Why American Culture Really, Really Is Different

That's the thesis of Prof. Lawrence Mead's important new book Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power, which I review in the new Winter 2020 Claremont Review of Books.

Claremont's editors generously made the review available outside the paywall here.

Mead's book is must reading because it provides a solid intellectual foundation for a hard-learned practical truth: We can't export American democracy to societies with fundamentally different cultures, because our political system is rooted in a culture of the individual.

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Here's the introduction to my review.

From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the election of Donald Trump, American foreign policy was prisoner to the notion that the mere presence of democratic forms of government would transform the political culture of countries with no experience of popular sovereignty. The conventional wisdom during the disastrous presidency of Boris Yeltsin held that post-Communist Russia would evolve into a liberal democracy. China’s growing reliance on market mechanisms to generate growth would accomplish something similar. Majority rule in Iraq would create an Arab democracy, while the grotesquely misnamed Arab Spring would recall the American Founding. At great cost, America learned that culture does not easily change in the presence of institutional novelties.

The wrong answer at least had the virtue, as H.L. Mencken might say, of being simple and clear. The right idea—that American culture has unique characteristics that explain our country’s extraordinary success—is harder to define. Lawrence Mead wrestles with the notion of Western individualism in his new book, Burdens of Freedom. His approach is eclectic, examining the issue from several vantage points and through the medium of a number of academic disciplines. That is a virtue rather than a deficiency; if Mead doesn’t always hit his target dead on, he lays out the problem in a way useful for reflection and debate. It is a valiant contribution to a difficult subject and deserves a wide readership.

A professor of politics and policy at New York University, Mead sees the world at a great turning point, which he calls—with irony—“the end of history.” He doesn’t believe that history will bring about a liberal world order, as Francis Fukuyama imagined, but rather that the Hegelian idea of such progress is itself at an end. “[T]he end of history means, not the end of all conflict,” he explains, “but the shifting of conflict from ideological differences within the Western world to cultural differences between the West and the non-West.” Western progress will not simply spread to non-Western cultures, but will get bogged down in cultural adversity. For Mead, “cultural difference is, in fact, more important than the differences fought over during history.”

In some form, it was probably inevitable that institutions based on individualism would arise in Europe and its offshoots. Far more significant is the fact that those institutions have not traveled well to non-Western societies…. [T]he West’s “free” institutions clearly are an ill fit in most of the world.

Sadly, the norm among the world’s civilizations is not liberal democracy; it is, statistically speaking, extinction.