American exceptionalism?

How to figure out which countries are exceptional

(Attention conservation notice: These are the introductory sections of a paper that I haven’t gotten around to writing.)

In April 2009, Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to use the phrase “American exceptionalism.” It is surprising it took so long. The phrase came into currency in the 1920s following Stalin’s criticisms of the American Communist Party, though the idea can be traced to John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” and numerous presidents presented the idea in different ways like Clinton’s “indispensable nation”. Obama in fact found that the remark would come back to haunt him as he added, ”I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Mitt Romney would later criticize Obama for believing the US to be just another nation.

One could test Obama’s hypothesis about the universality of exceptionalism. Recently, I wrote the introduction to a volume on Czech politics and I tried to think of ways that Czech are politically exceptional. I came up with the following list that focused on modern Czech history (that is, from the mid-19th c. to the present):

  • Interwar Czechoslovakia maintained democracy even as it was completely surrounded by dictatorships. Today only Mongolia can make the same claim and its neighbors are less threatening than Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR

  • The Czechoslovak state managed to create a relatively successful new identity, the Czechoslovak, that many Czechs embraced. For those not in the know, prior to the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 Czechs and Slovaks had not shared a common state since the 9th c. and had developed their own national identities that coexisted with this new identity.

  • The same interwar Czechoslovak republic is one of the only states (are there others?) to surrender substantial parts of its territory without fighting over them when it first gave up the Sudetenland in September 1938 and then the rump of the country in March 1939.

  • Czechoslovakia was the only state where communists came to power after winning relatively free elections. All other communist regimes came to power through civil war or external imposition.

  • Czechoslovakia was the only communist country where a substantial thaw (the Prague Spring) was followed by a reimposition of hardline rule. Alternately, it was along with East Germany the only country where Stalinist methods (minus the mass murder) were used in a relatively developed society. 

  • Czechoslovakia’s Velvet (or Gentle) Revolution in 1989 may be the most dramatic democratic transition in world history. It featured the largest year-on-year change in Freedom House scores, from the very worst to nearly the very best. (The annual change was the third largest in the Polity dataset.)

  • In their economic reforms, Czechs pioneered two forms of privatization: the massive use of both restitution to previous owners and coupon privatization to its own citizens. They similarly pioneered the use of lustration policies to keep secret police collaborators out of politics.

One might quibble with some of these or add others. Going back in time, Czechs were the pioneers and only repeat users of defenestration as a way of dealing with oppressive rulers. In any case, it seemed to me that this was a fairly substantial list of exceptionalisms. 

I’d be curious how easy it is to generate a similar list for other countries. Would every country be as exceptional in its own way? And how could we say if a country was exceptional? The most developed literature on exceptionalism singles out the US, so a deeper dive might start there.

The Case for American Exceptionalism

The literature on American exceptionalism is enormous. One could begin with Tocqueville and continue through figures like Bryce, Wilson, Hartz, and the founders of the discipline of American studies (Boorstin, Bercovitz, and Miller). I will focus, however, on modern empirical work.

Modern advocates of the exceptionalist thesis typically identify several aspects in which the US differs from its industrialized peers. On the one hand, there is a distinctive ideology. Though scholars disagree on the precise wording and distinctions here, elements that regularly appear are strong beliefs in liberty and anti-statism, individualism, democracy, egalitarianism (often defined as equality of opportunity but not outcome), constitutionalism, and capitalism/laissez-faire/free enterprise. Broadening beyond politics, there is an emphasis on religiosity and patriotism (Lipset 1996, Brooks 2013, Kingdon 1999, Huntington 1983, Schuck and Wilson 2009).

Beyond ideology or beliefs, authors also consider American institutions and public policy. The pro-exceptionalist side sees distinctive American institutions in the large number of veto points (including both separation of powers and federalism), weak political parties, and a legislature with real law-making responsibilities, not to mention weak labor unions and lack of a socialist party tempered by a strong civil society (Lipset 1996, Kingdon 1999). As far as public policy goes, areas singled out include a relatively unregulated economy, a smaller public sector and particularly a small welfare state, high levels of crime and punishment, lack of concern with the outside world, and a preference for unilateralism and militarism in foreign policy (Kagan 2003, Schuck and Wilson 2009).

A number of works have challenged these findings. The historian Godfrey Hodgson (2009) points out that American history has always been strongly connected to the rest of the world (both in terms of ideas and political events) and that while it was arguably exceptional in the early 19th century, with the coming of industrialization America and Europe converged as politics in both focused on the social question.

