But America *is* Exceptional

And so are a number of other countries (perhaps every last one, in their own way).

“I love my country so much, man, like an exasperating friend.” -M. Doughty

Steven Taylor* posts excerpts from and a link to an interview with an American political operative who has done some work in Israeli elections. He comments:

This struck me on a couple of levels. First, this is fundamentally what comparative political inquiry is: the systematic understanding of similarities and differences across cases to help produce a broader understanding of the political. Second, it is a good example of how groups of people like to think that they are somehow exceptional or unique when, in fact, they only think that because they don’t know all that much about other places. This is a mistake that Americans writ large make all time. Of course, everybody thinks that they, or their group, is exceptional (and maybe sometimes they are), but often our view of how special we are is derived from the fact that we only know one thing and we just assume that it has to be special.

There’s not much to disagree with there, that we can learn from other countries and they can learn from us. As Americans, we are often more enthusiastic about the latter than the former.

That said, when we do so, I think that there are ways in which we do have to consider that we are different (just as we should consider ways in which other countries are different from us). To use an example of international comparison that conservatives make, for instance, I don’t think that there is a whole lot that we can learn from Switzerland’s high rates of gun ownership and low rates of gun crimes. And when I take a position against learning from Scandinavian experience, it’s not political rhetoric. Even things that Scandinavian countries do that I like – such as Sweden’s voucher system – are mostly transferable to the US in my mind and imagination. Not that it wouldn’t work, or that it would, but it’s speculation. Ditto Finland.

A lot of my thirties has been spend learning the notion of context-dependent. While I am generally a supporter of gun rights here, if I were in Singapore or Japan, I’d likely not support a second amendment there. I used to glibly state “any nation that needs a draft to staff an army is probably not worth protecting,” but having learned more about the situations in some other countries (like Israel), I’ve learned it’s remarkably context-dependent. And my argument comes across like “any country that has to pressure people to get vaccinations deserves to be struck with polio.

Now, when I talk about the US as being exceptional, one thing I am not willing to argue is that we are exceptional in our exceptionalism. Being the ugly American that I am, there aren’t many countries I actually know enough about to know how alike or different they are than we are. That’s not to say I sink into absolute relativism and decline to make judgments, though I try to be less judgmental of them than I am of US.

In many ways, I don’t worry about when we are out of sync with the rest of the world. I mean, I look at our health care system and the fact that it’s different than elsewhere nearly isn’t as troublesome as the fact that it’s expensive and inefficient. I oppose the death penalty, but the fact that it is banned elsewhere doesn’t play much of a role, and so on. I have a not-admirable tendency to get irked when internationalists look at how we are out of step and seem to imply that such should be an indication that we are deficient. We are us. Exasperating, chaotic, diverse, gargantuan us. Unique, for better or worse.

To one of the points that Taylor specifically points to, I don’t really look at multi-party systems like what Israel has and envy it. I believe that there are definite advantages to the American two-party system. Which sometimes gets me looks like I am the American who is closed off to other options. Truthfully, there are some aspects of other systems I do like (the National/Liberal distinction in Australia, for example), though I am not sure how we would get from here to there. I do like New York’s fusion ticket… but the party apparatus destroyed that. So to an extent, it is very much the sort of status quo bias that Taylor has criticized. But I suppose it’s the small-c conservative in me that is skeptical of widespread electoral reform.

When I was in college, I took a constitutional design class. Within this class, we had to look at what exactly goes into a constitution and draft guidelines for a constitution of a fictional country. It opened my eyes to a lot of things, one of which is the extent to which a system of government should be tailored to the nation that it would govern. There is no single right system. Though I do sometimes think we might be better off with, say, a parliamentary system, there are certain aspects of our system that I believe to be very well tailored to the country that we are. The Senate being a good example. If I were writing guidelines from scratch, I might suggest something different (I have an appreciation for the German system). But I believe states, and representation of states even when out of whack with the population, has benefits for a country as large and geographically diverse as ours. I wouldn’t recommend it for a lot of other countries, but when some people look at this as an example of American anti-exceptionalism (we are different, therefore we are wrong… leaving aside that “federal republic” is an actual thing), I genuinely view it as a solid way of having building blocks of the whole**. The really small and unpopulated building blocks of the northeast? Well, I guess they’re grandfathered in.

