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Why America Is the Exception, But Not Exactly Exceptional

What American Exceptionalism Really Means


A Stanford Law professor, who grew up in Paris, looks at how the US got so out of step with the rest of the Western world and how that also accounts for what now divides us as a country.

When it comes to a whole basket of issues — abortion, gun rights, mass incarceration, and health care, to name just a few — the US is completely out of step with our Western European allies.

And these are the very same issues that have created such polarization in America itself.

Like Alexis de Tocqueville, Stanford law professor Mugambi Jouet grew up in Paris. As an outsider he looks at America with a unique point of view. He believes that the causes of our political backwardness have been deeply ingrained in the DNA of Americans from the nation’s founding. Among the most significant causes, he argues, are:

•  Anti-intellectualism

•  Anti-government paranoia

•  Racial resentment

•  Christian fundamentalism

Taken together, these are largely to blame for America’s red/blue divide as well as the divide between America and the rest of the West.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Dr. Jouet explains to Jeff Schechtman why the current situation does not bode well for the future of this country nor for its place in the West, even as the President joins our European partners this weekend.

Mugambi Jouet is the author of Exceptional America: What Divides the Americans From the World and From Each Other. (University of California Press, April, 2017)

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman. Often, when trying to understand a story or a set of events, conventional wisdom says, “Go there.” In fact, with respect to some things, the opposite may be true. To understand America in the 21st Century it might, in fact, be best to look at it from afar to have a cultural understanding that is anything but American. To see America in the context of its place in the world changes our perspective in ways that make America not exceptional but an exception to many of what’s become the accepted norms of Western society.

How did that happen? How did a nation that sees itself as exceptional become so out of step with the rest of the West? According to my guest, Stanford Law professor Mugambi Jouet, it is the very idea of exceptionalism that has made us the exception. Mugambi Jouet is the Thomas C. Grey fellow at Stanford Law School. He’s an author specializing in American Law, politics and culture. It is my pleasure to welcome Mugambi Jouet to the program. Mugambi, thanks so much for joining us.

Mugambi Jouet: Thank you very much.

Jeff Schechtman: I want to talk a little bit about the idea of American Exceptionalism and how you conceive of that, what you mean when you talk about that.

Mugambi Jouet: Most people nowadays tend to think that American Exceptionalism means a phase in American superiority. It’s a notion that the country is exceptional in the sense of outstanding, phenomenal, or great and that this greatness was actually bestowed by God. Historically, American Exceptionalism has primarily meant something else. Which is that America is an exception objectively and descriptively compared to other Western countries in particular.

For example, America today is the only Western nation to still have the death penalty and the only one to lack a universal health care system. These are dimensions of what the American Exceptionalism had historically meant. That America is different. That it’s an exception but they’re not inherently good or bad. It depends on what you think of the death penalty or universal health care.

Jeff Schechtman: Has this always been the case? If we look at this historically, was there a turning point when America became the exception with respect to some of these Western norms?

Mugambi Jouet: America has always been a unique country within the Western world for a broad range of reasons. They have culminated in many different factors that contributed to the extraordinary polarization of American society today. It’s important to understand that when Europeans came to North America, they believed that they had discovered a “New World” that they could mold into an ideal country. Also, the founding fathers believed that a providence was on their side as they would found a great Republican form of government. This idea that America was unique also was very influential in the 19th century with the concept of manifest destiny which was that the United States had essentially, a God given right to expand westwards and take over land from Mexico or Native American tribes in view of building a great nation.

What’s interesting is that these ideas, even though they have … they evoke what people think about today in terms of American Exceptionalism, of American superiority, they were not called American Exceptionalists. The phrase American Exceptionalism is actually coined or promoted by American communists in the 1920s to refer to how America is different, how it’s a next exception within the Western world. Then that term was used by academics later on to analyze the ways in which America is very different. What we see today is that there are many different facets of American Exceptionalism that have contributed to the nation’s extraordinary polarization; very peculiar views of looking at the government. Especially among American Conservatives, their very distinctive approaches towards religion, towards education, towards human rights. These help explain the intense division of modern America.

Jeff Schechtman: To what extent does all of this conflict, even going back to the idea of manifest destiny, conflict with the idea of America being this experiment that grew out … that really the first real experiment that grew out of the Enlightenment?

Mugambi Jouet: What the distinctive aspect of American history is that America was the first modern democracy to emerge from the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century. That many, actually, more troubling dimensions of modern America today such as the weight of anti-intellectualism or of religious radicalism, a stand from the birth of modern American society and actually positive dimensions of its history.

