Question For Our Readers: What is “The American Way of Life”?

Assume there is something called The American Way of Life. The phrase is meant as a shorthand for our culture, society, laws, economy, what have you. It is meant to capture those features of our life here that make us distinct — not unique necessarily, others may share some of these features. These are things that an honest (friendly, hostile, or neutral, but hwhat it is, these are things that make America different from other places, these are the things that capture the essence of what America is.” These should be distinct factors in the world of today, though there historical roots may be relevant.

I have my own ideas, but I am finding myself dissatisfied with my list, which I will share at some future point.

Anyone reader willing to play along with me, please leave a comment. I want no fewer than three, no more than ten, factors or elements or items, each stated in about one sentence. It can be a good, bad or neutral thing in each case. It can be humorous or serious, but I am actually serious about formulating this list. You can cite to books or other sources if you wish. You may rely on just your firsthand observation. The points may be expressed idiosyncratically, but they should be ones that reasonable people would be likely to agree on, or at least take seriously as contenders.

So: What is the American Way of Life?

UPDATE: Interesting set of answers so far. My list, not final, is something like this:
1. America has an ideology of free, independent individuals, and this self-image, and the conduct associated with it, are deeply rooted in our culture.
2. The foundation of this culture is the nuclear family, which creates enterprising and self-reliant families and individuals, and this type of family is different from the family types found in other cultures, which create expectations of dependency and which make lifelong demands on the person, denying independence and taking away incentives to advance oneself.
3. The origins of this culture are in England, transmitted to us by the English colonists, and subsequent waves of migration have largely adapted themselves to it, and we expect others emigrating here to similarly adapt themselves to it.
4. Americans are egalitarian, believing that social classes either don’t exist, or should be open to entry by anyone, and that the rewards of life should be available to all, but granted to those who have earned them, or had good fortune, in an open, competitive process.
5. Americans have middle-class values, generally disliking the culture associated with poverty and not respecting the culture associated with unearned wealth. Americans want to own their own homes, and expect that their home is their castle. They built the suburbs because they like the life of the suburbs.
6. Americans want the freedom to come and go as they please, including by automobile.
7. Americans believe that major disputes should be solved by operation of law, that the legal system should be fair, that people should not have to make bribes or use self-help or personal violence to defend themselves or to solve major disputes. Nonetheless, Americans insist on having access to lethal force to defend their homes and themselves.
8. Americans believe that major economic decision should be made by individuals or voluntary groups, such as business corporations, not by the government.
9. Americans believe the government exists to protect them, their homes, their families, and their material well-being. They have low expectations about what governments can accomplish, and tend to distrust it. They expect government to operate reasonably honestly and transparently, and without excessive corruption.
10. Americans are empiricists, practical-minded, open to technology, and optimistic about the prospects of material progress. Americans are realists about the defects of human nature and are not utopian.
Each of the foregoing seems to me to be pretty distinct, and pretty unusual, with the partial exceptions of the rest of the Anglosphere, and to a lesser degree parts of Europe. Of course, many people do not think this way. But I think the bulk of middle-class Americans more or less fall within the broad sketch I have outlined above.
I am still tinkering with this. Do you think I am wrong about any of these? Have I missed anything major?

UPDATE II: I somehow deleted this post, and had to repost it, copying the text from Google cache. Thanks, Google! I apologize for losing the many excellent comments. I hope people will offer further comments, based on my first update.

24 thoughts on “Question For Our Readers: What is “The American Way of Life”?”

  1. American egalitarianism is peculiar. It is egalitarianism of opportunity only; we are totally indifferent to equality of outcome. Even with equality of opportunity, we will always privilege liberty over equality, even equality of opportunity. We would not tolerate a mandatory, monopoly, federally-run and funded school system with uniform national per-pupil spending and uniform curriculum, for instance, even though that would even out many inequalities of starting opportunity that currently exist. (Other nations do have many of those characteristics.)

    In fact, our egalitarianism is primarily one of manners. We tolerate rationing by price. We are infuriated by rationing by status or politics. And we hate the celebrity or politician who cuts in line and says “Don’t you know who I am?”