The last two points bringing me back to my general support for federalism, where it becomes easier to try things on our shores with our people to then start expanding as they prove effective or limiting exposure when they prove not to be. Or not expanding, as priorities differ: if my state starts implementing bad policies, it’s easier for me to relocate to another state than to relocate to another country if the nation implements bad policies***. I am far more comfortable taking something that is working in New York and California and rolling it out nationally than I am taking something that is working for Japan or even Australia. (Some of this emanating from a view not typically associated with what Taylor is talking about: My belief that Americans can screw just about anything up, no matter how well it works elsewhere.)

* – I should note that I have a history is misinterpreting a lot of what he says, and niggling at it. Even though I am not sure we are even all that far apart politically, there is just a bit of a disconnect at times and I am sure it’s my fault. This post is not a case where I think I am rebutting what he says, merely tracing my own thoughts of my own reaction. There is a good chance that we disagree only a little, or not at all.

** – Being the resident of a low-population state, I of course have a stake in this. But I have lived in high-population states and I have lived in low-population states. Living in a lowpop state, but one that covers and has to govern and contend with a very large area, I appreciate it a lot more than I resented it as a resident of a largepop state. If I ever relocate back to a largepop state, I don’t expect my views to change. They didn’t the last time I upgraded in state population size.

*** – Which all brings forth questions of civil rights and the wealth distribution that occurs between states. In case of the former, I am a believer in protecting civil rights regardless of the wishes of a majority of the state’s residents. Defining civil rights is tricky, but I hope you at least have an idea of certain historical policies I would not allow states to pursue. In the case of wealth distribution, I think housing certain things like military bases and nuclear laboratories in rural states makes sense from a practical perspective, I think states should get PILTs for the federal lands the government refuses to turn over, and I think the federal government should guarantee certain things by virtue of being American. I’m fine with the wealthier states getting to keep more of their money, though I think the less wealthy states should get roads and electricity, too. Even if they are ungrateful to their betters and actually retain some of their own ideas about what the government should and should not be doing.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. This post was prematurely published. So if you saw it, then you didn’t, and now you do with more words and rambling on… that’s why.

    • Is it an argument that America is exceptional because of BWW?

      • No. Though I long felt that the existence of Ramen for ten cents a pack was one of the things that made America great. Now that it costs twenty-five cents a pack, I love my country a little less.

        • Heh, I think my daughter would be in general agreement that Ramen is one of the great things about America. Of course she can’t remember ten cent a pack Ramen.

  2. You’ve mentioned that constitutional design class before. Can you tip me off to where you took it so I can try to cadge a syllabus?

  3. Watch out..i got a piece of anecdata. The Wife is a medical social worker doing case management for a contractor dealing with medicaid/care. She had a client who was being treated for some sort of cancer in Portland since it couldn’t be treated here in AK. So the state paid for the woman to go to Portland for her treatments. She would be there for a few weeks which was obviously difficult aside from the whole having chemo thing. It was hard to be away from home. So this woman had some friends and family in the Portland area and came up with a good idea. Go live with her family near Portland, so there is no travelling to care and she wouldn’t have to stay in the hospital as much. This women is getting her health care through a federal program so no problem with insurance. She tells The Wife who reacts with something like OMG dont’ do that. that would be a mega disaster. You there is federalism. Each state ran their own program with different income requirements, paperwork and criteria. Oregon’s medi program was, at that time, closed for the rest of the year. If the woman had moved, she would have lost her benefits. D’oh.

    The wife has other cases similar to that. To me federalism often creates holes in care that actually make it harder to move between states. If you have important benefits tied to a state your mobility is limited. Having programs at the federal level can minimize hoops since you have one portal in that works everyplace instead of 50 different sets of hoops. Also you are now free to move between states since you don’t lose benefits.

    I really doubt BWW or Carl’s Jr. or Walmart or McD’s have unique manuals, forms, rules, etc for each state. Depending on your tastes, of course, that completely justifies or nullifies the idea of federalism.

