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Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction

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Tony Judt, When the Facts Change,

Essays 1995-2010 , edited by Jennifer Homans

      In a 2013 review of Rethinking the 20th Century, I explained how the late Tony Judt became my “main man.” He was an expert in the very areas of my greatest, albeit amateurish, interest: French and European 20th century history and political theory; what to make of Communism, Nazism and Fascism; and, later in his career, the contributions of Central and Eastern European thinkers to our understanding of Europe and what he often termed the “murderous” 20th century. Moreover, Judt was a contemporary, born in Great Britain in 1948, the son of Jewish refugees. Raised in South London and educated at Kings College, Cambridge, Judt spent time as a recently-minted Cambridge graduate at Paris’ fabled Ecole Normale Supérieure; he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and contributed to the cause in the 1967 Six Day War; and had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage.  Judt also had several teaching stints in the United States and became an American citizen. In 1995, he founded the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he remained until he died in 2010, age 62, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which Americans know as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

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      Rethinking the 20th Century was more of an informal conversation with Yale historian Timothy Snyder than a book written by Judt. Judt’s best-known work was a magisterial history of post-World War II Europe, entitled simply Post War. His other published writings included incisive studies of obscure left-wing French political theorists and the “public intellectuals” who animated France’s always lively 20th century debate about the role of the individual and the state (key subjects of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, reviewed here in June).  Among French public intellectuals, Judt reserved particular affection for Albert Camus and particular scorn for Jean-Paul Sartre.  While at the Remarque Institute, Judt became himself the epitome of a public intellectual, gaining much attention outside academic circles for his commentaries on contemporary events.  Judt’s contributions to public debate are on full display in When the Facts Change, Essays 1995-2010, a collection of 28 essays edited by Judt’s wife Jennifer Homans, former dance critic for The New Republic.

      The collection includes book reviews and articles originally published elsewhere, especially in The New York Review of Books, along with a single previously unpublished entry. The title refers to a quotation which Homans considers likely apocryphal, attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir” (p.4). In Judt’s case, the major changes of mind occurred early in his professional life, when he repudiated his youthful infatuation with Marxism and Zionism. But throughout his adult life and especially in his last fifteen years, Homans indicates, as facts changed and events unfolded, Judt “found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (p.1).  While wide-ranging in subject-matter, the collection’s entries bring into particularly sharp focus Judt’s outspoken opposition to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, his harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian population, and his often-eloquent support for European continental social democracy.

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      The first essay in the collection, a 1995 review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, should be of special interest to tomsbooks readers. Last fall, I reviewed Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays.  Judt noted that Hobsbawm had “irrevocably shaped” all who took up the study of history between 1959 and 1975 — what Judt termed the “Hobsbawm generation” of historians (p.13). But Judt contended that Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union — he was a lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party – clouded his analysis of 20th century Europe. The “desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience” explains what Judt found to be a “rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror” (p.26). That the Soviet Union “purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause,” Judt concluded, is what “mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation.” Others – likely speaking for himself — “might say it just made them worse” (p.26-27).

      In the first decade of the 21st century, Judt became known as an early and fervently outspoken critic of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq.  Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion, that President Bush and his advisers had “[u]nbelievably” managed to “make America seem the greatest threat to international stability.” A mere eighteen months after September 11, 2001:

the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the United States has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications. In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it” (p.231).

Using Madeline Albright’s formulation, Judt asked whether the world’s “indispensable nation” had miscalculated and overreached. “Almost certainly” was his response to his question, to which he added: “When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever” (p.232). Thirteen years later, in the age of ISIS, Iranian ascendancy and interminable civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Judt’s May 2003 prognostication strikes me as frightfully accurate.

      Judt’s essays dealing with the state of Israel and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated rage, drawing in particular the wrath of pro-Israeli American lobbying groups. Judt, who contributed to Israeli’s war effort in the 1967 Six Day War as a driver and translator for the Iraqi military, came to consider the state of Israel an anachronism. The idea of a Jewish state, in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded,” he wrote in 2003, is “rooted in another time and place” (p.116). Although “multi-cultural in all but name,” Israel was “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens” (p.121).

