Posts Tagged ‘voluntarism’

America is an exceptional country, exceptional not in the sense of excellence, but in the sense of being unusual.


With Covid-19, America is again exceptional, with the worst performance among wealthy nations. Some might quibble with that claim and point to higher death rates in other countries. The real measure of our distinctiveness, however, is what has happened since the pandemic’s initial devastation. From February to April, many other countries acted in the dark even when they acted forcefully. By May, they had learned a lot, had gotten control, and were “flattening the curve.” Not the United States (beyond New York). America’s death rate declined slowly and then rose again, now, in late August, 2020, up to far higher levels than in comparable countries.

The exceptional disaster that is Covid-19 in America is, in part, the exceptional disaster that is Trump in the White House. But even a competent and honest administration would have had a struggle, and a Biden administration, should it take over, will, too.


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Reversing American Voluntarism

Current events suggest that the progress in American social history, recently stalled, is now being turned around.

The long-run story of the American people is of the slow, swerving, incomplete, but steady expansion of participation in its voluntaristic culture. As told in Made in America, once-dependent and subordinate categories of people–women, immigrants, employees, the propertyless and the poor, ex-slaves, youth, the very elderly–have been able over the last three centuries to become more autonomous authors of their own lives, able act both independently for themselves and freely in concert with whomever they wished to join.

This extension of independence with community depended largely on the expansion of security–security of life, of fortune, of an assured future. And that, in turn, rested on economic growth, scientific advance, and critically, government protection against life’s perils–institutions of law and order, public education, public health, disaster relief, unemployment insurance, old age pensions, and much more.

The last few decades have seen a slowdown in the underlying processes that had expanded voluntarism. The economic fortunes of working class Americans stagnated. Many both experience and anticipate a life less assured than that of their parents. Science keeps delivering, but neither the economy nor the government are currently sustaining the actual security and the sense of security that enable forceful individual and community action.


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(This awkward title is one solution to complaints about “American Exceptionalism.” As discussed in a 2011 post, the phrase has recently come to mean, to some political partisans, “American Superiority.” For generations, however, students of American society have used the first dictionary definition of exceptionalism: “the condition of being different from the norm” [Merriam-Webster], more specifically meaning that the U.S. is an outlier among — way different from — other western nations.)

My take on the how and why of American Way-Differentism appears in the book, Made in America. Parts of the argument are summarized in a new essay for a joint project of the Smithsonian Institution and Zócalo Public Square on “What It Means to Be American.” The essay is here (and here and here as well).

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Catholic Schism

St Peters

St. Peter’s RC, NYC (source)

With the resignation of Pope Benedict and election of a new pope, amidst what seems an unending turmoil over sex abuse by priests, pollsters have understandably thought this a good moment to inquire about American Catholics’ attitudes on religious matters. The results describe a major disconnection between the Roman Catholic Church and its American adherents.

A New York Times survey conducted in February found, for example, that by roughly two to one or more, self-identified Catholics favored gay marriage, women priests, priests marrying, artificial means of birth control, access to abortion, and the death penalty – all anathema to the Church. Most said that the Church and its American bishops are “out of touch” with the needs of Catholics (although though most also said that parish priests are in touch).

The media are attending to the events and crises of the moment. It is important to understand that the alienation between the Church in Rome and Catholics in America has deep historical and cultural roots.


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When Americans talk about seeking the “common good,” what’s the “common” they are talking about? The eminent American historian, William H. Chafe, writing in the journal, Daedulus (pdf), argues that two “overriding paradigms have long competed in defining who we are. The first imagines America as a community that places the good of the whole first; the second envisions the country as a gathering of individuals who prize individual freedom and value more than anything else each person’s ability to determine his own fate.” For Chafe, the common is the “whole” of “America as a community.”

Boston Common 1906 (LC-USZ62-102342)

Chafe then tells a familiar “declension” story: that settlers – notably the Puritans seeking to found a “citty upon a hill” – had come to America to build community, but selfish individualism undermined community. (Puritan ministers started telling this story to chastise their congregants not long after landfall.) Ever since, Chafe writes, it’s been a struggle between “the common good and the right to unbridled individual freedom.” That struggle has played out, he argues, between those advancing national, government programs for all citizens (like regulating work conditions and establishing Medicare) and those resisting the programs in defense of  individualism.

I think there is an error here. Many, perhaps most Americans, who have resisted the national programs that Chafe likes (and that I like, too) are not defending libertarian individualism – although they sometimes invoke that language. They resist because the common good for them is not that of the national community; it is common good of the small, local, voluntary community. And the national state is a threat to that common good


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Labor’s Laboring Efforts

The past Labor Day weekend stimulated thoughts of – besides cookouts and the end of summer – the fate of labor in America.

(My parents' union.)

This year has not been particularly good for labor with unemployment so high. The last few decades have not been particularly good with most Americans’ wages having stagnated since about 1970. And the last half-century has not been particularly good for the labor movement, with membership declining since about 1960.

Historians and sociologists have tried to figure out for many years now why union membership in the United States is so low – now about one-eighth of the employed– compared to elsewhere in the world and why it has dropped so far – down from about one-third in 1955. The answers seem to lie in economics, globalization, and politics. And lurking behind the politics may be something about Americanism itself that goes back much further than 1955.


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