    There’s a 19th-century anecdote about a European toff of some sort who arrives at a ranch in the West and asks a cowboy “Is your master at home today?” The cowboy spits and answers “That son of a bitch ain’t been born yet!”

  2. I’ll play.

    1. Americans have sporting nature. They are highly competitive; that could lead to extremes – it could be an engine for progress in many fields (positive), or lead to inability to be satisfied with the fruits of one’s labor, endless keeping up with “Joneses” (negative). Nobody else has such a disdain for “losers” as Americans.

    2. Americans have a national psyche of a teenager: on one hand they are dismissive of the world’s opinion and love to boast of American Uniqueness, on the other they display insecurity by constantly checking themselves against Britain (an aged lion with rotten teeth), or France (French food, French fashions, French women’ hairy legs…) or Germany (our cars better than yours! but we like to “No speed limit of your autobanns…), etc.

    3. Americans have a peculiar ability to make every personal preference a political issue, and as such – a marker of a set political slot. That quirk is evident on all levels, from personal conversation to federal policy. You are a hunter? Then you can’t be a “green” leftie. You love fat greasy food? You must be a Republican. No American flag on your house on July 4th? You are an enemy combatant.

    I could also go into religion – but I’m sure, Lex, you know what I’ll say. So I’ll spare you.

  3. Right after 9/11 a series of short essays were solicited for some journal, I think a British one. My favorite description was by a foreign student who had been dragged to the US by his wife who had a fellowship of some kind. He was no longer pissed off to be here: he summed up what he saw by the fact that he met a dean at a welcoming reception on a Friday and when they were driving through campus on Sunday, he saw that dean carrying a box of his stuff into the building and up to his office. Sometimes we think academics are relatively distant from that egalitarian ideal, but, indeed, few would expect any one to carry their boxes.

    We have that mixed heritage of Edwards (we believe in the power of the individual conscience and the individual relation with our God) and of Franklin (we think wasting time is wasting money is wasting life, we, too, believe that felicity comes with productivity, a sense of self that enjoys freely doing things for others but will not be commanded to do so).

    We all think we are middle class – unless we’ve gotten into some bizarre vision of ourselves as oppressed. Again, Franklin’s delight at his last name, someone who owned land but was not noble, is a delight we understand.

    We come from a long tradition that recognizes we are likely to err, that reason is a wonderful thing because we can find reasons to do what we want – but that still believes, somehow, all of us will muddle through and together (but separately) find the right answers.

    The tradition of the nuclear intact family was there at the beginning and we still know that is the bedrock of our society. From the beginning we knew that all men had souls that were equal – and if it took a while to act upon it in various ways, those actions grew out of that certainty. We women have long known it is our responsibility to be good citizens – and we knew that long before we could vote in national elections.

    We have a long tradition of having a confidence in the individual and that means a confidence in our own voice within. That may lead us wrong some times – we know that. But overall that is a better way for a society – to have a lot of people listening to those voices than to have one person’s conscience the only voice to be heard. Long before Lord Acton said it, we knew at gut level that absolute power tends to corrupt and absolute power to corrupt absolutely. Because we had that middle class vision, we weren’t under some illusion that someone out there was immune to such a temptation. We knew that the poor weren’t virtuous because they were poor and the rich weren’t virtuous because they were rich. And if we could all be tempted, we could also all at times transcend our pettiness and throw ourselves on the grenade to save our fellows. Sure we had slavery. But 660,000 men died to end it. Sure we had Jim Crow, but we ended it and now have affirmative action. We’ve screwed up, but looking at the sweep of history, we’ve taken some pretty important steps forward. And because we don’t really want someone to carry those boxes up to our offices, we concluded WWII with the Marshall Plan. We want Iraq to be independent as we wanted Korea to be and Germany and the South. If none of those conclusions were completely successful, we never saw creating dependents in this country or in others as all that good. We’d rather be let alone than dominate.

    This is crazy – I feel like I can rave on. And it isn’t coherent. But I honestly wake up every morning thankful that I get to teach American literature – I love it because it reflects American thinking. And it is tragic and heroic and often wise. I turned right because the nineties were just too much full of hypocrisy, because I’m enough of a Scots fighter to get pissed when we are attacked, but, in the end, because I just couldn’t take any more of that academic cynicism about America when I could see how wise those great old guys were and how much we had to thank so many of them.

