Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks,
It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States
[Introductory note: I wrote this commentary initially in 2009; it has been revised substantially to reflect 2012 events]
I pulled this book off the shelf in a used bookstore in 2009, when I was home on leave from my posting in Sofia, Bulgaria. Published in 2000, the book’s title suggested an answer to a question I had often asked myself: why did socialism fail to take hold in the United States. I was also drawn to Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the book’s two authors and a leading twentieth century thinker who died in 2006. Lipset was sometimes associated with the neo-conservative movement I wrote about here in August. He was a student at New York’s City College with neo-conservative godfather Irving Kristol. When I plunked down $5 for a used copy of Lipset and Marks’s book, I anticipated answers to an interesting historical question, but without any immediate relevancy to current affairs. To my surprise, however, I discovered that Lipset and Marks treated the notion of American exceptionalism in their book. For this reason, the book was very relevant to the United States I was visiting in 2009, and, if anything, even more to the United States in this election year.
Lipset and Marks’ exceptionalism is not the cheerleading, “we’re-number-one” soundbite that all American political candidates, at least those aspiring to the Presidency, seem obligated to embrace. Rather, “exceptionalism” for Lipset and Marks means simply the historical absence of a viable Socialist, Social Democratic, Labor or Communist party in the United States, and the consequences of this absence. Unlike every other advanced democracy in the world – in Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Japan – the United States never had a socialist party in a position to have significant influence on public policy.
Sensing perhaps the fraught nature of any discussion of socialism in the United States, Lipset and Marks indicate at the outset that they intend their analysis of why socialism failed to gain a foothold in the United States to be “as plausible to a person whose sympathies lie on the right of the political spectrum as to one whose sympathies lie on the left” (.p.10-11). Their analysis is relatively straightforward. Near universal manhood suffrage came to the United States prior to wide-spread industrialism, when voting habits were already established, the authors point out. On the European continent, by contrast, the two emerged at about the same time. In addition, race and ethnicity have been more important than social class in determining voting patterns in the United States, whereas the opposite was true in almost all other industrializing countries.
But two additional factors combined to work against socialism gaining traction in the United States: the American two party system stacks the deck against third parties; and American socialists, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, were exceptionally rigid and doctrinaire. Lipset and Marks argue, as many have done previously, that key aspects of the American political system – especially the plurality electoral system, the winner-take-all presidency, and ideologically flexible major parties – create “high hurdles for any third political party – socialist, labor, or otherwise” (p.264). In no other democracy, has the “duopoly of the two major parties over political representation been so complete” (p.67). Lipset and Marks could have also added the peculiarities of the Electoral College, where sparsely populated and largely rural states, unlikely to be hospitable to socialist priorities, exercise disproportionate influence in determining who will be President.
Although many now look back with nostalgia at the quixotic quests of American socialists Eugen V. Debs and Norman Thomas’ for public office, Lipset and Marks argue that the American Socialist party was in fact “one of the most orthodox Marxist parties in the democratic world.” (p.160). Quite unlike the far more pragmatic parties in Great Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the European continent, American Socialists exhibited a “propensity for sectarianism, for treating Marxism or other radical doctrines as absolute dogmas to be applied in all situations” (p. 33). They “never came to grips with the unique character of American electoral politics. Their focus was on the ultimate justice of their cause, and they ignored the strategic context of the American political system . . . [American] Socialists tended to see politics in terms of absolute right and wrong, and it was difficult for them to envisage a strategy that involved institutional coalitions with non-Socialists” (p.183). A rigid party obsessed with doctrinal purity, operating in a political system that favors compromise within a broader two party system, seems bound to fail. This struck me as a more-than-plausible answer to the question why socialism never took root in the United States, fully justifying my $5 investment in Lipset and Marks’ book.
But in the last portion of their book, Lipset and Marks go on to ask whether their version of exceptionalism continued to set the United States apart in 2000. Their answer is a resounding yes even though, by the year 2000, socialist parties in the classical sense had ceased to exist in most of the world’s other advanced democracies. Over the past two decades, they argue, i.e. during the 1980s and 1990s, “socialist and labor parties have dropped statist economic policies that they inherited from their socialist past.” Consequently, the policies of most of those parties are “not very different from those of the Democratic party in the United States. They wish to regulate capitalism, not transform it. They are in favor of greater economic equality (along with social, racial and gender equality), but they no longer envisage a large measure of state control in order to achieve these goals.” The key issue among socialist parties around the world is now little more than the “character and degree of regulation of the economy, not the future of capitalism” (p.273).
Although the absence of a socialist party “no longer differentiates the United States from Western European and other English-speaking democracies (p.262),” Lipset and Marks found the United States in 2000 “as different from other western democracies as it ever was,” with consequences that are “massive and long-lasting” (p.270). In comparative terms, the United States “combines an extremely high standard of living with exceptionally low levels of taxation and social spending, and exceptionally high levels of income inequality and poverty” (p.284). In 2000, it was the “only developed nation that does not have a government-supported, comprehensive medical system and it is the only western democracy that does not provide child support to all families” (p.282). The absence of a tradition of social democracy in the United States, Lipset and Marx argue, “tilted public policy toward strongly represented groups, in particular, the middle and upper classes, business and unions, farmers, and the elderly, and away from weakly represented groups, including nonunionists, single mothers, young people, and the poor” (p.287). No other western democracy in 2000, Lispet and Marks conclude, “remotely approximates America” in this “continued lower class weakness,” (p.279).
American exceptionalism in the sense which Marks and Lipset use the term seems more pronounced today than in 2000. Since that time, the United States’ “exceptionally low levels of taxation” have been lowered further by the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, which were sharply skewed to favor those in higher tax brackets. Further, Republican candidates for public office are informally required to take the “Norquist pledge,” in which they aver that they will not, under any condition, vote to raise taxes if elected. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allows corporations and unions to contribute freely and anonymously to election campaigns, providing enormous potential to tilt public policy further toward “strongly represented groups.” In the name of combating voter fraud, today’s Republican Party has pushed voter identification laws in many states which seem likely to disenfranchise large number of Americans on the lower end of the economic spectrum, tilting take public policy even further away from “weakly represented groups” such as “nonunionists, single mothers, young people and the poor.”
To be sure, the United States joined its democratic counterparts around the world in 2010 in seeking to provide comprehensive medical care to all citizens when it passed the Affordable Care Act, affectionately termed “Obamacare.” But one of the leading priorities of this year’s Republican Party is to repeal that legislation. There are many ways to cast what is at stake in the 2012 American elections. But reflecting on this intriguing book, it seems clear that if you believe in preserving Lipset and Marks’ version of American exceptionalism, the Republican Party is the place for you.
Thomas H. Peebles
September 5, 2012