicts are over the question of “who should rule?” and the fundamental political insight of Aristotle was that these claims to rule fall into a small number of categories: democratic claims based upon human equality, oligarchic claims based upon wealth and the capacity to generate wealth, and aristocratic claims based upon political virtue and expertise. We might suspect that this way of thinking about political conflict is irrelevant in the United States and similar nations today, given that democracy seems be universally accepted as the only legitimate form of government. Yet even while most people accept that elections are the only legitimate way to select rulers, political conflict in the United States (and elsewhere) can still be analyzed in terms of democracy, oligarchy, and aristocracy.
Of course, a great deal of time has passed since Aristotle’s day, and scholars have tried to move beyond his regime-based conception of political culture and political conflict. Yet some modern social scientists, in attempting to understand the patterns of political culture, have recapitulated many aspects of Aristotle’s framework for political analysis. Consider, for instance, the “grid-group” framework of cultural analysis, an approach that has been used by some anthropologists as well as political scientists.34 According to this approach, all the existing cultures that we know of can be understood as the product of individual orientations towards regulation (or rule, or social control), and an individual’s orientation towards group membership. The anthropologist Mary Douglas refers to the first aspect of social orientation as the “grid” dimension or continuum. Those individuals on the “high end” of the grid accept (or even desire) authoritative rules, structures, and traditions; others reject (or least challenge) the need for authoritative constraints on individual behavior. The “group” dimension deals with the ways in which people view relationship with other individuals: for those of the high end of the group spectrum, individual identity is determined by group membership, while those on the low end have a minimal sense of group identity. The two different dimensions yield four different ways of viewing social and political existence: fatalistic, individualistic, hierarchical, and egalitarian.
Table 1.2: Douglas-Wildavsky “Grid-Group” Schema of Political Culture/Political Ideology
Sense of chaos and futulity; apathy, powerlessness and social exclusion
Emphasis on strong regulation; rule-bound institutions; stability and structure
Spontaneous action; transparent, voluntary, unregulated environment; openness and entrepreneurialism
Partnership and group solidarity; peer pressure, mutualism and cooperation
We can think of these categories as representing different types of preferences about social and political order. Consider the top right quadrant. The “hierarchist” places a high degree of value on group membership, and a high degree of value on order, rule, and control. The best example of this type of community would be a military organization, which prizes both loyalty and respect for rank. Most bureaucracies, most academic departments, and perhaps most criminal gangs would fit into this category as well. The lower left-hand quadrant is composed of “individualists” who have a weak sense of group membership, as well as limited respect for hierarchy; here, we might think of the “rugged individualist” on the frontier—or perhaps the self-employed entrepreneur. This type of individual tends to view society not as a “community” or a family writ large, but rather as a collective agreement that promotes safety and the pursuit of self-interest.35 The individuals in the lower right hand “egalitarian” quadrant prize group membership but reject rigid hierarchy—here we might think of certain kinds of religious orders, or perhaps an anarchist collective. The category of “fatalist” is somewhat distinct, because this type of individual is defined not by what kind of society they desire, but rather by a resigned acceptance of a hierarchical social order that that they do not regard as legitimate.
To what extent can cultural theory be used to illuminate the distinctive features of American politics? The answer is that, insofar as the United States differs from nations such as Canada or Denmark, it is because of the distinctive “balance of power” between the four “cultural types” within the United States; political development within the United States can be understood as a consequence of the relative power of those who have a predominantly “individualistic” orientation (though as we will see, the distinctiveness of American politics also comes from the peculiar forms of hierarchy that have existed in American society.)
The great advantage of cultural theory, particularly in contrast to “strong” rational choice theories36 which posit material self-interest as the guiding motivation for all political action, is that cultural theory attempts to account for the very disparate orientations or motivations of human beings. The great problem with the “grid-group” approach is that it might lead to the erroneous conclusion that actual individuals fit neatly into one of the four categories. There might be some individuals who consistently support individualistic or hierarchical principles to the exclusion of everything else; in actual practice, most individuals and societies must of necessity combine these varying orientations. A completely hierarchical society would be a prison; a completely individualistic society would not be a society at all.
