Exceptionalism in a Time of Stress

By Wilson, Graham | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Exceptionalism in a Time of Stress


Wilson, Graham, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


The phrase "American exceptionalism" arouses strong feelings. For many Americans it encapsulates the best features of American life: political freedom, democracy, equality before the law, equality in social status, and equal economic opportunity. Not surprisingly, the phrase evokes patriotism and gratitude to ancestors who chose life in America over continuing to live in the "old country."

Critics of the United States and of American society are equally willing to talk of American exceptionalism, but do so with less positive purpose. "Exceptionalism," to America's critics, summarizes aspects of the United States like its large numbers of citizens without health insurance, the limited extent and low benefit levels of the American welfare state, its use of the death penalty, and its high levels of income inequality. Critics assert that America is certainly exceptional in the ranks of advanced democracies, but scarcely in a positive sense. Thank goodness, such critics might contend, that our ancestors never left Norway or Sweden for the United States. It has been particularly poignant to discuss American exceptionalism in the first decade of the twenty-first century. As Pew Research Foundation polls indicate, public opinion has shifted quite heavily against the United States, even in countries like Great Britain that have historically looked on the United States very positively. (1) This shift in opinion owes much to the impact on opinion overseas of such things as the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, the use of torture on terrorist suspects, and the misdeeds at Abu Ghraib, of which the infamous photographs were, sadly, but a limited aspect. Nor in the modern era is the negative view of exceptionalism confined to critics overseas. Some fifty years ago, Louis Hartz argued that the United States had been dominated by a consensus that privileged economic and political freedom.2 Illustrating that a free nation can never command uniform praise from its own citizens, contemporary American academics have argued that the American political tradition is characterized as much by hierarchies of race and gender as it is by equality and democracy. Racism, sexism, and intolerance are as American, they argue, as the First Amendment or contested elections. (3)

In the face of such emotionally charged disagreement about a simple phrase, social scientists may be tempted to abandon its usage. What is to be gained from using a phrase that generates more passion than precision? The answer is that the phrase draws attention to what is or should be a fundamental question about the politics and policies of any country: How do they compare with those of other countries, particularly those at comparable levels of economic development? "[W]hat should they know of England who only England know," (4) can be said for any country. The challenge for scholars is to try to separate the important analytical issues and concerns that underlie the arguments about exceptionalism from both the patriotic and anti-American fervor that it generates.

I. DIMENSIONS OF EXCEPTIONALISM

The debate about American exceptionalism has been addressed by some of our most distinguished scholars (5) and has encompassed a variety of topics. For example, a well-known social scientist, Andrei Markovits, asks why there is no soccer (football) in the United States. (6) The example illustrates aspects of the exceptionalism debate well, although in a manner that Markovits did not intend. As anyone familiar with the United States knows, Markovits is wrong. Millions of Americans play soccer every week and Major League Soccer (MLS) appears to be successful. As is often the case in discussions of American exceptionalism, it is easy to exaggerate. The best contribution a social scientist can make, therefore, is to focus on questions susceptible to empirical inquiry. There are a limited number of such questions that collectively take us to the heart of the exceptionalism debate. …

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