In Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other, Mugambi Jouet offers a fresh contribution to the literature on US exceptionalism by exploring the divisions within US society over a range of key issues, including welfare, economic inequality, the justice system and foreign policy. Drawing on key facts and figures, Jouet presents an engaging analysis of the fundamental contradictions shaping the USA today, writes Nikhilendu Deb.
Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other. Mugambi Jouet. University of California Press. 2017.
In his efforts to describe the ‘special’ democratic traits of American society in the nineteenth century, French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville first alluded to the notion of American exceptionalism. However, it is Seymour Martin Lipset who popularised this term in the political and academic landscape. Mugambi Jouet’s Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other is the latest insight into American exceptionalism, describing how Americans are more divided on essential issues within their country than other Western countries. Jouet’s Exceptional America analyses the telltale contradictions in American society that partly explain what enabled a billionaire, Donald Trump, to become the President of the United States.
Jouet’s book has some amusing anecdotes, and he corroborates them with updated facts and figures. Prior to demonstrating how the rivalry between Christian fundamentalism and intellectualism has had far-reaching effects upon US society (Chapters Two and Three), Jouet tells the story of a young student at Rice University who had feigned interest in a history course to impress his professor for a good grade. The author finds himself awestruck by the resources offered and the racial equality, but appalled at the overall lack of hunger for knowledge that he witnesses in his peers. Jouet accredits this lackadaisical attitude to anti-intellectualism, which is the belief that intellect and reason are not nearly as important as action and emotion in solving real-world problems. Modern students think that the theories and perceived wisdom gained from attending an institute of higher learning are simply of no use in real life. This has led to a clear divide and disdain between many citizens and their more educated counterparts in America. This division plays a part in many aspects of society, as it did in the recent elections. This was apparent, for instance, when former president, Barack Obama, was accused of having a forged birth certificate as well as socialist viewpoints due to his proposed health insurance plans.
Jouet also discusses wealth inequality in America and other Western countries, and how Americans view such distributions in comparison to the circumstances that they are in (Chapters Five and Six). The standard of living in the US is less than those of other countries with equal levels of economic advancement. America is also the only industrialised nation that does not offer universal health care, and paid vacation and paid maternity leave are exceptionally low compared to other developed countries. Jouet states that in America, the system of winner-take-all ‘has concentrated the benefits of its economic power in the hands of the most privileged’ (164), allowing wealth to stay amongst the richest and most conservative.
Conservatives in America are more radical than those of other Western countries, and they influence legislation to their benefit, resulting in the biggest wealth gaps when compared to other industrialised nations. American conservatives oppose government intervention, on the one hand, and they advocate for policies that control citizens’ moral actions, on the other. Conservatism in America is led by a sense of individualism in which conservatives not only want people to overlook their circumstances, but also hold strongly onto the belief that every person in America is out for themselves and that to truly succeed, one needs to do so without ‘handouts’ from the government. This explains why, while the majority of Westerners countenance universal health care as being fundamental to democracy, many conservative Americans, by embracing a ‘visceral suspicion of government’, believe that it threatens individual freedom (165).
In Chapter Seven, Jouet discusses the justice system in America as ‘a microcosm of American exceptionalism’ (194) in reflecting US society’s predominant values. Simple-minded mottos such as ‘tough on crime’, ‘you do the crime, you do the time’ and ‘an eye for an eye’ not only reflect the views of society, but also the attitudes of many public officials. Christian fundamentalism has influenced the American justice system; according to a fundamentalist Christian mindset, things are black and white and people are either good or evil. By this logic criminals are evil and deserve to be punished. This leads to their dehumanisation, including support for capital punishment. America has executed over 1,400 people since 1976, easily putting the nation in the same category as Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea. Furthermore, until 2005, the death penalty could be enacted upon juveniles (218). Since America’s history is shaped by racism, race is furthermore ‘one of the various factors making modern American justice exceptionally harsh’ (211): minorities who commit the same offence as whites are more likely to be arrested, charged, convicted and mercilessly sentenced.
Jouet shows that, beside racism, those that are imprisoned and executed are mostly poor and that ‘the historic surge of wealth inequality in America since the 1980s coincided with mass incarceration of poor people on an unpresented scale’ (213). Additionally, America is one of only three countries that still have the right to bear arms. There are approximately 310 million guns in the hands of US civilians. In many states, people can purchase guns from gun shows with almost no background checks. Even after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which killed twenty children and six adults, 51 per cent of Americans oppose banning semiautomatic weapons.
In Chapter Eight Jouet examines how nationalism, insularity and Christian fundamentalism play a role in American foreign affairs. While nationalistic attitudes can be found in any country, the intensity of nationalism in America is exceptional. In America, US flags are everywhere, the national anthem is sung at almost every sporting event and children in school recite the pledge of allegiance daily (238). Eight out of ten Americans agree that America has something unique that makes it the greatest country on earth. Moreover, in relation to Europeans, Americans are more likely to be religious (40 per cent gravitate toward Christian fundamentalism) and subscribe to the idea that America’s greatness is bestowed by God. Christian fundamentalism’s concept of good versus evil is also apparent in America’s foreign affairs. Since good and evil cannot coexist, America is justified in any action taken against whomever it labels as evil. President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003— which had dire consequences across the world—is both an outcome and intensification of such type of fundamentalist values. Jouet argues that Bush’s invasion aggravated the instability of the Middle East ‘by spurring the rise of ISIS’, the ruthless Jihadist group that seized control of parts of Iraq and Syria and has organised and inspired terrorist attacks on Western countries that have boosted ‘demagogues playing on fear and Islamophobia’ (232).
Finally, the influence of nationalism and Christian fundamentalism on American foreign policy is entrenched by Americans’ general ignorance regarding international affairs. Millions of Americans have never travelled abroad (only 30 per cent of Americans have a passport) and have scarce knowledge of other countries. This exemplifies a stark contradiction: America actively influences the world, yet much of its population knows very little about events beyond its borders.
Jouet’s book covers a wide range of subjects, including legal studies, political sociology/science, criminology, comparative studies, history and economics. This book will spark a renewed discussion about what makes America exceptional. Although some may accuse Jouet’s book of containing a liberal bias as he pins the nation’s problems on Republicans and Christian fundamentalism to a certain extent, his analysis is useful in understanding US society today, especially in the wake of an unusual political hooligan, Donald J. Trump.
This article originally appeared in the LSE Review of Books.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Nikhilendu Deb – Shahjalal University of Science and Technology
Nikhilendu Deb is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Bangladesh. He is currently on sabbatical and is pursuing his PhD at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, with a focus on political economy, environmental sociology and social theory.