When America emerged from the enlightenment, of course it was led by the founding fathers who were extremely well educated men, and very intellectually curious. Some like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin engaged in scientific experiments, for example. After the epic of the founding fathers, there was the development of much more populistic conception of democracy that started associating education with elitism. It fostered a mankind intellectual mindset based on an idea that basically common sense is just enough, people don’t really need to be educated to understand politics or to live profitably. This mindset really developed through parts of America. That’s just where the roots of much of the anti-intellectuals that we see today come from. The weight of conspiracy theories, of ignorance, of disinformation, which is a deliberate spread of false information. They have roots in long standing dimensions of American Exceptionalism, actually positive ones in the nation being a pioneer when it comes to democracy.

By the same token for religion, it’s important to understand that when the United States was founded, there was a relatively more religious liberty down in Western Europe. In fact, there was no establishment of religion under the first amendment et cetera. Americans do not experience the same history of religious oppression as pre-modern European states because under the Absolute Monarchies of the path in Europe, the clergy was an ally of monarchs. Many Europeans became more suspicious of the weight of religion; but because Americans did not have that same history, not only did they have more religious liberty, they also did not have the same skepticism of religions as social institutions.

From these positive aspects of American History, one can also see the roots of Christian fundamentalism which has become very influential in modern America. That’s also a very interesting dimension of American Exceptionalism with significant repetitions today.

Jeff Schechtman: You talk about this almost nexus that exists between anti-intellectualism, the rise of fundamentalism, and a kind of anti-government attitude.

Mugambi Jouet: Yes. There are four main factors behind the extraordinary polarization of modern America that I describe in my book, Exceptional America. These four factors have also heavily contributed to the rise of Trumpism.

The first is the extraordinary weight of anti-intellectualism in parts of the American society. As I mentioned, it has long-standing roots based on the idea that basically people don’t feel a need to education because common sense is good enough. That fosters great receptiveness to conspiracy theories, gullibility or propaganda in general. Also, it precludes so many people from approaching things in a rational manner. For example, weights of conspiracy theories about climate change being a hoax are much more widespread in the United States and other Western democracies today. By the same token, the weight of ideas about the “Tyranny of Socialized Medicine” are much more widespread in modern America. They tend to defy objective, scientific and empirical evidence.

Another really influential factor in that nexus is the extraordinary suspicion of government among certain Americans which is very peculiar also by international standards, also by U.S. historical standards. We all know that the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s Health Care Reform, also known as Obamacare was extraordinarily divisive in America. What’s interesting is that if you look at the roots of this policy, it actually was based on past Republican proposals from the Heritage Foundation, from Richard Nixon. The one implemented by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts for relatively limited moderate health care reform that would be business friendly, but because the Republican party has moved drastically to the right in recent decades, the Affordable Care Act became perceived as the tyranny of socialized medicine.

Simultaneously, if you look at what’s happening elsewhere in the Western world, that would be European nations, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and other parts of the developed world like Japan, universal health care is widely accepted by both Liberals and Conservatives. It’s understood to be the best public policy and the most cost-effective one. Americans tend to have much lower expenses, spending much more on healthcare with comparatively mediocre outcomes. That’s because a lot of citizens are extraordinarily suspicious of government programs like universal health care.

Another factor within that nexus that also ties to anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism, and anti-governmentalism also is the weight of Christian fundamentalism in parts of America. A lot of people tend to think of Christian fundamentalism only as a religious mindset. Or the tendency to see … To interpret the Bible literally. For example, we know that belief in creationism, that is the view that human beings were created based on Genesis as opposed to … In their actual form as opposed to based on the theory of evolution, through biological evolution. That this idea is much more widespread in modern America than other Western nations. Approximately 1/3 to 40% of Americans today believe in creationism. That this source of fundamentalist voters’ attitudes, they don’t only influence how people think about religion or social issues like abortion or gay rights, also they shape a broader ideology and worldview that tends to be anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, anti-rational, authoritarian, black and white. If you are connected to anti-intellectualism, anti-governmentalism, it becomes part of a very strong nexus.

The final point in my book is that racial resentment is, if you will, the lethal ingredient in that cocktail because it also exacerbates a lot of these attitudes. America has been much more historically divided by racial issues than other Western democracies and that helps <explain?> why many Americans will vote against their own self interest.

Jeff Schechtman: One of the interesting things about these four things and you look at them in the context that you’re talking about, they become more social and cultural rather than political as evidenced, in part, by the fact that the Conservatism that represents them here in America is so fundamentally different from the way any kind of Conservatism has evolved anywhere else in the west.

