NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 6, 2008

America is indeed exceptional by any plausible definition of the term and actually has grown increasingly exceptional over time, say Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson, editors of "Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation."

The best way to understand American exceptionalism is to look at polls, says Wilson:

  • 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.

Negative views of America in polls today have been shaped by the Iraq war and by the response to President Bush, Wilson notes, but criticism of America has a long history, particularly among elites.

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

  • American culture is different; its patriotism, individualism, religiosity and spirit of enterprise make it different.
  • American constitutionalism is unique in its emphasis on individual rights, decentralization and suspicion of government authority.
  • Our uniquely competitive, flexible and decentralized economy has produced a high standard of living for a long time.

Lastly, America has been diverse throughout its history, say the authors.  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, has transcended economic booms and busts.

Source: Karlyn Bowman, "Understanding American Exceptionalism," The American, April 28, 2008; based upon: Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson, editors of "Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation," Public Affairs, April 2008.

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