    • I hear what you’re saying. Clancy is a doctor and I am interested in perhaps becoming a teacher. In 2010, we spent some $3,000 on medical licensure applications and I can’t even begin to go forward with any thought towards teaching without knowing in which state I might land. In both cases, there are 51 paths to licensure depending on what state you’re in.

      One role I would like to see the government play is that of facilitator. I consider the ability to relocate between states to be important. So I’d be interested in a federal certifications (in addition to state ones, though I would limit states’ ability to deny federal certs).

      Health care is a mess all around. One thing I do give Obama props on for PPACA is the waiver system so that Vermont can try single-payer and other states can try other things. I wish there was more, and I am chagrined at how some state programs were killed in the process, but there was at least some activity that warms my heart. I would prefer the federal government’s role to be more that of a facilitator (Vermont, if you want to try single-payer, you need to have a plan in place for those who are out of the state. Minnesota, if you want your own version of the NHS, you need to figure out what you’re going to do with people who are visiting your state. Texas, if you want an HSA-based system, you need to figure out what to do when someone leaves, and so on). I’d much prefer this over the more directorial approach a lot of this takes.

      This is, of course, pie-in-the-sky thinking. Nobody in Washington is really hip on the idea. I tend to view it more as a direction than a destination, though. (And, to be clear, I am not a confederalist seeking to go back to the AoC. If I had any doubts about that – and I didn’t really – the EU has demonstrated the problems with confederalism.)

      • I think there is room to say each state can do it however it wants. But with a set minimum level of care, everybody gets served and nobody can be turned away. I’m, obviously, not big on federalism for many things, but if makes people happy then fine as long as the floor is solid.

        A bit to much of talk of federalism ignores any potential problems caused by federalism. Everything has faults, admitting them up front can lead to solutions.

        My example of big businesses that have national standards that are far more efficient then letting every local group do whatever they want was not just being snarky and harkening over the the BWW thread.

        • I agree that there are a lot of roadblocks, I tend to (try to?) view them astthingsto be oovercome. I am actually somewhat limited in my support of very local controll. Some people view states as the worst of both worlds (not as efficient as federal and not as responsive as local), but I view it as a happy medium. I actually question the existence of city governments. A post for another day, perhaps.

  4. At turns, overseas, I’ve been hectored by various folks whose education is mostly a half-baked loaf produced by the national university system, on the subject of American Imperialism and Hubristic Exceptionalism. It’s a topic eagerly broached, and in many countries.

    My strategy in such debates is to play black and answer these doughy questions as asked, for these people now have an opportunity to use the straw man arguments they’ve been carefully taught. But eventually I get around to asking them a few questions of my own.

    “How many of you know someone who lives in the USA?” A few hands are raised. “What are they doing there?” Some were going to university, others were working. “And what is their general opinion of the USA?” Positive reviews, all. “Did they find an expatriate community in that area, where they could get some local food and enjoy the company of their fellow [insert country here] citizens?” Oh yes, they certainly did. “Do any of them plan to stay in the USA?” Every one seems to want to stay.

    “Now, when we set about criticising America and its destructive hegemonic intent, it only seems fair to exclude people from [insert country here] from such criticism, for they are your own kin and people.” So stipulated.

    “Has it occurred to any of you that America, with the exception of the Native Peoples who were there before the nation was founded, is entirely composed of just such groups of expatriates? Especially the black people, who immigrated in chains, you might exclude them entirely from accusations of Hegemonic Superiority. And I’d also ask you to exclude Hispanics, who have come over the deserts, suffering and dying in those deserts, many separated from their families, just so they can earn money to feed their families back home. America is greatly afflicted with injustice, that much is true. Yet it remains the destination for immigrants from every nation. If I were to ask for a show of hands for anyone wanting me to file an I-410 work visa petition on his behalf, how many hands would I see?” At which point a great clamour goes up? “Would you sponsor me?”

    “But I thought American government was a great hegemon in the world, greatly oppressing people. Why would you want to be part of such a regime?” Oh, it’s not your people we hate, it’s your government and its policies.