  4. America is the land of the free, and the only land of the free at that. The history of humanity is one of tribalism, where the interests of the group supersedes the interests of individuals. America is the only sustained experiment in the opposite of tribalism, individualism. American exceptionalism is quite literal.

  5. The American way of life is based on the belief in enterprise and technological progress. Americans believe that everyone who is willing to work ought to be able to find or create a job that will allow them to be self-sufficient. Americans believe in meritocracy; it is acceptable to be a winner. Cheating (steroids in baseball) is OK as long as myths are upheld.

    As Ginny points out people believe that they are members of the middle class, even when they are marginalized. Large swathes of the US have the appearance of Third World poverty and disorder, but people accept that as normal.

    Ordinary Americans believe that the rule of law should apply to everyone, but everyone admits that wealth buys power and influence. At the same time there is a faith that the underdog may prevail against the odds and win punative damages in court. The world laughs at the ridiculous lawsuits generated in America and yet the idea of big payouts resonates.

    Americans are open-minded: you don’t have to speak perfect English to establish credibility. Americans are friendly. Ordinary people have a sense of fairplay.

    Clearly the American way of life has always been changing, although some would deny it I think even fundamental values are shifting. As a child, I was taught that in the US there was freedom of religion, but that the state was not involved in promoting particular religions or religious ideas. This idea was even explicitly praised as the separation of religion and state, an American achievement. I am no longer certain people think this way.

    Americans are willing to believe in the exceptionalism of the US, although many people have little or no basis to make meaningful comparison. Americans willingly believe flattering nonsense about the influence of America among other countries.

    Liars and bluffers can rise to the top in America, but they risk destruction.

    Americans know that garages are important for starting bands and companies.

  6. 1. A belief in egalitarianism. While this is quintessentially American, it’s an inherited trait, mostly from our Anglo forefathers, though the ethnic, religious, economic and geographic diversity present in America allowed this insistence on level playing fields its fullest flowering.
    2. Rejection of the spiritual in politics. No single principle set the course for American individualism more than the rejection of Christianity as worthy of political status. There has always been political tension in America between religious power and its representatives and the state, but, uniquely, America has successfully kept the conflict from manifesting politically. While identity religionists have claimed tactical victories on things like gay marriage and Muslim bashing, across the decade, their power and standing has diminished continuously.
    3. Progressivism, as in a belief that progress is the natural order of everything from the economy to science, politics and, indeed, religion.
    4. Military restraint. While America has a few atrocities and, even, war crimes, depending on how you slice it, under its belt, the overall track record is clear: we have historically chosen diplomacy over military aggression in most cases and when and where we have engaged in military aggression (Iraq and Vietnam leap to mind) the country has been torn deeply and forced to repent, though less by events than by its own collective conscience.

  7. 1. A shared national experience based on God, Family, and Country.

    2. A Federal government with powers limited by the Constitution of the United States of America.

    3. A nation where all men are created equal and have equal opportunities to succeed and fail.

  8. Americans have a peculiar ability to make every personal preference a political issue

    No. That is a product of the utopianism dominating much of of the Left, and the backlash against it. It’s a legacy of the French Revolution, not the American.

    One of the “Amweican Way” characteristics is a rejection of tribalism. Class warfare philosophies – which the French Revolution inspired – are merely tribalism codified. Those philosophies also formalized the age-old ethic of redistribution through force – a characteristic of the Left and the antithesis of the “American Way of Life.”

    Duly blogged at my site. I’ll cross-post my remarks on tribalism:


    Commenter Peter Jackson noted:

    The history of humanity is one of tribalism, where the interests of the group supersedes the interests of individuals. America is the only sustained experiment in the opposite of tribalism, individualism.

    I’ll go a step further. The “American Way” celebrates the welfare of individuals outside our tribe. We want everybody to have peace, freedom and prosperity, not just ourselves. We celebrated when the Berlin Wall fell, and when Iraqis voted in free elections for the first time. The American private sector sends relief to strangers around the globe, sometimes even to people who don’t particularly like us.

    Alexis de Tocqueville observed:

    Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.