We should note that this approach to understanding political culture is just that—an approach, or a theory, that tries to account for the variety of political perspectives that exist in the world. If we wish to understand the American politics, we have to take into account not only the general patterns of human motivation that are at work in all societies—we also have to take into account the peculiar features of American political culture and ideology. Hierarchy, egalitarianism, individualism, and fatalism may exist everywhere, but the forms they take are also shaped by particular contexts—whether geographic, historical, or institutional.
American political culture, particularly its participatory and localistic character, but its religious dimension as well– emerged through a long process of historical experience: through the practice of constitutional government in England, the search for religious freedom and economic opportunity, and the encounter of early settlers with the New World. Students of political culture argue that the early American experience with self-government had a decisive influence on American political development; the absence of rigid political hierarchy, the absence (for the most part) of an hereditary ruling class, and the early practices of local self-government and representative democracy established a “republican tradition” in American government. This element of American political culture, while rooted in suspicion of authority, is not simply individualistic; the republican tradition refers to a preference for collective government and anti-elitism, not simply the pursuit of individual interest. We can see how this aspect of American political culture relates to cultural theory—it reflects an egalitarian orientation. European egalitarianism takes on its own form—it is more closely associated with deference to expert authority and state power.
Republicanism is another word that of course is susceptible to different meanings; when political scientists use the term, they are not referring to the Republican party. They are referring to aspects of political culture associated with democratic participation and anti-elitism. American republicanism is shown in the participatory character of American democracy, particularly but not only at the local level. Alexis de Tocqueville, (a nineteenth century French philosopher who studied American culture), thought that American political culture was shaped by the experience of local government; the experience of taking a direct role in the self-government of their communities enabled Americans to temper some of the excesses of liberal individualism.37 The significance of local government and local control has waxed and waned over time, but the idea of direct citizen involvement in government remains a very powerful idea in American political life, and it has manifested itself in a myriad number of ways. The participatory and localistic nature of American democracy is exemplified by the interesting fact that many towns elect dogcatchers. More importantly, American social life has shown evidence of a significant degree of civic voluntarism—the willingness of individuals to participate in collective organization in the pursuit of some common interest, as opposed to simply relying upon the state to provide for the common good.38 The republican character of the American political culture is exemplified in the long history of organized social movements that aimed to transform the political system by challenging the power of established elites: the abolitionist movement, the Populist movement of the late 19th century, the prohibition movement of the early 20th century, and the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century are some of the more prominent examples. The social movement that propelled President Obama’s election in 2008, as well as the Tea Party movement that emerged in response, are more recent examples of the continuing “republican” or participatory character of American politics.
Republicanism is meant to account for the American sense of civic identity, manifested most prominently in American patriotism. The idea here is that a society cannot remain unless its citizens are motivated by more than asocial individualism. They must feel an attachment to their society, both in order to defend it when necessary but also in order to promote the common good. The pursuit of wealth and luxury– as opposed to the pursuit of sturdy independence– can be a threat to the social cohesion necessary to maintain collective freedom. In terms of grid-group theory, the republican aspect of American political culture fits within the category of egalitarianism, though this should not be understood only in terms of economic egalitarianism. While the republican tradition did emphasize the notion that a good society must be one that is good for ordinary people, American republicanism also encompasses political egalitarianism, particularly the distrust of elites and experts.
Even more than “republicanism,” individualism —sometimes referred to as “liberalism”—might be the most distinctive feature of American political culture. Liberalism, in this context, does not refer to the set of ideas that may or may not be held by Canadian politicians who are part of the Federal Liberal Party, such as Justin Trudeau . The beliefs about the purposes of government that we are discussing here are sometimes referred to as “classical liberalism.” Classical liberalism, stated as briefly as possible, is a doctrine that emphasizes both the need for government to protect persons and property, but– just as importantly– classical liberalism stresses the need to set limits on government power.
