Exceptional America

In a recent speech President Obama said he believed in "American exceptionalism," but he qualified his remarks by saying "just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." That view sets him apart from his predecessors and public opinion.

In American Exceptionalism: A Double Edged Sword, the late sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset writes that America's founding fathers felt that America had a special place and mission in history. Given their strong Biblical educations, they probably all knew the passage from Isaiah that President Ronald Reagan quoted frequently, describing America as a "city set on a high, a light unto the nations."

In our new nation, stripped of Europe's hierarchies, Americans were able to shape their own destinies. For Europeans at the time, where you ended up in life usually depended on the class you were born into.

Americans may not be familiar with the term "American exceptionalism," but they are still unique in many ways.

Today, Americans remain more optimistic about shaping their lives than Europeans and also about their short- and long-term prospects. In a Harris question that asked people whether their personal situation would improve in the next five years, 65% of Americans said it would, while an average of 44% in 15 European countries gave that same response. In a question from another pollster that asked for agreement or disagreement with the statement, "people like me and my family have a good chance to improve our standard of living," Americans were much more optimistic than Western Europeans.

Americans are also unique in their views about the proper role of government. Reflecting our historical experience, we place more responsibility on the individual than Europeans do. Around two in 10 people in America say the government should provide everyone with a guaranteed basic income, whereas 60% in Britain and 56% in Germany say it should. Around three in 10 Americans say it is the responsibility of the government to reduce income differences between people with high and low incomes. More than 80% in Austria and Italy agree with that response, as do more than 60% in Great Britain and the Netherlands.

Our belief in individual responsibility undergirds our preference for the free enterprise system over government. In one recent question, 44% of Americans supported the idea of a global regulatory body to monitor big financial institutions; 60% in Great Britain, 70% in France and 71% in Germany did too.

There are other areas where we remain qualitatively different. We work longer hours and take less vacation time than Europeans in part because what you make of yourself here depends largely on your own efforts. We're more patriotic, or perhaps more willing to say we are, than people in many European democracies. We are more moralistic, too, and that quality distanced us from Europeans during the Iraq War. In a broader question about war asked by the German Marshall Fund, 32% in 12 European nations agreed, "under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice." Three-quarters of Americans gave that response. Americans are also much more likely than those in Western European countries to say they believe in God. In one question, nearly six in 10 Americans said it was necessary to believe in God to have good values. Fewer than three in 10 in major Western European nations gave that response.

Lipset called American exceptionalism a double-edged sword. We're more suspicious of authority, he said, and we give a less legitimacy to the state. That skepticism, he says, helps to explain why our crime rate is higher, why we vote less than many other democracies and even why we jaywalk.

Americans may not be familiar with the term "American exceptionalism," but they are still unique in many ways.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Karlyn Bowman compiles and analyzes American public opinion using available polling data on a variety of subjects, including the economy, taxes, the state of workers in America, environment and global warming, attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage, NAFTA and free trade, the war in Iraq, and women's attitudes. In addition, Ms. Bowman has studied and spoken about the evolution of American politics because of key demographic and geographic changes. She has often lectured on the role of think tanks in the United States and writes a weekly column for Forbes.com.
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    Email: kbowman@aei.org
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