An illuminating effort to explain America to the world—and to itself.
The notion of American exceptionalism—the idea that America is different from the rest of the world—has long been a shibboleth among historians and a magnet for yahoos and jingoes. Editors Schuck (Law/Yale Univ.; Diversity in America: Keeping Government at a Safe Distance, 2003, etc.) and Wilson (Public Policy/Pepperdine Univ.; Thinking About Crime, 1975, etc.) restore it with the wise observation that America is at least unusual in its ability to be “deeply divided, witlessly vulgar, religiously orthodox, militarily aggressive, economically 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.” The contributors examine the mechanisms, institutions and folkways that allow this curious condition. One is the tripartite division of federal power, especially the autonomous power of Congress, even with the efforts of the current administration to expand executive control. Another is the concurrent complexity of government and broad distribution of decision-making authority. Yet another is the unusual interplay of governmental and nongovernmental agencies to produce government goods and services, which accounts for the military-industrial complex so evident in Iraq today. The citizenry, for its part, expects little from the government by way of economic security, which is in contrast with Europeans, who demand that government assure a decent standard of living. The contributors turn up some surprises and offer some pointed notes on current controversies. For one, the military is far from scraping the bottom of the barrel, though that is a common perception. “It still recruits its enlisted personnel overwhelmingly from high school graduates of middling to high intelligence scores on the standard tests and recruits its officer corps from college graduates,” writes Johns Hopkins professor Eliot Cohen. And, notes Schuck in an essay on the subject, “recurrent political efforts to limit immigration almost invariably fail,” for all the rhetoric surrounding the matter.
A nuanced, warts-and-all portrait that offers much to ponder in this election year and beyond.