Classical liberalism in America was influenced by the thought of John Locke, an English philosopher of the 17th century. In a way, one can read Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” as an attempt to articulate the “individualist” world-view, and to explain what makes it superior to the vision of hierarchists and egalitarians. The two central concepts of Locke’s political teaching are “the state of nature” and “the social contract,” and they are meant to clarify both the purposes and limits of government. “The state of nature” refers to a condition where government is absent– and it could be understood either historically (a condition that actually existed) or hypothetically (a kind of thought experiment that is meant to focus the mind.) Locke’s argument is that in the absence of government, our persons– our bodies– would be insecure, and just as importantly, the products of our labour– our property– would be insecure as well. We cannot live without being safe from harm, we cannot live well– individually or collectively– without having some guarantee that we will reap the benefits of our labour. Thus, government exists to protect us from harm, and to protect the right we have to property (the product of labour, broadly understood); free individuals in a state of nature would be led by reason and self-interest to abandon the complete freedom of the state of nature in order to achieve security of their persons and their property. This agreement is “the social contract.”
Locke’s conception of liberalism is connected to the notion of human equality, or, to be more specific, the notion of formal equality. The Declaration of Independence– a statement adopted by the thirteen American colonies in 1776 to formally announce their revolutionary intentions– provides a nice summary of the Lockean notion of equality:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
A great deal is packed into these terse sentences, but the most important claim is that human beings are equal in the sense that no one is the rightful ruler of someone else; this is not intended as a descriptive statement (how could it be?) but rather as a moral or evaluative statement. In other words, there is close connection, in the thought of Locke and Declaration of Independence, between liberalism and a certain kind of egalitarianism.
Locke’s theory of the state of nature has several implications regarding the structure of government. It is necessary, according to Locke, for the general decisions of the social body to be determined, or at least decisively influenced, by the will of the majority. Though John Locke does not exactly say his theory leads directly to a democratic form of government, his conception of human equality in the state of nature– that is, our equal susceptibility to danger– tends to point in that direction. Whatever his views on democracy, Locke does suggest that it is not rational to simply submit to the will of the majority; if the will of the majority is absolute and unconstrained, it may well present a threat as great as the absence of government. Even worse is the idea that the threat of anarchy in the state of nature is so great that it is always better to endure the mistakes and misdeeds of government. Government itself must be constrained to help insure that it fulfills its primary purpose: the protection of property (including the property we have in ourselves, e.g., our life and person). Locke argues that a people are justified in deposing a government if it fails to achieve (or goes against) its fundamental purposes; Lockean liberalism is a revolutionary doctrine, though Locke is quick to point out that revolution should not be undertaken for small and transient causes. We might say that Locke’s theory of equality and consent points in the direction of democracy; it most certainly establishes the notion that revolution is justified if governments do not fulfill their proper purposes. The Declaration of Independence, unsurprisingly, acknowledges the legitimacy of revolution in a direct way: “[T]hat whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” The revolutionary individualism of Locke and the Declaration of Independence cannot be reduced to a narrow-minded or purely materialistic self-interest; greedy misers do not risk their lives in revolutions.
Yet when would revolution be justified? From the perspective of both Locke and the Founders, it is a difficult call, but you can start by considering the way in which the government governs. One of the most desirable constraints on the power of government, according to Locke, is the rule of law; which means, quite simply, that insofar as government exercises power, it should be in the form of rules: standards of conduct that are made public, applied to all in a non-arbitrary way. A government constrained by the general principles of the rule of law will have great difficulty enacting oppressive measures. Now, this is an enormously complex topic, but the essence of the rule of law is easy to understand: governments should only coerce us on the basis of pre-established rules, rules that we can at least potentially know. The opposite of the rule of law is arbitrary power– and whatever the defects or incompleteness of the rule of law as a guide to political practice, it does seem better to be punished on the basis of a pre-established rule, as opposed to being punished for any reason or no reason at all. The Declaration of Independence, following the lead of Locke, is filled with complaints about the failure of the British to abide by the rule of law, both in the sense of a) not governing through rules and b) not allowing Americans to create their own laws. The Declaration, following Locke, suggests that these failures of the imperial government were grounds for a revolutionary war.
Locke also argued that the purposes of government will be best fulfilled when the key functions of government– the creation of law, and the enforcement of law– are entrusted to separate institutions. In other words, the rule of law is best insured if those who interpret the law, or judge disputes over the law, have a considerable degree of independence from those who create it. Power can be limited– or perhaps made safe, or safer– by dividing it. This too is reflected in the Declaration’s references to the British crown’s interference with legislative assemblies, the subordination of judges to the will of the Crown, and so on.