    At which point I turn on them and snarl: “The United States is indeed an exceptional nation, the first and likely last nation of its kind in the history of the world. Americans are from every tribe and nation. To criticise America is to criticise the world: yes, we deserve plenty of criticism and so does the world. We have a free press and our sins are on display in every newspaper. Do not ever speak to me of America and its sins, not while you want to move to my nation and enjoy the benefits of freedom and opportunity. Your own nation is somewhat less-free and if your opportunities are limited, you should rather work to change your situation right here.”

    • I don’t fully disagree with what you’re saying, especially when it’s said in conversation with the “why don’t you have universal health care” people (where “you” means “U.S.,” but sounds like they’re blaming me personally). I have a pen/email pal from Germany who sometimes adopts this kind of argument and it can be sometimes frustrating. (To be fair, she knows more about U.S. politics and the U.S. political system than I do about Germany’s.) She also seems at times to be a bit neglectful of the fact that her own country’s history has had its….rough patches in the last hundred years or so.

      That said, our sins are not non-sins because the people who point them out would give a lot to live here.

      Also, the U.S. is a nation of immigrants. But I imagine any geographically delimited nation/country/state is inhabited by people whose ancestors came there from elsewhere, sometimes more recently and in greater proportions than the “a la mer!” nationalists would like to admit.

      • Well, sure. Americans do sin and we sin greatly. We sin against each other and we sin against people of other nations. I grew sick of the constant tu-quoque refrain of Et en l’Amerique, vous abusez vos Nègres. back in the day, as if these accusers and their nations were somehow paragons of inclusiveness.

        My argument ran off to the other end of the pasture and will require some catching, but if there is anything Truly Exceptional about the USA, it’s that we arrived from somewhere else. It’s kinda funny, ask an American about his nationality, he’ll never say “I’m an American”, even the most die-hard patriot. He’ll tell you, “We’re Scots-Irish on my father’s side and my mother’s side is Czech” and there’s always the tail end of that spiel “… and there’s some Cherokee in there somewhere.” It’s just amazing how many people think they have some Native American in their gene pool somewhere, though genetic research has shown this to be mostly untrue. And everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

        See, here’s what makes America Exceptional. We have some ancestral identity, but our ideas about American Identity are amazingly vague. It’s sorta like those syncretic religions, where Catholic saints stand in for other gods. Whose America are we talking about here? Whitman:

        I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
        Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
        The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
        The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
        The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
        The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
        The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
        The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
        Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
        The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
        Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

        When Whitman was hearing those songs in the 1800s, they weren’t all singing in English. Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else. And that’s the real trick of American identity, we get to write our own version of that identity.

        • What you say is reasonable and probably right, but I do tend to be skeptical about the “nation of immigrants” claim (which, of course, is not the term you used). I think I’m skeptical because it’s often advanced as if it is a self-evident justification to promote certain immigration policies. (Not that the more liberal policies that they seek to justify are necessarily wrong–I’m becoming a more “open borders” person–but that the trope obfuscates the issues at hands and in my view closes off debate, just like the (albeit plausible) claim that “immigrants do the work that native born Americans don’t want to do.”)

          I laughed when I read this:

          and there’s always the tail end of that spiel “… and there’s some Cherokee in there somewhere.”

          Most people I have met who have claimed Native American ancestry claim Cherokee. A friend of mine from my MA program, who actually did her thesis on the Cherokee, noted how frequent were the claims of Cherokee ancestry among the people she encountered.

          • Yes, exactly. As I said, American Exceptionalism argument is a wilful horse which always enjoys watching the would-be rider carrying his saddle around the pasture. The rider carries the saddle longer than the horse.

            We are an exceptional people, certainly not a superior people.

            “Kathy, I’m lost”, I said,
            Thought I knew she was sleeping.
            “I’m empty and aching and
            I don’t know why.”
            Counting the cars
            On the New Jersey Turnpike.
            They’ve all come
            To look for America,
            All come to look for America,

          • The two part harmony in the line “and the moon rose over an open field” is one of my favorite snippets of music in the whole entire world.

