Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Thematic Essays

Puritans’ Progress

Lawrence Mead and the Question of American Culture

Peter Skerry

Engraving of Puritans; World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.

Culture is too important to be left to the literati. But what do we mean by culture? Don’t ask me, I’m a political scientist.

For a generation or more this has been social scientists’ de facto answer to that question, though voiced less from modesty than expedience, risk aversion, and even cowardice. Ever since the controversy over The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, a 1965 report in which Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor, attempted to draw attention to the developing problem of the female-headed black family, social scientists—with some notable exceptions—have steered clear of “cultural variables.”

But to leave it at that is too easy. It even risks sharing in the facile condescension in which literati all too readily indulge when talking about social science. And it may well be that these two broad fields of inquiry, the humanities and the social sciences, have fundamentally divergent understandings of culture. In any event, understanding the cultural dimension of social and political affairs is more important today than ever, especially when the very nature of the nation-state has come under scrutiny from diverse points along the political spectrum. Once-dominant notions of civic nationalism positing an American national identity rooted in abstract principles of liberty, equality, and individual rights have in recent years been challenged by various perspectives advancing more organic notions of nationhood, rooted in specific religious values, language, geography, and history as well as political principles and ideals. While much of this resurgence or rethinking of national identity has been occurring among conservatives, there have been admirable efforts by liberals—notably by Israeli political theorist Yael Tamir in her 2019 book Why Nationalism?11xYael Tamir, Why Nationalism? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).

Another political scientist who has stepped boldly into this arena is Lawrence Mead, a longtime professor of politics and public policy at New York University. Mead is not your average political scientist. Although not an international academic superstar like Francis Fukuyama, or even one who has wrapped an arresting finding in a clever metaphor like “bowling alone” and ridden it to fame and fortune, like Robert Putnam, he is hardly an obscure academic. Indeed, his research and writing have had a significant impact on US social policy. His 1985 book Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship, in which he argued that the American welfare state is not too generous (or, for that matter, too stingy), but insufficiently demanding of its beneficiaries, greatly shaped the outcome of the welfare policy debates of the late 1980s and the 1990s.22xLawrence M. Mead, Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship (New York, NY: Free Press, 1986). At the same time, Mead is no narrow technocrat, nor even a particularly quantitative analyst. A student and protégé of Samuel Huntington and Henry Kissinger, he drew on his early concentration in foreign policy in his work as a speechwriter for the latter.

So when a scholar of Mead’s stature addresses America’s place in the global order in an era recently marked by Trumpian hypernationalism, his thoughts merit attention. All the more so since the book containing those thoughts, Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power, focuses on the domestic sources of our strengths and weaknesses, with the impact of immigration on contemporary America at the center of its analysis. Still more striking is that while he rejects “the scathing terms” in which Donald Trump “has spoken of the poor, minorities, immigrants, and failed states,” Mead insists that “[Trump’s] subtext is sound—the need to deal more realistically with our challenges. Our chief problems now arise from cultural difference rather than ideological conflict.”33xLawrence M. Mead, Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2019), 66.

As Mead acknowledges in the introduction to Burdens of Freedom, “This book was difficult to fund and publish because it flouts the academic consensus against culture.” Indeed, he does not merely emphasize the importance of culture as a relevant factor in analyzing economic, political, and social outcomes. More controversially, he argues for the virtues of Anglo-American individualist values. Perhaps to account for his belief in those values, Mead volunteers, without elaborating, that he comes “from a Puritan family in America,” although he rather curiously and subsequently adds that his great-grandfather was of Cuban origin.44xIbid., xi, notes 43, 307, 44, 326.

However Mead presents himself, what emerges most clearly is his intellectual provenance in early-twentieth-century Progressivism. Indeed, with his frequent invocations of Hegel, his defense of the administrative state, his silence on the aggrandized role of the contemporary judiciary, and his criticism of the framers, Mead can be fairly characterized as a neo-Progressive.

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