Individualism in America was shaped by classical or Lockean liberalism, a doctrine based on the claim that all individuals are by nature equal– in the sense that no one is, by nature, the rightful ruler of another. It follows from this that the only form of legitimate government is one based upon consent. The purpose of government is to protect persons and property; government should be judged in terms of how it fulfills those functions, and the power of government should be structured to limit the potential for abuse. Stated differently, government exists to protect our natural right to safety and security of property, as these are the purposes which provide a basis for government legitimacy.
Liberalism is more than a theory about why government is necessary, and why its power should be limited. It is a broad vision of social order, one that is reflected in American political culture in a variety of ways. Liberalism aims to create economic prosperity by maximizing the freedom of individuals to work, to invest, to create, to acquire; in this sense, classical liberalism is almost synonymous with individualism, or what Marxists call “capitalism.” It would be wrong, however, to say that liberalism is simply hostile to government. For freedom to be maximized, there must be order and law; some individualists may be anarchists, but this is not the case for Lockean liberals. At the same time, it has been the general thrust of liberal theory to argue for the reduction of any and all constraints that unnecessarily hamper the use and development of property. Liberalism emphasizes equal rights– to use our abilities to acquire– but it certainly does not promise anything like equal outcomes. It does, however, promise general improvement, through the expansion of commerce and the scientific conquest of nature, all of which will be enabled by liberal forms of government.
Progressivism is an element of American political culture that is separate from liberalism and republicanism. In terms of cultural theory, the Progressive movement which emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century combined elements of both hierarchy and egalitarianism. Progressives argued that the ultimate goals of liberalism and republicanism– freedom and equality– cannot be achieved without the expansion of government power and government expertise. Like liberalism, progressivism was articulated in theory before it existed in practice. Just as American liberalism is in many ways rooted in the political philosophy of John Locke, American progressivism can be traced to the theories of the German philosopher Hegel– theories that were popularized by American thinkers such as John Dewey and Herbert Croly, theories that were in some ways embodied in the political goals and practices of Presidents of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (though FDR, unlike Wilson, certainly never had the opportunity to read Hegel).
Woodrow Wilson was the first (and only) political scientist to become President (1913-1921) and his academic writings in many ways are the best summary of the Progressive critique of the American constitutional order. Wilson argued that the ideals of American government– freedom and equality– could not be realized in the changed conditions of the late 19th and early 20th century without radical changes in the nature of American government. Simply put, the greatest danger to American society was not the power of government, but rather the excessive restrictions on government power that were a legacy of America’s tradition of liberal constitutionalism. Different times require different measures.
The different measures envisioned by Wilson included a vastly expanded role for the President (in order to overcome the inertia of Congressional government), a vastly expanded national bureaucracy (in order to manage the social and economic problems of an industrializing nation), and a vastly reduced role for property rights in American law. Once the Great Depression convinced Americans that there really was something wrong with existing political system, Wilsonian progressivism would come to be a dominant force in American political culture. Its premises would be accepted by large portions of the public, and by large portions of both political parties.
American progressivism would become institutionalized in three great waves, as symbolized by the three most significant Presidents of the past century: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama. These Presidents expanded the scope of American national government power (e.g. to regulate the economy, redistribute wealth, and establish national government standards and funding in health care and education), and in order to achieve this the structure of American government had to change—in particular, the jurisdiction of the national government had to expand, the role of the President (or rather, the executive branch bureaucracies) had to change, and traditional understandings of law and rights had to be altered or abandoned.
Is it possible to fit progressivism within the cultural theory framework? I think that this is possible, as long as we recognize actual individuals, actual political parties, and actual social movements rarely fit entirely into one of the four broad categories identified by cultural theory. I placed “progressivism” within the hierarchical category, given the penchant for progressives to support expert decision-making and independent bureaucratic power. Of course, belief in expert decision making and bureaucratic autonomy has many different kinds of adherents. American progressivism combines “hierarchical means” with “egalitarian ends,” much as classical liberals thought that an egalitarian political process was compatible with a meritocratic (and thus very unequal) socio-economic system.
