The deep divisions in American political and social life have long been thought to explain the unique weakness of America’s welfare infrastructure, and the absence of an integrated system of universal benefits.
But on their own, demographic divisions need not necessarily fragment coalitions for universal demands—history is teeming with political movements which were capable of uniting different factions. In his 1981 book, City Trenches, political scientist IRA KATZNELSON situates a history of immigration and racial conflict within a structural account of America’s urban geography and economic development.
From the text:
"Analyses of games or contests, political or otherwise, must do more than describe the players and their adversary play. They must also say something about the boundaries of the contest, which define its limits prior to the playing of the game itself. Attempts to make sense of what is special about class in America have ordinarily proceeded without this specification. They have most frequently focused on one of three conditions of American life—the racial and ethnic fragmentation of the working class itself, the unusual economic rewards of the economy, or the values that integrate American society—and they have generally argued that these conditions have made virtually impossible the development of class-based politics.
But America’s working class was not created once and for all. It has been fashioned and refashioned as members of national, ethnic, or religious groups that had been outside of the frame of capitalist labor relations have entered the ‘free’ labor market. I argue below that the unique characteristics of American institutions are aspects of a sharply divided consciousness about class in American society that finds many Americans acting on the basis of the shared solidarities of class at work, but on that of ethnic and territorial affinities in their residential communities. Each kind of conflict has had its own separate vocabulary and set of institutions: work, class, and trade unions; community, ethnicity, local parties, churches, and voluntary associations. Class, in short, has been lived and fought as a series of partial relationships, and it has therefore been experienced and talked about as only one of a number of competing bases of social life. What is distinctive about the American experience is that the linguistic, cultural, and institutional meaning given to the differentiation of work and community, a characteristic of all industrial capitalist societies, has taken a sharply divided form, and that it has done so for a very long time."
Link to the book.
- "The factors that lead people to see the world in class terms may not be the same as those that sustain organizations created to act on such a vision. We need to investigate the conditions which encourage both the world view and organizational longevity in critical moments." Kim Voss’s 1992 paper examines American Exceptionalism through the rise and fall of the Knights of Labor. Link.
- Mike Davis considers the question in a 1980 NLR: "On the one hand we must discard the idea that the fate of American politics has been shaped by any overarching telos. On the other hand, we cannot underestimate the role of sedimented historical experiences as they influenced and circumscribed capacities for development in succeeding periods." Link.
- "Perhaps the debate over American exceptionalism has gone on for so long and so inconclusively because the question itself is fundamentally flawed. Perhaps beginning our investigation with a negative question inevitably invites ahistorical answers." A 1984 article by Eric Foner casts doubt on the debate. Link.