Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation
About This Event

As the world’s sole remaining superpower, its most celebrated democracy, and the wellspring of an increasingly globalized popular culture, the United States of America excites fear, envy, and interest which are rarely matched by understanding. America is often said to be deeply divided, witlessly vulgar, religiously orthodox, militarily aggressive, economically Listen to Audio

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savage, and ungenerous to those in need, while maintaining a political stability, a standard of living, and a love of country that is the envy of the world–all at the same time.

With America perplexing so many at home, as well as abroad, Peter Schuck of Yale Law School and James Q. Wilson of AEI’s Council of Academic Advisers have brought together leading experts from across the social sciences to assemble an authoritative and accessible single-volume account, using international comparisons of the exceptional nature of American cultures, institutions and public policies. Please join us for the launch of Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation (PublicAffairs, 2008) and a discussion of this wide-ranging and profound survey of American society.

8:15 a.m.
Registration and Breakfast
Christopher DeMuth, AEI
Peter Schuck, Yale Law School
James Q. Wilson, AEI and Pepperdine University
Panel I
Martha Bayles, Boston College
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Linda Waite, University of Chicago
Michael Novak, AEI
James Q. Wilson, AEI and Pepperdine University
Panel II
Arthur C. Brooks, AEI and Syracuse University
James Q. Wilson, AEI and Pepperdine University
Christopher DeMuth, AEI
Peter Schuck, Yale Law School
12:30 p.m.
Event Summary


The Dimensions of American Distinctiveness



"America is indeed exceptional by any plausible definition of the term and actually has grown increasingly exceptional [over] time." This is the conclusion of the editors of a new volume, Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation (PublicAffairs, 2008). At a symposium at AEI on April 22, Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson introduced the collection of essays designed to probe Alexis de Tocqueville's observation that America was exceptional--that is, qualitatively different from other countries. The book, which examines nineteen different areas, marshals the best and most current social science evidence to examine America's unique central institutions, culture, and public policies.

In introducing the session, AEI president Christopher DeMuth said that no effort to understand the meaning of American exceptionalism had been "more ambitious and far reaching" than this volume. Not only does the volume describe the ways--both good and bad--that Americans differ from people in other nations, he said, but it also examines whether American exceptionalism is likely to continue and how it matters to the world. DeMuth noted that Americans are more individualistic, self-reliant, antistate, and pro-immigration than people in many other nations. They work harder, are more philanthropic, and participate more in civic activities. On the negative side, America also has more murders than some other countries.

Wilson noted that one of the best ways to understand American exceptionalism is to look at polls. Three-quarters of Americans say they are proud to be Americans; only one-third of 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; a 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 George W. Bush, Wilson noted, but criticism of America has a long history, particularly among elites. He quoted Sigmund Freud as saying "America is a great mistake." "Anti-Americanism was an elite view," Wilson continued, "but it has spread deeper to publics here and abroad."

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

  • American culture is different. Its patriotism, individualism, religiosity, and spirit of enterprise make it different. The United States, he said, "is more different from other democracies than they are from one another."
  • American constitutionalism is unique with its emphasis on individual rights, decentralization, and suspicion of government authority.
  • Our uniquely competitive, flexible, and decentralized economy has produced a higher standard of living for a long time, even as it now generates greater inequality. 
  • America has been diverse throughout its history. He cited work by historian Jill Lepore who found that the percentage of nonnative English speakers in the United States was actually greater in 1790 than in 1990. The thirst for immigration, he said, has transcended booms and busts. 
  • The strengths of civil society here make America qualitatively different. No other country, he said, allocates as much responsibility for social policy to non-profit sector. 
  • The characterizations of the United States as a welfare state laggard compared to Europe miss an element of American distinctiveness: its reliance on private provision of certain benefits. 
  • We are exceptional demographically with our relatively high fertility rate.

Martha Bayles, who has written widely about American popular culture, made several points about the distinctiveness of U.S. popular culture, which has been characterized by the discovery of a medium's commercial potential and then a "no-holds-barred rush to exploit its potential." Then comes an era of "rapid growth . . . and a general lowering of tone," followed by government attempts at regulation and then self-imposed discipline "so government [does not] come down on its head." "I'm cleaning up my act and taking it on the road" is one expression of the impulse, she said. But for American popular culture, the system of self-restraint has broken down due to cultural and technological changes. And now, around the world, "what people see [in our movies and music] is a quite striking distortion" of what America is. It is an America of individualism and personal freedom, divorced from the bonds of neighborhood, family and communicate. Bayles argued that "we can't reclaim or bring back the self-restraint." There is no political will for censorship, she concluded, but "I wouldn't mind soul searching among the entertainment industry."

The editors believe that the "stakes in understanding America could hardly be higher. For better or worse, America is the 800-pound gorilla in every room in the world." Understanding America will help people understand how and why America is different and what it means for us and the world.  


For video, audio, and more information about this book forum, visit www.aei.org/event1691/. This forum was hosted by AEI's National Research Initiative, which supports, publishes, and disseminates research by university-based academics and other intellectuals engaged in the exploration of pressing public policy issues. For more information, visit www.aei.org/nri/ or contact Jon Flugstad at  [email protected] or 202.862.4878.

James Q. Wilson, the coeditor, is the chairman of AEI's Council of Academic Advisers. Arthur C. Brooks, a visiting scholar at the Institute, also contributed to the volume.

For media inquiries, contact Véronique Rodman at [email protected] or 202.862.4870.


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