Mugambi Jouet: Yes. That’s indeed a really interesting dimension of American Exceptionalism today. This is not really Liberalism or Conservatism, rather a very peculiar conception of Conservatism by both U.S. historical standards and by international standards. That’s part of a broader phenomenon called Asymmetric Polarization by political scientists. Basically, over the last 30 years, the Republican party has moved drastically more to the right than other Western … Sorry, than the democratic party has moved to the left. That calls into question the idea of both side-ism, that today both sides; Liberals and Conservatives are equally radical. That is not supported by empirical evidence. Where we see that the Republican party is much more radicalized because of a very peculiar conception of Conservativism that you mentioned.

Certain types of beliefs widespread in Conservative America today suggest the notion that universal healthcare is a tyranny of socialized medicine. Or that climate change is a hoax or a myth. Or that everyone should have an unbridled right to bear arms. These are considered articles of faith of modern American Conservatism. Historically, American Conservatives were much more moderate, say, in the age of Eisenhower or Nixon. Conservatives in other Western nations tend to be much more moderate. If you look at European Conservative leaders like Angela Merkel or David Cameron or Theresa May they probably would be Liberal in the United States.

Jeff Schechtman: The other part of that is looking at Liberalism in America today which is really much closer to what we see as the prevailing Western attitudes in other countries.

Mugambi Jouet: Yes. The big part of my book explains that the views of modern American Conservatives are those that really stand out in the United States. That they are outliers within the modern Western world and that when it comes to many fundamental issues, American Liberals are actually closer to other Westerners than to American Conservatives. American Conservatives tend to have very atypical or unusual views in the modern Western world. There’s fascinating data that I show … that I cite in the book. For example, in the 2012 U.S. presidential election opposing Obama and Mitt Romney, approximately 90% of Europeans would have voted for Obama over Romney according to polling data. That means that European Conservatives tend to identify much more with American Liberals and the Democratic party than with American Conservatives.

By the same token in the last election, there’s a study that I cite covering 45 countries. It found overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump internationally. In fact, the only people who identified and said they would have voted for Trump were Russians.

Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting to note that we hear this argument made by Conservatives in this country all the time that Democrats and Liberals and Progressives want to make America more like Europe. In fact, that flips the reality on its head.

Mugambi Jouet: Yes. It’s important to note that part of the reason why other Westerners and Liberal Americans are close on many issues is that America has made many significant contributions to the spread of progressive ideas throughout the world. For example, when modern Europeans think of how to resolve their social economic problems, many of them actually will point to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as a great model because it’s introduced in the Western world, a policy model that led to a much more equal society.

By the same token, when it comes to cultural issues; actually, American feminists were among the pioneers of the development of modern women’s rights. A lot of these ideas have roots in America among other nations. That helps explain why there is a greater cultural connection between other Westerners and American Liberals today.

Jeff Schechtman: How does this all fit together with what we’re seeing now in terms of these waves of European nationalism and populism as evidence by things like Brexit, the rise of Le Pen in France, even the oppositions in parties in Germany.

Mugambi Jouet: There are many more sources and forces of polarization in America than in other modern Western nations. In Europe, as you know, there is a rise of far-right parties. Behind that, there are two main issues. One of them is a form of Nationalism, or Nativism, or anti-immigrant, Islamophobic sentiment, or a prejudice racist sentiment that has been at the heart of far-right European parties’ agenda for decades. They’ve become stronger in recent years because of the current crisis that’s been partly intensified by the influx of refugees from Syria and other parts of the developing world.

The other main source of division in Europe is the European Union. The two aren’t intertwined because the EU is accused of opening up borders, enabling immigrants to circulate freely, and also of undermining the national sovereignty of European countries like France or the U.K. or The Netherlands. Therefore, far-right parties in these countries can’t scapegoat both the immigrants and the European Union. That helps explain the rise of Le Pen in France or Brexit.

If we look at the U.S. political debate, yes, there’s also these factors in terms of anti-immigrant sentiments. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump called for banning Muslims from entering America. Driving out undocumented immigrants has been a major part of his agenda. That’s one of the reasons why European far-right parties were ecstatic about his election. It’s also a resentment in the U.S. towards the Washington establishment that’s a bit like resentment towards the EU across the Atlantic.

In the U.S. there are many other issues that are really sources of polarization. If we look at the U.S. political debate, we see that Americans are routinely clashing over issues that are either not controversial or much less controversial elsewhere in the West such as whether people should have a basic right to health care; whether special interests should be allowed to spend unlimited money on political campaign and on lobbying; whether climate change is a hoax; whether women should have a right to abortion; whether contraception should be covered by people’s health insurance; whether to teach abstinence-only sexual education or comprehensive sex education; whether to have the death penalty; whether to have mass incarceration; whether it is appropriate to introduce torture into Western civilization as a way of fighting terrorism; whether apocalyptic Biblical prophesies help explain what happens in the Middle East and whether they should shape U.S. foreign policy; whether to teach creationism or the theory of evolution in public school.