Our map of American political culture is not complete without a consideration of “ascriptive hierarchy.” It would be easier to speak of racism, but the phenomenon is about more than race. Ascriptive hierarchy refers to the belief that a person’s status and rights within society should be predicated upon some predetermined personal characteristic. Now, many early European observers of American politics, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, were impressed by the relative absence of ascriptive hierarchy in the USA– that is, they were impressed by the absence of any stark divide between the aristocracy and the populace that characterized much of European society.39 Later scholars such as Louis Hartz would argue that the weakness of socialism in the USA is a consequence of the absence of rigid class divisions in the USA. According to Hartz, class divisions inherited from feudal culture feed into socialist class consciousness; the absence of rigid class divisions amongst white Americans inhibited the development of working class consciousness and socialist parties.40 Restated in terms of cultural theory, the United States was dominated by an individualistic or liberal “fragment” from Europe, a culture that was inimical to both absolutist monarchy and socialism. Yet the individualistic elements of American political culture were in many ways confined to white male citizens– and not just in the distant past, but in the relatively recent past as well. American citizenship has often been understood in terms of ascriptive characteristics: to be an American citizen is to be a white protestant male, and to be anything else is to be less than fully American. Individuals and whole communities combined elements of disparate and mutually incompatible traditions. Cognitive dissonance is thus a key feature of American political culture.
Ascriptive hierarchy interacts with the other traditions in American political culture; it is not a separate political movement or political party. The most important, and in many ways most contested question is the relative strength of ascriptive hierarchy in contemporary American politics today. Clearly, the nature of racism and prejudice in American political life today is quite different than it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago. It is probably just as clear that the legacies of ascriptive hierarchies remain influential, even if the most prominent legal manifestations of prejudice have waned.
The most obvious manifestations of ascriptive hierarchy in American political development are slavery and racism. There are few elements of American political life, from the development of political parties, to the nature of the American welfare state, to the role played by the American judiciary, which have not been influenced by the issues of slavery, segregation and race. The great difficulty with ascertaining the influence of ascriptive hierarchy is that, at least since the 1960s, it has largely disappeared from American political discourse as an openly espoused political tradition. This is very different from saying that “racism doesn’t exist.” What we should see, however, is that even long dead or dormant elements of political culture can have an effect upon the present, due to the ways in which those beliefs shaped the policies and practices of the past.41
Is it useful to think of the particular manifestations of American political culture—American liberalism, American republicanism, American progressivism, and American ascriptive hierarchy—in light of the categories of cultural theory? I think that the answer is yes– if we want to address the question of American exceptionalism. America is exceptional—it differs from other industrialized nations in systematic ways—because of the relative strength of individualism in American political culture, and the prominence of a particular form of hierarchy (ascriptive hierarchy, or racism.) To understand American government, then, is to understand how the United States has dealt has with conflicting claims of liberty, equality, and hierarchy.