    Tribalism not only values the tribe over the individual, as Jackson noted, but it confines the individual to one tribe. Under the “American Way” individualism forges tribes; they serve as markets for the voluntary pursuit of common interests. Each person has multiple interests and thus belongs to multiple tribes.

  9. I guess a bunch of comments were lost yesterday. I’ll reconstruct mine.

    I know a couple who are German immigrants that now live in Tucson. He is a master plumber and she is a midwife (Not sure if a nurse-midwife as the distinctions blur in Europe). They spent years in the lottery for immigration visas. I asked them about their reasons for coming to America. They had saved 100,000 Euros to start over here. He told me that, in Germany, there are very few poor and not many rich. He also said that it would be impossible for him to start his own business there and he wanted to. A German Joe the Plumber, if you will. He was willing to leave a trade that allowed him save a lot of money by age 35 or so, to come to America and start his own business. His wife felt the same way.

    It is a shame that so many blacks do not realize that the doors, not matter what was the situation in 1950, are open to them to do the same thing. One who has done so beautifully is Charles Payne. I had forgotten this post until I Googled his name and my own post came up. Here is one of his articles on the radio web site. He grew up in a New York ghetto, raised by a single mother with one brother. Amazingly, he wanted to be a businessman as long as he can remember. For his 13th birthday, she gave him a briefcase and he treasured it. He joined the Air Force to go to college. Now he has a successful stock and investment business plus Glenn Beck has been mentoring him in show business.

    That to me is the essence of America. Work hard and there are few limits to how far you can go. A lot of people all over the world know that and it is a tragedy that our immigration laws do not allow them to come while millions of illiterate peasants flood the southern states and become a public burden. It is another tragedy that few blacks, although more and more, realize their own potential. There are solid carers in trades that require only hard work and some facility with tools.

    I am also concerned that tuition inflation is closing a door.

  10. Alan K Henderson:

    we were not asked to evaluate lists of others, only to offer our personal observations on the topic.
    Otherwise I could point out to many inconsistencies and register my disagreement with commenters above.

  11. When I grew up in the 50s we were told there was no such thing as hyphenated Americans. There were no Italian Americans or Irish Americans or Chinese Americans. We were all Americans. No hyphens. Just “Americans”. Now its different. The Hyphens are back. In our Public Schools our kids are divided into four groups – the black americans, the hispanic americans, the native americans and the whites. Then the blacks, hispanics and the native kids are told all their problems were caused by the whites .

    Today I learned there was a vast difference between Indian Americans and American Indians.

    The American Dream, that all people are created equal, has been killed by our civics teachers.

  12. “I know immigrants from Argentina, France, Cuba, Czech Republic, Russia. We all came to America practically with nothing. Within three decades, when according to Leonhardt economic inequality was rising in America, we all accomplished what is defined as the American Dream.” Svetlana Kunin

    Companies created by immigrants.
    1. Intel Corp. – Andy Grove (Hungary) 99,900
    2. Solectron Corp. – Winston Chen (Taiwan) 53,000
    3. Sanmina-SCI Corp. – Jule Sola/Milan Mandaric (Bosnia/Croatia) 48,621
    4. Sun Microsystems Inc. – Andreas Bechtolsheim/Vinod Khosla (Germany/India) 31,000
    5. eBay Inc. – Pierre Omidyar (France) 12,600
    6. Yahoo Inc. – Jerry Yang (Taiwan) 9,800
    7. Life Time Fitness Inc. – Bahram Akradi (Iran) 9,500
    8. Tetra Tech Inc. – Henri Hodara (France) 7,200
    9. UTStarcom Inc. – Ying Wu (China) 6,300
    10. Google Inc. – Sergey Brin (Russia) 5,680
    (source: wiki)

    These are people who make me proud to be an American. Ask them why they created their companies in America instead of in their homelands. It is because what they did in America was not allowed in their homelands.

    Our most fundamental right is our right to own property. Anyone in America is allowed to own property. Even illegal aliens. In most other countries in the world, only people with powerful political connections may own valuable property.

    In America your worth can be determined by how hard you work even if you do not have a degree from Harvard (or anywhere else). And we can all name at least ten people who have no college or even high school degrees but who are enormously, legally rich and live better than most PhDs or Senior Level Functionaires.