          • Bookends was one of the first albums I ever owned, so I love even its weak songs. But that’s not one of them.

          • And, of course,

            I’ve got some real estate here in my bag

            makes me think of Love and Death

          • Curiously, my Pandora station just played “Kathy’s Song,” which is not on Bookends, but would have fit well on it. A beautiful song, if a bit maudlin.

          • 1) DailyKos had an article up showing how half the time, someone claims Cherokee, what they mean is African.
            2) Cherokee managed to stick together, and up in the hills, a lot longer than most indian nations. And it’s better to claim someone, than to say “everyone else died, except the ones that got enslaved). Particularly if you want minority scholarships.

          • What with Mardi Gras approaching, strutting and dancing onto the scene in this part of the Newknighted States, it seems appropriate to mention the Mardi Gras Indians. Seems white folks aren’t the only folks to enhance their mythic roots with Native Americans.

  5. I found it interesting that back when torture was a significant political debate, and I argued that one reason we should not torture our prisoners is that to do so falls short of the moral standards to which we hold ourselves, the very same crowd likely to stand up for the concept of “American exceptionalism” went immediately to the argument “But they would do it to our people if the situation were reversed.” That same crowd also justified a highly constrictive and punitive immigration reform agenda by arguing that “every other nation in the world,” or this or that other country, adopts restrictive and punitive immigration policies.

    Now, I’m well aware of the power of cognitive dissonance as well as my own susceptibility to it. But I don’t think that digging moats to keep people looking for minimum-wage jobs out of the country or torturing people are signals of national greatness in the first place, much less a signal that the United States is somehow unique.

    • Let me pick my excerpt carefully, as I’m only picking on one thing here:
      That same crowd also justified a highly constrictive and punitive immigration reform agenda by arguing that “every other nation in the world,” or this or that other country, adopts restrictive and punitive immigration policies…. But I don’t think that digging moats to keep people looking for minimum-wage jobs out of the country…are signals of national greatness in the first place, much less a signal that the United States is somehow unique.

      I tend to look at things through a longish-term energy/resource lens these days. I admit that can be limiting, but those are the problems that I worry about. The US is on a path to have 400M people by 2050. Consider the difficulties we face providing enough electricity to allow all those people an advanced lifestyle. We need to generate a third more power in total, less efficiency gains but plus the long-term trend of growth in per-person use. Depending on whose analyses you like, that growth may be substantial; for example, if transportation is increasingly electrified. It seems unlikely to me that the current nuclear power stations will receive license extensions beyond 60 years — in which case all of them will have been shut down by 2050, taking the 22-23% of our current generation they provide with them. Coal’s political unpopularity is growing. The US currently has a glut of cheap natural gas, but there are reasons to believe that’s a temporary condition. In parts of the country, any new thermal generating plants are problematic because there’s no cooling water available. The Southwest is everyone’s favorite example [1], but the Southeast is also running into the water constraint: Georgia, Florida and Alabama look to be headed toward a perpetual fight over some of the rivers there. The best renewable resources are west of the 100th meridian, but most of the demand is far to the east of it.

      The world is overcrowded. For most of the people alive today, neither they nor their children will get to live in a modern high-electricity-consumption society. At least arguably (and certainly reasonable people can disagree), the number of people the US allows to move in will a factor in determining whether the US gets to continue having that kind of society. I generally contend (and am slowly writing a book that organizes the reasoning) that the western US can probably continue to do so if it can stabilize its population. I am much less sure that the eastern US can do so in the long run without a fairly dramatic decline in population.

      [1] Blue Castle Holdings’ business plan is to build nuclear power stations whose output will be delivered to Southern California for consumption. The closest place that they could find where sufficient cooling water was available for use was in eastern Utah. Air cooling is possible, but significantly reduces the efficiency of the power plants.

      • “The closest place that they could find where sufficient cooling water was available for use was in eastern Utah. Air cooling is possible, but significantly reduces the efficiency of the power plants.”

        It’s amazing to me (I live in Michigan) that Utah has a drop to spare.

  6. I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

    Will, why do you hate America?

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