      Judt noted in 2009 that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu was “certainly less hypocritical than that of the old Labor governments. Unlike most of its predecessors reaching back to 1967, it does not even pretend to seek reconciliation with the Arabs over which it rules” (p. 157-58). Israel’s “abusive treatment of the Palestinians,” he warned, is the “chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the single most effective recruiting agent for radical Islamic movements” (p.167). Vilified for these contentions, Judt repeatedly pleaded for recognition of what should be, but unfortunately is not, the self-evident proposition that one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel.

      Judt was arguably the most influential American proponent of European social democracy, the form of governance that flourished in Western Europe between roughly 1950 and 1980 and became the model for Eastern European states emerging from communism after 1989, with a strong social safety net, free but heavily regulated markets, and strong respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. Judt characterized social democracy as the “prose of contemporary European politics” (p.331). With the fall of communism and the demise of an authoritarian Left, the emphasis upon democracy had become “largely redundant,” Judt contended. “We are all democrats today. But ‘social’ still means something – arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides” (p.332). Judt saw social democracy as the counterpoint to what he termed “neo-liberalism” or globalization, characterized by the rise of income inequality, the cult of privatization, and the tendency – most pronounced in the Anglo-American world – to regard unfettered free markets as the key to widespread prosperity.

      Judt asked 21st century policy makers to take what he termed a “second glance” at how “our twentieth century predecessors responded to the political challenge of economic uncertainty” (p.315). In a 2007 review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Judt argued that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are “important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity – and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name” (p.315).  A second glance would also reveal that a healthy democracy, “far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise” (p.315-16).

      Judt’s review of Reich’s book anticipated the anxieties that one sees in both Europe and America today. Fear of the type last seen in the 1920s and 1930s had remerged as an “active ingredient of political life in Western democracies” (p.314), Judt observed one year prior to the economic downturn of 2008.  Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that Judt had the convulsive phenomena of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States in mind when he emphasized how fear had woven itself into the fabric of modern political life:

Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life.  And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.. . This is already happening in many countries: note the arising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of ‘anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe, the calls for ‘walls,’ ‘barriers,’ and ‘tests’ everywhere (p.314).

       Judt buttressed his case for social democracy with a tribute to the railroad as a symbol of 19th and 20th century modernity and social cohesion.  In essays that were intended to be part of a separate book, Judt contended that the railways “were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord . . . and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike” (p.301). Although we “no longer see the modern world through the image of the train,” we nonetheless “continue to live in the world the trains made.”  The post-railway world of cars and planes, “turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950-1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. . . What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern” (p.299).

      In a November 2001 essay appearing in The New York Review of Books, Judt offered a novel interpretation of Camus’ The Plague as an allegory for France in the aftermath of German occupation, a “firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting” (p.181).  Camus used The Plague to counter the “smug myth of heroism that had grown up in postwar France” (p.178), Judt argued.  The collection concludes with three Judt elegies to thinkers he revered, François Furet, Amos Elon, and Lesek Kołakowski, a French historian, an Israeli writer and a Polish communist dissident, representing key points along Judt’s own intellectual journey.

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      The 28 essays which Homans has artfully pieced together showcase Judt’s prowess as an interpreter and advocate – as a public intellectual — informed by his wide-ranging academic and scholarly work.  They convey little of Judt’s personal side.  Readers seeking to know more about Judt the man may look to his The Memory Chalet, a memoir posthumously published in 2010. In this collection, they will find an opportunity to savor Judt’s incisive if often acerbic brilliance and appreciate how he brought his prodigious learning to bear upon key issues of his time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 6, 2016

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Filed under American Politics, European History, France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics, Uncategorized, United States History, World History

Grotesquely Unthinkable

Judt

Tony Judt, with Timothy Synder,
Thinking the Twentieth Century

           Sometime in the first decade of the 21st century, Tony Judt became what I term colloquially my “main man.” I tried to read everything Judt wrote. I was smitten by the enormous insight he brought to the subjects that most interested me – 20th century France and 20th European history and political theory. His best known work is a magisterial text about Europe since World War II, entitled simply “Postwar.” But his background also fascinated me. A near contemporary, born in 1948 in Great Britain of Jewish Eastern European immigrants, Judt was raised in South London, educated at Kings College, Cambridge, with formative years in Israel, France and California, before he wound up teaching at New York University. He also had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage. All of the above is written in the past tense, as Judt succumbed to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in August 2010, at the age of 62. “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is likely the last book to bear Judt’s name as an author. An “Afterword” is eerily dated July 5, 2010, slightly over a month prior to his death.