Peter Baldwin (2009) provides a more systematic analysis by searching for standardized data on public opinion, public policy, and social and economic outcomes which compare the US to the EU-15. After presenting some two hundred bar graphs of comparisons spanning the economy, healthcare, the welfare state, crime, society, education, the environment, civil society, nationalism, religion and science, assimilation, and subgroups, he concludes that (i) Europe is not a coherent or unified continent and (ii) with a few exceptions, the US comfortably fits into the range of European varieties. Indeed, he argues that one could formulate an exceptionalist argument for any European state.

(Aside: Baldwin is particularly good in pointing out anecdotal ways in which Europe out-Americanizes the US. On nationalism, Danes put national flags on their Christmas trees; on religion, most European countries have major political parties with the word Christian in their name; on crime, European publics are strongly in favor of the death penalty; on the economy, the US pioneered many regulations like smoking bans, rights for the handicapped, and a powerful tax authority not to mention environmental regulations.)

Kohut and Stokes (2007) make a larger set of comparisons by systematically analyzing the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude Project which conducted surveys in 50 nations. They come to a nuanced conclusion that some aspects of American exceptionalism are misunderstood, others are conditional, and only a subset are genuine. In the misunderstood category they put religious belief – where the US is similar to Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia and only different from Europe in institutions not spirituality - and nationalism – which in the US is not evangelical and again is similar to non-European countries. The conditional exceptionalism is American beliefs about international relations where support for multilateralism waxes and wanes. Only the issues of individualism, self-reliance, and optimism are characterized as “problematic” or genuine exceptionalisms. This global comparison also leads them to Obama’s view that “many publics are exceptional” and “Americans are clearly not the most exceptional” (65). Indeed, they single out Argentina in Latin America, the Czechs and Russians in Eastern Europe, and the Japanese in Asia as similarly exceptional.

It is worth pointing to other literatures that may shed light on these issues. In the first place, there is general work in comparative politics that engages in cross-national comparisons. This work is in some sense suited to assessing claims of exceptionalism, but rarely does it ask this particular question. Some works do single out the US as exceptional - for example, Pontusson’s (2005) Inequality and Prosperity: Social Europe versus Liberal America or Alesina and Glaeser’s (2004) Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference. On closer reading, these titles overstate the case. Typically, the US is included as one part of a broader typology (as in work on varieties of capitalism or the welfare state) or the US becomes exceptional by artificially restricting the universe of cases (for example, excluding other liberal states or the less social parts of Europe). More universalistic theories that lay out a general development path for all nations (like Inglehart’s postmaterialism or Bell’s end of ideology) do speak to the question of exceptionalism, but they reject its premise.

Finally, there is work on whether other countries are exceptional. One literature survey cited by Lipset (1996) estimates that there were over 2000 works published since WWII dealing with Japanese uniqueness, a concept known as Nihonjinron. This work emphasizes the persistence of traditional attitudes in Japan - duty and obligation, hierarchy, status differentiation, and traditional gender and family relations. There is also a literature on French exceptionalism (Chafter and Godin 2010) which singles out (i) a dominating, centralizing state, (ii) a divided and polarized society, (iii) republicanism that recognizes only individuals, not groups, and (iv) beliefs in Enlightenment values and the mission to diffuse them universally, not to mention belief in the exceptionalism of French culture, the practice of laicite, and the French social model.

A google ngram search presented below shows that various exceptionalisms are mentioned in English-language works, particularly British and French, though Chinese is rising quickly (American exceptionalism is not included because of scale). Regular Google searches (with parentheses) lead to a somewhat different ranking with British/English exceptionalism first (41,700/40,400 hits), followed by German (18,800), Chinese (15,400), Russian (15,000), French (8,960), Canadian (6,620), and Japanese (6,330), all compared to 1.67 million for American exceptionalism.

Towards a Better Study of Exceptionalism

It seems, then, that claims of US exceptionalism are fairly widespread, though it is viewed in very different ways. The ubiquity and variety of claims, however, indicate that we are having trouble nailing down the real exceptions. How might we study exceptionalism (in the US and elsewhere) better?

