November 17, 2006


American Exceptionalism (James Q. Wilson, September 2006, The American Spectator)

Recall that American democracy contains some strikingly undemocratic features, such as an Electoral College, two senators for each state regardless of state populations, and an independent judiciary.

America differs from other democratic nations in many ways, some material and some mental. It has a more rapidly growing economy than most of Europe and deeper sense of patriotism than almost any other country with popular rule. A recent survey of 91,000 people in 50 nations, conducted by the Pew Research Center and reported on by Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, outlines our political culture and shows how different it is from that in most other democracies.

Americans identify more strongly with their own country than do people in many affluent democracies. While 71 percent of Americans say they are "very proud" to be in America, only 38 percent of the French and 21 percent of the Germans and the Japanese say they are proud to live in their countries. And Americans are much more committed to individualism than are people elsewhere. Only one-third of Americans, but two-thirds of Germans and Italians, think that success in life is determined by forces outside their own control. This message is one that Americans wish to transmit to their children: 60 percent say that children should be taught the value of hard work, but only one-third of the British and Italians and one-fifth of the Germans agree. Over half of all Americans think that economic competition is good because it stimulates people to work hard and develop new ideas; only one-third of French and Spanish people agree. Americans would like their views to spread throughout the world: over three-fourths said this was a good idea, compared to only one-fourth of the people in France, Germany, and Italy and one-third of those in Great Britain.

In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville discussed American exceptionalism in Democracy in America, and he is still correct. There was then and there continues now to be in this country a remarkable commitment to liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, and laissez-faire values. He gave three explanations for this state of affairs: We came to occupy a vast, largely empty, and isolated continent; we have benefited from a legal system that involves federalism and an independent judiciary; and we have embraced certain "habits of the heart" that were profoundly shaped by our religious tradition. Of these, Tocqueville rightly said that our customs were more important than our laws and our laws more important than our geography. What is remarkable today is that a vast nation of around 300 million people still share views once held by a few million crowded along the Eastern seaboard.

The Constitution
Our constitutional system is, I think, even more important than it was to Tocqueville's mind. He wrote about federalism, local township government, and an independent judiciary but neglected the system of separated powers and the checks and balances each branch imposes on the other two. Federalism, he correctly understood, keeps government close to the people, but the separate branches of the national government, each of which shares power with the others, impede the rate of change in ways that make it both difficult to adopt new policies and hard to change old ones.

America was slow to adopt welfare programs, social security, unemployment insurance, and government-supported health care, while Europe adopted these policies rapidly. We have kept our tax rate lower than it is in most of Europe. The central difference is not that Europeans are either smarter or dumber than we, but that a parliamentary system permits temporary popular majorities to make bold changes rather quickly, whereas a presidential system with a powerful, independent, and internally divided Congress requires that big changes undergo lengthy debates and substantive accommodations. On occasion America does act like a parliamentary system, as it did under Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression and under Lyndon Johnson when he commanded extraordinary majorities in both houses of Congress.

The system a country uses to elect its rulers also makes a difference. In a recent study, political scientists Torben Iversen and David Soskice have shown that, among 17 large democracies, those that elect their legislators using proportional representation (PR) are three times more likely than those electing them by majority vote to have leftist governments that redistribute income from rich to poor.

Australia, Canada, Japan, Great Britain, and the United States (among others) have majoritarian systems, while Austria, Germany, Italy, and Sweden (among others) have PR systems. Under a PR system, several parties will compete, while in majoritarian systems, only two parties usually contest elections. If there are several parties, middle-class voters will support programs that tax the rich and benefit them, knowing that they can change their voting habits if a government wishes to tax them more. But if there are only two major parties, middle-class voters will worry that voting for leftist parties will mean more taxes for them, and so they will be inclined to support right-wing parties. [...]

Tocqueville ascribed our political culture in large part to our religious heritage. Our settlers who escaped religious persecution at home brought with them a form of Christian worship that was both "democratic and republican." To be sure, some Americans in 1835 and many more today "profess Christian dogma... because they are afraid of not looking like they believe them." But for most people, religion is a reality, not a dodge. Tocqueville understood that, contrary to the prediction of European philosophers, freedom and enlightenment would not extinguish religious zeal. On the contrary: here freedom largely explains our persistent religiosity.

That is because a nation that never had an established church and did not grant money or privileges to existing churches left religion in the hands of spiritual entrepreneurs. These people were sometimes domestic missionaries and sometimes local citizens eager to create and govern a religious organization. Protestant churches had to compete in a spiritual marketplace, with many new churches emerging every year, people changing their affiliations frequently, and a few mega-churches emerging under the guidance of the most successful ministers. The system of natural liberty that Adam Smith said would benefit the economy has also aided religion.

As a result, nearly half of all Americans attend churches or synagogues weekly compared to 4 percent of the English, 5 percent of the French, and comparably low levels in most of Western Europe. Some may suspect that our religiosity is sustained by recent immigrants, especially those from Latin America. But that is only part of the story. Churches grew in membership between 1776 and 1850, long before Irish and Italian immigrants arrived in any number. When German immigrants arrived toward the end of the 19th century, they behaved like Germans still in their homeland: most were nonobservant Lutherans. But by the time they had become third generation Americans, they acquired the church commitments of America generally and went to church frequently. And the Mormon church has grown rapidly without, at least in America, emphasizing immigrant recruitment.