           But “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is no conventional book. Rather, it is an extended series of conversations between Judt and Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. Twenty years younger than Judt, Snyder is the author of “Bloodlands,” a highly-acclaimed chronicle of mass killings in Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. Judt notes in his afterward that Snyder is one of the first Americans to rise to prominence as an historian of Eastern Europe. Previously, most distinguished Eastern European historians were refugees from that part of the world. Snyder interjects himself into the discussion, but is more like an interviewer, or at least close to it. His portion of the conversation is plainly overshadowed by that of Judt, almost certainly deliberately so.

           The two scholars range widely but, as the title suggests, their focus is what to make of the murderous 20th century in Europe. Their reflections center on Europe’s multiple 20th century ordeals, including two devastating world wars, the rise and fall of authoritarian ideologies – communism, fascism, Nazism – and, above all, the Holocaust, the still unfathomable destruction of Europe’s Jewish population. Interspersed with the authors’ conversations on these ponderous themes are Judt’s touching and poignant personal reminiscences of aspects of his life. Judt undoubtedly knew that this was likely among his last opportunities to speak publicly about himself and the ideas he cared about.

           The reason for the title Judt and Synder chose for their book does not become clear until about the half way point, where they indicate that thinking the 20th century requires a capacity to set aside traditional Enlightenment notions like the primacy of reason and the inevitability of progress. In their place, we must imagine conspiracies, plots and the “grotesquely unthinkable,” and treat them as real (p.194). They cite Koestler, Orwell and Kakfa as among the few thinkers who were “able to imagine a world for which there was no precedent” (p.194). To be able to think the twentieth century in this way, Judt says:

was extraordinarily difficult for contemporaries. For the same reason, many people reassured themselves that the Holocaust could not be happening, simply because it made no sense. . . [I]t made no sense for the [non Jewish] Germans. . .Since they wanted to win their war surely the Nazis would exploit the Jews, rather than kill them at great expense. This application to human behavior of a perfectly reasonable moral and political calculus, self-evident to men raised in the nineteenth century, simply did not work in the twentieth (p.194).

           The Holocaust thus hovers over the European 20th century, it hovers over this book, and it hovered over Judt as a Jew. The “Jewish question was never at the center of my own intellectual life, or indeed my historical work,” he says. But as he grew older, he found it intruding, “inevitably, and with ever greater force” (p.12). For Judt, thinking Europe’s 20th century unavoidably requires trying to account in some manner for the Holocaust, an exercise for which our normal processes of reasoning and empirically based critical thinking are likely to prove insufficient.

           Judt’s insights into the 20th century’s totalitarian impulses –fascism, Nazism and communism — by themselves, make the book worth reading. Communists and fascists after 1917 shared, Judt contends, a “profound attraction to mortal struggle and its beneficial social or aesthetic outcomes” (p.102), along with distaste for modernist culture — both were “extraordinarily wary of innovation or imagination” (p.165). In Italy, fascism was not so much a doctrine as a “symptomatic political style” (p.65), which appealed by its contrast to liberal bourgeois democracy. Fascists don’t have concepts like leftists, he asserts. Rather, they have “attitudes. . . distinctive responses to war, depression and backwardness” (p.159). Without the threat of Bolshevikism, there would have been “far less space for fascists to offer themselves as a guarantee of traditional order” (p.163).

          Judt also argues that Nazism differed from Fascism in that it was purely German, based upon a “set of claims which made Germans unique,” whereas there was an outward looking side of fascism, in which fascist intellectuals often believed that they were “espousing universal truths and categories” (p.104). In some senses, fascism captured the early 20th century notion of distinctly European values:

The European idea, as we tend to forget, was then a right-wing idea. It was counter to Bolshevism, obviously, but also to Americanization, to the coming of industrial America with its ‘materialist values’ and its heartless and ostensibly Jewish-dominated finance capitalism (p.177).

