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