Consider, for instance, the role of religion in American life. Can cultural theory illuminate the role of religion in American political culture? Canadians often have great difficulty understanding the role of religion in American life– and it is often confusing, not least because the role of religion in shaping American political culture has changed so much over time. For instance, it is arguable that until relatively recently (the mid-20th century) Canada was a more religious society than the United States.42 This is obvious in regards to pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec, but it is probably true for English speaking Canada as well. Even while Canadians in the past may have been more religious in the sense of being conscientious church goers, religion in America has always been more dynamic, more inventive, and frankly a little wackier. When Canadians today speak about religion and its connection to politics in America, they tend to speak of the “religious right.” That too is a relatively recent development. In the early 20th century, for instance, evangelical Christianity was more at home within the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. Cultural theory cannot really account for the role of religion in American political life, precisely because religion has infused many of the political sub-cultures found in American history, from the egalitarianism of the abolitionists and populists of the 19th century, to the hierarchs of the Southern slave states or 20th century progressives
What might account for the dynamism, the “staying power” of religious belief in the United States, when so many other Western liberal democracies have seen the influence of religion decline? Perhaps the USA is just a laggard? There are some signs that religious belief in the USA is waning; within a generation or two, the USA may not seem that exceptional, at least in terms of religious belief. Perhaps, the strength of religion in the United States is connected to the relative strength of individualism in American political culture. Cultural theorists associate ‘individualism’ with ‘market rationality;’ the belief that society is in essence a series of exchanges, with reward and status based upon individual effort and talent, and in which the state plays a limited role in guiding social life. How could religion thrive in an individualistic political culture? One answer is that, to a considerable extent, religion in the United States was governed in accordance with laissez faire principles, and religion thrived because it was neither supported nor attacked by the state—freedom of religious belief and the (general) absence of strong links between church and state allowed a market place of religious practices to flourish. This was evident as far back as the 18th century—in 1776, Adam Smith argued in his book The Wealth of Nations that ending state support for religion would lead to a proliferation of religious sects, and (for reasons I cannot explore now) a decline in conflict based upon religion. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing fifty years later than Smith, argued that the separation of Church and State in the USA would, in the long run, strengthen religious belief; in France, by way of contrast, the link between religion and the old aristocratic order would politicize religious belief, and ultimately undermine it. Thus, the individualistic distaste for imposed religious belief would permit religion to evolve and thrive in the USA—the prevalence of an individualistic political culture, in other words, provides a plausible theory for the relative strength of religious belief in the United States. (I should note that this is not a complete explanation of the status of religion in the USA—it is only a plausible hypothesis). But in order to understand these aspects of political culture, we have to understand how they have shaped American political institutions.
Institutions: Constitutions, Laws, Norms↑
We can consider the relative importance of “interests,” (rooted in geographic conditions, natural endowments, and technology) and ideas (understood in terms of political culture) and institutions (the rules of the game that a structure how political power is achieved and exercised) by conducting a social science thought experiment. Imagine that we are five hundred years in the future. NASA has discovered two identical planets that are suitable for human habitation. For reasons that are too complex to get into, one planet will be settled by one million Texans; the other will be settled by one million Swedes (in addition, these people must be taken from the year 2017. There are time machines in the future.) According to cultural theory, even if these planets are identical in terms of resources and geography, and even if the settlers have access to the same technologies, the politics of Planet Texas will differ from the politics of Planet Sweden, because of the differing “balance of cultural power” within those groups. Institutionalists add an additional claim: the political outcomes on these two planets will differ depending upon the kinds of political institutions that the settlers establish.
In the (actual) American context, the most important political institution is the Constitution itself—yet ordinary laws, insofar as they structure how power is exercised, also play a role in shaping politics. Certain types of norms and practices, particularly those associated with how political parties select candidates, shape political outcomes as well. By looking at the origin of the Constitution, the development of constitutionalism (particularly in relation to federalism), and by considering the shifting institutional roles of courts, legislators, presidents, and bureaucrats, will see how institutions can explain much of what is unusual about American political life.
There are many different ways of approaching the study of politics, and unlike some other social science disciplines, political scientists rarely suggest that there is only one correct way to study political life, or one true perspective on politics. Political science, as I understand it, is motivated by our practical concern with good government—the kind of government that is conducive to human flourishing. To the best of our knowledge, good government requires a strong state, an accountable state, and a society that enjoys widespread prosperity and freedom. To understand whether and in what ways the United States has achieved these goals, we will consider the economic interests of the nation, its political culture, and its political institutions.
Our first step will be to consider how the Constitution of the United States was established, and the ways in which, despite the multiple and conflicting aims of its creators, the Constitution nevertheless reveals a coherent design and purpose. We will consider how federalism, one of the essential institutional features of the Constitution, became of source of political conflict over the course of two centuries of American political development. Chapter four will address the evolution of the American party system, and paying particular attention to the ideas and regional differences that have separated the parties. Chapters five through 8 will consider the development of the main institutions of the national government: Congress, the Presidency, the Courts, and the national bureaucracy. Having considered the development of institutions and the character of party competition in America, will turn, in the final two chapters, to the question of power: that is, do American political institutions and parties produce policies that serve the common good, or do they serve partial interests? Our end goal is to develop a better sense of how the American political system works, and the ways in which interests, ideas, and institutions make the American system distinct, if not exceptional.