THIS BOOK IS about whether politics in the United States is different from politics in other advanced industrialized democracies. Politics is always different to some degree from one country to another. Nevertheless, the belief has often been expressed that politics in the United States is so fundamentally different that the United States is "exceptional."
Exceptional--and the term naming the condition of being different from the norm, exceptionality or exceptionalism--are problematic words, however. 1 At the very least, they invite two additional questions. The first is, "How? In what respect is something exceptional?" If we say that something is exceptional, we have in mind general criteria for use in assessment, some explicit or implicit list of relevant characteristics. To say that a chocolate cake is exceptionally good indicates that we have expectations about the criteria for assessing chocolate cakes.
The second question is, "Compared with what?" With what or with whom are we making comparisons? If we say that a country's politics is exceptional, we are drawing a contrast between its politics and the politics of other countries, or at least other countries that we regard as being sufficiently similar in important respects, such as their level of economic development or their being commonly regarded as democracies, to make comparison meaningful. Thus if we are talking about Adam being exceptionally tall, it is important to know that we are comparing him with other twelve-year-olds, not players in the National Basketball Association.
What criteria are being used when we say that America's politics