James Q. Wilson and American Exceptionalism by Peter Schuck

Peter Schuck, "James Q. Wilson and American Exceptionalism," National Affairs, Winter: 2016.

Peter Schuck considers James Q. Wilson’s idea of American Exceptionalism.


Is our country unique? That question is difficult for the citizens of any nation to think about objectively. As a matter of common observation, every nation is different, just as every culture and individual is. And it is a simple truism that a proud citizen of any society is likely to think that his home is special. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” President Obama famously said in a 2009 press conference, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

But most champions of American exceptionalism make a different claim about America than Obama did: It is more exceptional than other Western democracies in the sense that it is more of an outlier along more important dimensions of national life. This fact, of course, does not necessarily mean that it is better. But some object to even descriptive claims of American exceptionalism — and for understandable reasons: Such claims seem to carry more than a whiff of the sense of superiority that I have just disclaimed but that many critics of American national pride are keen to debunk. The U.S., they point out, is now in decline in areas that we once dominated, such as public education, public health, voter participation — and even some sports! Other nations have indeed caught up with or exceeded some of our achievements, and more may do so in the future. Some disparage our global pre-eminence, past or current, by rooting it in violence and treachery rather than in anything unique and admirable in our character, culture, or achievements. Our vaunted standard of living, they maintain, is not rising as fast as it once did, and in any event it was built on the backs of the poor; our attainments pale before our gross social inequalities. Slavery, Indian removal, racism, and nativism, among other excrescences, blight our history. Vulgarity is a trademark of our popular culture, and white working-class Americans are dying earlier.

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