Most work on exceptionalism, beginning with Tocqueville, takes a historical and cultural perspective based on qualitative observation, whether soaking and poking in Tocqueville’s case or more general historical and rhetorical analysis. Brooks (2013) defends this sort of approach by arguing that “the straitjacket of measuring and quantifying distorts the ability to see clearly” and that instead scholars “need to capture the deeper rhythms of culture and institutions”. The approach of these scholars is to search for distinctively American traits in historical events, social developments, political rhetoric, governmental institutions, and public policy with only occasional deployment of public opinion or other statistical data. Comparisons are typically broad brush - for example, feudalism in Europe, but not in America – and these works rarely devote the same level of detailed analysis to comparator nations.

More quantitatively inclined scholars go somewhat farther in comparisons. They typically search out cross-national data in public opinion, social trends, or economic indicators and produce bar graphs showing the position of the US relative to other nations (Baldwin 2009, Karabel and Laurinson 2011). Conclusions come in the form of statements like: “The US ranks 20th out of 20 nations on levels of incarceration.” Few of these studies quantify this exceptionalism - for example, in terms of standard deviations from the mean or z-scores - nor do they aggregate the individual results in any systematic way.

Though these sorts of methods more or less exhaust work that is explicitly concerned with American exceptionalism, one could include the work of comparativists who typically focus on a particular policy domain like the welfare state, election turnout, or civil society (Esping-Andersen, Hall and Soskice, Alesina and Glaeser 2004, Howard 2003). These scholars often take a more regression-based approach, though others simply try to create typologies. The regression approach should help in identifying “exceptions”, but this is rarely the goal of these works. Rather they search for patterns and associations. Typological work meanwhile rarely creates classes of one, perhaps by virtue of the method. 

Surveying these literatures, we can say that they tend to suffer from four major problems.

1. Restricted Comparisons. Exceptionalism needs to be defined with respect to a particular reference group. If America or any other country is exceptional, it is exceptional in comparison to a set of unexceptional or normal countries. In practice, American exceptionalism is almost always defined relative to Western Europe - sometimes defined narrowly as northern Europe (the UK, France, the German speaking countries, Scandinavia, and the low countries) and sometimes more broadly as the EU-15 plus the antipodes, Canada, and Japan. Only rarely do studies include Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia outside of Japan, and Africa. Qualitative studies in particular typically make fairly narrow comparisons because of the difficulty of keeping track of a large number of nations.

This set of comparators brings with it particular assumptions. The most striking is its seeming endorsement of modernization theory. Countries which have successfully industrialized are presumed to have a different sort of polity, society, and citizenry that makes them a set of apples compared to the oranges of less developed countries. Further, modernization is presumably the end-point of developments, possibly followed by post-materialism, for these countries and the goal of poorer countries. This assumption may be warranted, but it is curious that studies which include a broader set of comparators find that the US has much in common with countries in Latin America or the Middle East (Kohut and Stokes 2007). One might even argue that the secular, post-materialist, welfare states of Western Europe are the exceptional ones and that the search is for the exceptions among the exceptions (Henrich 2020).

The question of comparators applies over time as well. Hodgson (2009) points out that definitions of American exceptionalism have changed over time. The emphasis was once on democracy and liberty, but this was discarded as other countries democratized. Later the focus was on wealth and the economy as the US grew rich but failed to adopt a comprehensive welfare state. Finally, power was added to the equation as the US became a superpower after WWII. More recently religiosity was included. Kagan (2003) meanwhile notes how Europe was once the realist continent and America the idealist one, but these positions have reversed along with a similar reversal in their military capabilities. We should be wary of comparisons of one moment in time or short periods.

2. Overly Strong Priors. Unsurprisingly, work on US exceptionalism begins with very strong priors. It sets out to answer the question of whether or not the US is exceptional. This is equally the case for the other main literature on exceptionalism, that of Japan. Few scholars begin their work with an open-minded search for whichever countries might turn out to be exceptional. Instead, as Baldwin (2009) puts it, evidence is “marshalled to support a position adopted for other reasons.” The fact that other countries consider themselves exceptional should cast doubt on this practice.

3. Vague Definitions. What does it mean to be exceptional? Should the country be the world leader (or laggard) on a particular dimension? Should it be a certain number of standard deviations from the mean? Should it be the only country which has adopted policy X or experienced historical event Y (for example, the only industrialized country without universal health insurance)? Should it have consistently high (highest?) values on a series of dimensions? Should it be a statistical outlier after controlling for other factors?