  13. What’s the American Way to clean upo the oil spill? Offer $500/barrel for oil skimmed from the Gulf. There are 1,000,000 barrels of oil floating around. $500/barrel will make it vanish. If that doesn’t work, offer $1000/barrel.

  14. Walter McDougall on America:

    I don’t say this expressly…so I am not stealing my own thunder to finish by listing four character traits the Civil War seemed to hard-wire into the character of Americans, traits they would display time and again during the 20th century. The first is a gay abandon insofar as the American people and political system invariably put off pressing problems until they cannot be ignored any longer. As a result the solutions prove exponentially more costly and less satisfactory than they might have been. The second is a collective amnesia insofar as the American people tend to forget or misremember their mistakes and ordeals out of cheerful optimism and a faith in the future born of their civil religion. The third is an amazing resilience insofar as Americans confidently rebound from the ravages of wars, depressions, and other calamities in a very short time. In that sense, having no room for tragedy in one’s culture is a plus. The fourth, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, is a nationalism with the soul of a church. For the United States, resurrected after the Civil War, purged old myths only to fuse its sense of national destiny even more inextricably with a cult of material progress disguised as a holy calling. That coalescence of Union and Creed, power and faith, rendered Americans uniquely prone to sanctimony, but also uniquely immune to cynicism.

  15. I suggest that the best single work on the American character, in both good and bad aspects is still De Tocqueville’s.

  16. Agreed, Tocqueville is very important. But a lot has happened since Tocqueville. The “American Way of Life,” however we end up defining it, has evolved since then.

  17. What’s the American Way to clean upo the oil spill? Offer $500/barrel for oil skimmed from the Gulf. There are 1,000,000 barrels of oil floating around. $500/barrel will make it vanish. If that doesn’t work, offer $1000/barrel.

    That is exactly right. The trouble is that someone might get rich and that would be far worse than a catastrophic event in the Gulf. We are now learning all the things that were neglected. Dutch skimmer ships, miles of fire boom in warehouses in Maine, etc. The trouble was that those were either for-profit or examples of foreign registered ships that violate the Jones Act.

    The reason why Craig Venter was, and is still, hated in genetics was that he deciphered the human genome with private resources. They raised the private money with plans to patent genes. The comfortable lives of geneticists living on government grants were disrupted and, as a result, the genome was deciphered 10 years earlier than would have happened if the rent seekers had been undisturbed.

  18. Michael Kennedy wrote:
    That is exactly right. The trouble is that someone might get rich and that would be far worse than a catastrophic event in the Gulf.

    Someone will get rich in any event, but it will be rent-seekers, rather than enterprising businesspeople responding to incentives. The victory of rent-seeking is a defeat of Americanism.

  19. I have a lot of respect for McDougall, but when he says The first is a gay abandon insofar as the American people and political system invariably put off pressing problems until they cannot be ignored any longer. As a result the solutions prove exponentially more costly and less satisfactory than they might have been. there are so many societies worse than us in that regard that it can’t really be said to be a distinguishing characteristic. European Union, anybody?

  20. Very good thread!

    No need for me to recreate my original comment – I don’t think it added much.

    I do want to say that I like this: “6. Americans want the freedom to come and go as they please, including by automobile.” Movement seems very American to me.

    – Madhu

  21. Michael Chevalier was a Frenchman who visited the U.S. from 1833-35. As an engineer, his official interest was in canals, roads, and railways; however, he was also a keen social observer. If I get a chance, I’ll flip through the book and extract a few of his salient points about Americans. To whet your appetite:

    “I ought to do the Americans justice on another point. I have said that with them everything was an affair of money; yet there is one thing which among us, a people of lively affections, prone to love and generous by nature, takes the mercantile character very decidedly and which among them has nothing of this character; I mean marriage. We buy a woman with our fortune or we sell ourselves to her for her dowry. The American chooses her, or rather offers himself to her, for her beauty, her intelligence, or her amiable qualities and asks no other portion. Thus, while we make a traffic of what is most sacred, these shopkeepers exhibit a delicacy and loftiness of feeling which would have done honor to the most perfect models of chivalry.”

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