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Understanding American Exceptionalism

Monday, April 28, 2008

An ambitious new book explains how and why the U.S. is so different from other countries around the world.

“America is indeed exceptional by any plausible definition of the term and actually has grown increasingly exceptional [over] time.” This is the conclusion of the editors of a new volume, Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation (PublicAffairs, $35). At an American Enterprise Institute conference on April 22, Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson introduced the collection of essays, which is designed to probe Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that America is “exceptional,” or qualitatively different from other countries. The book, which examines 19 different areas, marshals the best and most current social science evidence to examine America’s unique institutions, culture, and public policies. 

During his introductory remarks, AEI president Christopher DeMuth said that no effort to understand the meaning of American exceptionalism had been “more ambitious and far-reaching” than this book. Not only does it describe the ways—both good and bad—in which Americans differ from people in other nations, DeMuth said, it also considers whether American exceptionalism is likely to continue, and how it matters to the world. DeMuth noted that Americans are more individualistic, self-reliant, anti-state, and pro-immigration than people in many other countries. They work harder, are more philanthropic, and participate more in civic activities. On the negative side, America also has a higher murder rate than some other countries. 

Wilson noted that one of the best ways to understand American exceptionalism is to look at polls. Three-quarters of Americans say they are proud to be Americans; only one-third of the people in France, Italy, Germany, and Japan give that response about their own countries. Two-thirds of Americans believe that success in life depends on one’s own efforts; only one-third of Europeans say that. Half of Americans, compared to one-third of Europeans, say belief in God is essential to living a moral life. 

Three-quarters of Americans say they are proud to be Americans; only one-third of the people in France, Italy, Germany, and Japan say that about their own countries.

Negative views of America in polls today have been shaped by the Iraq war and by the response to President Bush, Wilson noted, but criticism of America has a long history, particularly among elites. He quoted Sigmund Freud as saying, “America is a great mistake.” “Anti-Americanism was an elite view,” Wilson continued, “but it has spread deeper to publics here and abroad.” 

Schuck said that Understanding America casts a new light on American exceptionalism by examining it at a micro level. He identified seven overarching themes that connect the essays. 

(1). American culture is different. Its patriotism, individualism, religiosity, and spirit of enterprise make it different. The United States, Schuck said, “is more different from other democracies than they are from one another.” 

(2). American constitutionalism is unique in its emphasis on individual rights, decentralization, and suspicion of government authority. 

(3). Our uniquely competitive, flexible, and decentralized economy has produced a high standard of living for a long time, even though it now generates greater inequality. 

(4). America has been diverse throughout its history. Schuck cited research by historian Jill Lepore, who found that the percentage of non-native English speakers in the United States was actually greater in 1790 than it was in 1990. The thirst for immigration, he said, has transcended economic booms and busts. 

(5). The strengths of civil society here make America qualitatively different. No other country, he said, allocates as much responsibility for social policy to the nonprofit sector. 

(6). The characterizations of the United States as a welfare-state laggard compared to Europe miss an element of American distinctiveness: its reliance on private entities to provide certain benefits. 

(7). We are exceptional demographically with our relatively high fertility rate. 

Martha Bayles, who has written widely about American popular culture, made several points about the distinctiveness of U.S. popular culture, which has been characterized by the discovery of a medium’s commercial potential and then a “no-holds-barred rush to exploit its potential.” Next comes an era of “rapid growth…and a general lowering of tone,” followed by government attempts at regulation and then self-imposed discipline “so government [does not] come down on its head.” 

“I’m cleaning up my act and taking it on the road” is one expression of the impulse, Bayles said. But for American popular culture, the system of self-restraint has broken down due to cultural and technological changes. And now, around the world, “what people see [in our movies and music] is a quite striking distortion” of what America actually is. It is an America of individualism and personal freedom, divorced from the bonds of neighborhood, community, and family. Bayles argued that “we can’t reclaim or bring back the self-restraint.” There is no political will for censorship, she concluded, but “I wouldn’t mind soul-searching among the entertainment industry.” 

The editors of Understanding America, Schuck and Wilson, believe that the “stakes in understanding America could hardly be higher. For better or worse, America is the 800-pound gorilla in every room in the world.” 

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to THE AMERICAN.

Image by Shutterstock/Darren Wamboldt.

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