In most of Europe, by contrast, religion was allied with politics so that over the centuries European secularists, as one scholar has noted, "hounded Christians as political enemies rather than as religious adversaries." As a result, European churches that are still under government influence in much of Europe long after these nations had become secular create a political failure. As Tocqueville put it, "religion increases its power over some and loses the hope of reigning over all."

Religion in America has helped train citizens on self-government by giving them independent congregations to manage even in places that when first settled had no civil government. The struggle between religious faiths has at times been acute, as with Protestant attacks on the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But this rivalry was suppressed by the courts, weakened by the slow realization that Catholics here were Americans first and Catholics second, and by the election of a Catholic president in 1960. As with the economy, so with religion: markets generate mutual understanding far better than monopolies.

Religion has powerfully affected American politics: Its leaders were at the forefront of efforts to abolish slavery and still struggle over war, abortion, and gay rights. Indeed, among white voters in the 2004 presidential election, religious differences explained a larger fraction of their votes than did their age, sex, income, or education. At the extremes, religion can lead to violence, as when some radical fundamentalists bombed abortion clinics or radical secularists sustained the Weather Underground. But for most people, religion has a moderate impact despite the fervent rhetoric directed at it by several contributors to the New York Times.

Religion in America explains a host of worthwhile traits. As Arthur Brooks shows in the new book, Who Really Cares, people who are religious are more likely to live in two-parent families, achieve upward economic mobility, resist the lures of drugs and crime, and overcome health problems. Religious people are more likely to give to charity, including secular ones, than are non-religious people, and they are more likely to donate blood, give food or money to homeless persons, and to return excessive change mistakenly given to them by a cashier.

Religion, of course, cannot be the sole guide to a useful democracy. People who believe that their faith justifies their desire to dominate other people or to destroy the infidels are on a crash course toward social destruction. Iran is an example. And a country in which a secular autocrat has imposed Draconian rule as a way of curbing the excesses of religion has created an alternative no better than the one he suppressed. Iraq under Saddam Hussein is an example.

Religion requires constitutional boundaries to limit the radical demands of a few. But constitutional government without religion may, as the examples cited earlier in this suggest, give to people no sense of common destiny nor any faith in the transcendent value of their principles. [...]

Some Americans are skeptical that democracy can be exported, especially to the Middle East. These countries lack what we had: a successful war against a colonial power, wise statesmen who drafted our Constitution, and a political culture that will sustain democratic authority and protect human freedom. But most nations that have become democracies lack some or all of these traits: There was no revolutionary war, few wise statesmen, and no democratic political culture in France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. England, the nation that became democratic a few decades after the United States was created, did have many helpful precursors: no feudalism, many independent farmers who owned their own land, and an early experience with an independent judiciary. England's former colonies -- not only America, but Australia, Canada, India, and New Zealand -- became the leading democracies of the world.

But other countries have become democratic despite internal terrorism (France), domestic autocracy (Germany), a weak political culture (Japan), a lack of territorial integrity (Italy), and a Muslim population (Turkey and increasingly Indonesia). The fact that not all democracies (in fact, almost none) will look like ours and that radicalism and despotism will make democratic progress painfully slow in many countries are not arguments against encouraging the spread of democracy; they are only arguments against hoping that our system can be exported intact and that we will see democracy in the most resistant nations in our (or our children's) lifetimes. Though American democracy got off to a good start in 1789, we had to fight a bloody civil war before much more progress could be made.

But we have left a legacy that many people wish to emulate. When people in Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, and Indonesia are asked whether Western-style democracy can work in their countries, the overwhelming majority say "yes."

Mr. Wilson is, of course, quite wrong about egalitarianism being important in America--we believe in moral equality instead. But he's absolutely right to note that it is the undemocratic aspects of the Republic and our stubborn religiosity that most separate us from other democracies.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 17, 2006 4:25 AM


A fitting example is to observe the way many Americans view President Bush. Liberals waste a lot of time wondering how a guy from such a blueblooded family comes across as a normal American. But most of our citizens understand that behavior is what counts: A man born in poverty can be an arrogant snob, a man born to riches can be humble and wise. Most Americans would prefer a dinner with George W. Bush over, say, John Kerry, because the former treats others respectfully and has a likeable personality.

Personally, I think there's something wonderfully American about that, and it's characteristic of the president's enemies that they fail to understand this, preferring to see him as a fraud instead.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at November 17, 2006 5:01 AM

" While 71 percent of Americans say they are "very proud" to be in America, only 38 percent of the French and 21 percent of the Germans and the Japanese say they are proud to live in their countries." You can only be proud of something that deserves to be proud of. It's hard to be proud of your country if it is a surrendering monkey, or aggressors who were defeated.

Posted by: ic at November 17, 2006 7:57 PM