No existing study presents a clear answer to this question and not surprisingly no study gives a quantitative estimate on the degree to which the US is exceptional or typical. At most, studies will present bar graphs or tables where the US may be ranked 19th out of 20 on a particular issue or end up at the highest or lowest level when several indicators are averaged. 

4. Heterogeneity. The exceptionalism literature typically presumes that countries are homogeneous units. When quantitative data is provided, it is typically the country average. This ignores the fact that some countries have greater agreement on particular attitudes or behaviors than others. Some authors do consider the extent of heterogeneity within countries, though the focus is almost always on diversity within the US rather than diversity elsewhere (Lipset 1996, Baldwin 2009).


In short, a better study of exceptionalism would do a few things: 

(i) It would take a global and long-term perspective rather than focus on hand-picked comparators in space and time. 

(ii) It would leave open the question of which country(ies) is exceptional and along which dimensions. 

(iii) It would provide a set of standards and measures for how exceptional a country is. 

(iv) It would consider within-country heterogeneity.

One recent paper that does something like these things is Muthukrishan et al. (2020) which uses data from the World Values Survey to measure psychological and cultural distance between countries. They find that China is more isolated from others than the US. They don’t, however, look for the most exceptional countries or define which aspects make a country distinctive. But it is a large step forward in its systematicness and comprehensiveness.

Is there a point to looking for exceptions besides its inherent interest? I can think of two, though they contradict one another. In the first place, we should be careful about drawing conclusions from cases that are outliers. Insofar as the US or other places are exceptional in certain dimensions, we should be hesitant in drawing conclusions for more typical countries from these experiences. Indeed, that was the warning that Paul Musgrave was giving when he tweeted in the wake of Trump’s election:

America has not experienced the full range of politics that other countries know. Henrich’s new book on The WEIRDest people in the world tells us something similar.

Second, we can also learn from deviant cases. Seawright, for example, argues that selecting cases with extreme values on the main independent (but not dependent) variables are “the best alternatives for a broad range of discovery-related goals.” Exceptional cases can help us see both how these variables function and whether we are leaving something out of our study. Indeed, for Henrich we discover the importance of culture only when we put humans in extremis. His earlier book, The Secret of Our Success, began with cases where humans from one culture were stranded in an unfamiliar geography. In the end, they either learned from locals or they died. We might similarly learn something from the exceptions. I am not sure what, but I hope to take a look soon.


Alesina, Alberto and Edward L. Glaeser. 2004. Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baldwin, Peter. 2009. The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe Are Alike, An Essay in Numbers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brooks, Stephen. 2013. American Exceptionalism in the Age of Obama. New York: Routledge.

Chafter, Tony and Emmanuel Godin, eds. 2010. The End of the French Exception? Decline and Revival of the ‘French Model’. New York: Palgrave.

Esping-Andersen, Gosta. 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Franklin, Mark. 2004. Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies Since 1945. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hall, Peter A. and David Soskice, eds. 2001. Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage. New York: Oxford University Press.

Henrich, Joseph, Stephen J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. “The Weirdest People in the World.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33(2/3): 1-75.

Hodgson, Godfrey. 2009. The Myth of American Exceptionalism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Howard, Marc Morje. 2003. The Weakness of Civil Society in Post-Communist Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Huntington, Samuel. 1983. American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kagan, Robert. 2003. Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. New York: Knopf.

Karabel, Jerome and Daniel Laurison. 2011. “Outlier Nation? American Exceptionalism and the Quality of Life in the United States.” IRLE Working Paper, University of California, Berkeley.

Kingdon, John W. 1999. America the Unusual. New York: Worth Publishers.

Kohut, Andrew and Bruce Stokes. 2007. America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked. New York: St. Martin’s

Kopstein, Jeffrey and Sven Steinmo, eds. 2008. Growing Apart? America and Europe in the 21st Century. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1996, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. New York: W.W. Norton.

Muthukrishna, Michael, Adrian V. Bell, Joseph Henrich, Cameron M. Curtin, Alexander Gedranovich, Jason McInerney, and Braden Thue. 2020. “Beyond Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance.” Psychological Science 31(6): 678–701.

Pontusson, Jonas. 2005. Inequality and Prosperity: Social Europe versus Liberal America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Schuck, Peter H. and James Q. Wilson, eds. 2009. Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation. New York: Public Affairs.

Stepan, Alfred and Juan J. Linz. 2011. “Comparative Perspectives on Inequality and the Quality of Democracy in the United States.” Perspectives on Politics 9(4): 841-856.