These types of issues are at the heart of the U.S. political, legal, and cultural debate. Again, they are either not controversial or much less controversial elsewhere in the West because overall, the center in America is much more to the right. That’s probably because the views of American Conservatives are much more hard line and ideologically radical by objective comparative standards.

Jeff Schechtman: Given that that divide is so wide, and you touched on a lot of the issues but certainly not all of them; given that the divide is so wide, not only in America but between America and the rest of the world, does that in some ways make the argument that the divide is essentially unbridgeable at this point?

Mugambi Jouet: Well, where there is life, there is hope. The great difficulty with bridging the divide within modern America is that there’s not only a tremendous divide in terms of people’s political and moral values, there’s also a huge divide over factual issues that has been intensified by the rise of Donald Trump because we see this looking at fact checking that his rhetoric is extraordinarily misleading. Much more misleading than those of many other politicians. Even though the phenomenon did not start with him, his conspiracy mongering, his facts fear [assertions? 23:49] tend to normalize a post-factual form of debate where people cannot find common ground at all because they can’t even agree over basic issues. It’s not possible to have a debate about how to resolve climate change, for example if a huge proportion of the population and political leaders think that climate change is a hoax and they promote conspiracy theories. It’s not possible to think about establishing a universal healthcare system that would be much more cost effective and cover everyone if so many people are prepared to believe fear-mongering and conspiracy theories about how other Westerners are not free because they live under a tyranny of socialized medicine.

Even when modern Americans tend to agree that there is a problem; say, the economy being not dynamic enough, they have radically opposed views about how to resolve it. Usually, American Liberals will see the government taking a more active role in redistributing wealth, promoting social benefit programs, and leveling the playing field of [?25:09} promoting socio-economic mobility, that would also encompass financial regulations in the aftermath of the very grave financial crisis of 2008 that was, in good part, precipitated by recklessness by Wall Street. Republicans tend to have a very radically different idea which is that the way to resolve the nation’s economic issues is actually to obliterate the federal government, to completely slash taxes and almost all regulations. That this will supposedly be in the greater good. A lot of empirical data that suggest that actually nations that have more social-democratic economies enjoy greater equality and greater social-economic mobility; but because this belief that the federal government is at the heart of all of the country’s problems, that big government is the source of it all; it’s really hard to counter with facts or with objective evidence because it’s an ideology.

Jeff Schechtman: Is there any role that the West in general, Western Europe in particular, that the West might play in, in some ways, impacting this debate here in America at this point?

Mugambi Jouet: That is very hard to tell at the outset, when Donald Trump was campaigning, it was treated radically by other Western leaders. They also could be quite critical of him. Of course, after him being elected, they had to reconsider their positions and be more diplomatic. The thing is, that it’s very hard for other Western leaders to find common ground with the type of agenda that Mr. Trump is proposing and to find his rhetoric normal. Unless there is a real social shift, I don’t see that divide diminishing but, of course, the future is hard to predict. In 10 years, America might be very different. We might have different political leaders, different ways of perceiving issues, just like Europe might be very different.

Jeff Schechtman: When you look at it historically, is there any reason to think that it might be fundamentally different in 10 years?

Mugambi Jouet: At this stage, I don’t necessarily think so. What is also happening, in the US which is perhaps at the root of much of this, are these demographic shifts. Historically, America has been the Western nation with, by far, the highest proportion in the racial estimate of minorities. Today it still is much more than other Western nations. We have 38% of minorities in the United States. According to demographic data, whites might not longer be the majority of the American population by 2050. This shift might suggest that a form of very nationalistic bigoted form of politics might no longer be able to have the same political weight in a decade or two. That may redefine the way many people think about these issues.

Jeff Schechtman: Of course there is also generational shift that could play a role as well.

Mugambi Jouet: Yes, indeed. What’s interesting is that on some issues, younger Americans are much more moderate or liberal than their older peers. If we look especially at religion even though many young Americans are believers and identify with Christianity, they’re less likely to identify with fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. That the Bible was literally true word-for-word, or to take very hard-line views on gay rights; because of that generational shift, there might be an evolution.

That being said, another possibility is that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric is going to be normalized. We see in the cases that this is happening to an extent because today, even though there is much talk about his relatively low approval ratings, he still has, according to Gallup, an 87% approval rating among Republicans. That suggests that his rhetoric, the things that he said to get into the White House such as promoting birth or conspiracy theories about Obama having a forged U.S. birth certificate, or urging a ban on entry of Muslims into America, that this type of rhetoric is becoming normalized and that many people either support it or think that it’s acceptable generally.

Jeff Schechtman: Mugambi Jouet. He’s recently written “Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other”. Mugambi, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Mugambi Jouet: The pleasure was all mine.

Jeff Schechtman:

Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing and on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to

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