           Judt saw no serious prospect for contemporary fascism. With the “coming of television (and a fortitori the internet), the masses disaggregate into ever-smaller units. Consequently, for all its demagogic and populist appeal, traditional fascism has been handicapped: the one thing that fascists do supremely well – transforming angry minorities into large groups, and large groups into crowds – is now extra ordinarily difficult to accomplish” (p.166).

            Judt considered the 20th century’s struggles — between democracy and fascism, communism and capitalism, freedom and totalitarianism — as, at bottom, “implicit or explicit debates over the rise of the state. What sort of state did free people want? What are they willing to pay for it and what purposes did they wish it to serve?” (p.386). Judt found his own answers in the rise of social democracies in much of Northern and Western Europe — democratic governments which tax at relatively high rates, provide significant welfare benefits, embrace capitalism and maintain free but extensively regulated markets, while respecting individual rights and the rule of law (my definition, not Judt’s). For Judt, social democracies refute the hypothesis of the economist Friedrich Hayek, who argued in his famous 1944 work, “The Road to Serfdom,” that any attempt to intervene in the natural processes of the free market is “guaranteed to produce authoritarian political outcomes” (p.343). Judt contends that European social democracies are “among the wealthiest societies in the world today, and not one of them has moved remotely in the direction of anything resembling a return to the German-style authoritarianism that Hayek saw as the price they would pay for handing initiative to the state” (p.383; Hayek, it’s worth pointing out, retains significant appeal in conservative and Republican circles in the United States).

           Interspersed with these macro-reflections on 20th century Europe are Judt’s micro-reflections on his personal life, his academic wanderings, and his two failed marriages — he gets in some digs against his ex-spouses, for instance. The macro and micro come together as he describes the movement of his own intellectual center of gravity from France and Western Europe to Eastern Europe. Particularly through two key Polish thinkers, Leszak Kolakowski and Jan Gross, Eastern Europe in the 1980s offered Judt a “fresh start” (p.207). Kolakowski was expelled from Warsaw University in 1968 for the flagrantly heretical view that Marxism itself, not simply the way it was practiced in Soviet regimes, was “bereft of political prospects or moral value” (p.197), a view which Judt ultimately adopted as his own. Gross was a contemporary of Judt. The two met in the mid-1980s when both were teaching in the United States. Through Gross, Eastern Europe began to offer Judt “an alternative social life” at a time of “renewed and redirected intellectual existence” (p.201). At the apex of Judt’s career, Eastern Europe “ceased to be just a place; its history was now for me a direct and personal frame of reference” (p.204).

           Judt made his reputation through studies addressing the very French notion of a “public intellectual,” a macro, big picture thinker who analyzes and comments upon public affairs, while standing outside of official structures (again, my definition, not Judt’s). One of his first works to gain widespread public attention, “The Burden of Responsibility,” was a treatment of three French intellectuals, Léon Blum, Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, whom he describes as “genuinely independent thinkers in a time and a place where being independent placed you in real danger, as well as consigning you to the margins of your community and to the disdain of your fellow intellectuals” (p.330).

           Thus, it was ironic that Judt became, during his time in New York, somewhat of an American public intellectual of the type he had written about. Judt contended that “no scholar, historian or anyone else is – merely by being a scholar – ethically excused from their own circumstances. We are also participants in our own time and place and cannot retreat from it” (p.285). After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Judt became “increasingly and polemically engaged in American public affairs” (p.286), in particular as a vociferous and highly-visible critic of the Bush Administration’s Iraq war and Israel’s Palestinian policies.

           This dialogue between two exceptionally sharp minds has a rambling quality. Like good dinner table conversation, the two shift ground frequently and often suddenly, and themes do not always follow one another with Cartesian or other logic. But having a last look into Tony Judt’s prodigious mind is an opportunity to be seized. We may not see such nimble and versatile thinking on Europe’s grotesquely unthinkable 20th century any time soon.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
July 30, 2013

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Everybody’s Out of Step But Us

 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

Rockville, Maryland

September 5, 2012

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