Is the United States a nation of materialistic loners whose politics are dictated by ethnic, racial, religious, or sexual identities? This is what America has become in the eyes of many commentators. Americans seem to fear that their society is breaking apart, but how accurate is this portrayal and how justified is the fear? Introducing a balanced viewpoint into this intense debate, John Hall and Charles Lindholm demonstrate that such alarm is unfounded. Here they explore the institutional structures of American society, emphasizing its ability to accommodate difference and reduce conflict. The culture, too, comes under scrutiny: influenced by Calvinistic beliefs, Americans place faith in the individual but demand high moral commitment to the community. Broad in scope and ambition, this short book draws a realistic portrait of a society that is among the most powerful and stable in the world, yet is perennially shaken by self-doubt.
Concern over the cohesiveness of American society, Hall and Lindholm argue, is actually a product of a shared cultural belief in human distinctiveness and equality. They find that this shared belief paradoxically leads Americans to exaggerated worries about disunity, since they are afraid that disagreements among co-equals will rend apart a fragile community based solely on consensus and caring. While there is little dissent among Americans over essential values, racism still abounds. Here the authors predict that the homogenizing force of economic participation might still be the key to mending the wounds of racial turmoil.
By combining history, sociology, and anthropology, the authors cover a wide range of past and recent challenges to the stability of American society: from the history of unions to affirmative action, from McCarthyism to militant distrust of government, from early prejudice toward Irish and Italian immigrants to current treatment of African Americans. Hall and Lindholm do not skirt the internal contradictions and moral tensions of American society but nonetheless recognize the strength and promise of its institutions and culture. Their book is a vivid, sweeping response to the doomsayers in the reassessment of our society.