America’s Troubling Exceptionalism

“American Exceptionalism” means different things to different people.

Historically, the phrase was embraced by politicians pandering to voters’ belief in America’s superiority. We were the inventors of “freedom,” with a national “can do” spirit. “Exceptionalism” was a nicer word than “best,” a way to proclaim that we were Number One.

The dictionary definition of exceptional is neither positive nor negative: one can be exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. It simply denotes something unusual or atypical. One way that America’s political structure is definitely atypical is our two-party system, and as a recent post to FiveThirtyEight makes clear, that bit of exceptionalism is a significant source of the country’s current dysfunction.

The post begins by reiterating what is obvious to anyone who follows American politics:

As the “Big Lie” of a stolen election continues to dominate the Republican Party, GOP-controlled states enact restrictive voting laws and pursue preposterous election audits, aspiring candidates embrace the fiction of a stolen 2020 election, and a majority of GOP voters still believe Trump is the “true president,” the obvious questions follow: Where is this all headed? And is there any way out?

In one telling, the Republican Party will eventually come back to its senses and move past former President Donald Trump and Trumpist grievance politics, especially if Republicans lose a few elections in a row and realize that it’s a losing strategy. But there’s another possible outcome: More contested elections, more violence and, ultimately, a collapse into competitive authoritarianism enabled by electoral advantages that tilt in one party’s favor.

The post, by political scientist Lee Drutman, refers to historical patterns of democratic decline , and attributes the “cracking of the foundation of American democracy” to hyper-polarization. That polarization has given us a political environment within which one party can break democratic norms with impunity– because, as he notes, winning in the short term has become more important than maintaining democracy for the long term.

Drutman says that the hyper-polarization that threatens us is–to a significant extent– a product of the two-party system.

There’s no shortage of plausible explanations for why U.S. politics has become so polarized, but many of these theories describe impossible-to-reverse trends that have played out across developed democracies, like the rise of social media and the increased political salience of globalization, immigration and urban-rural cultural divides. All of these trends are important contributors, for sure. But if they alone are driving illiberalism and hyper-partisanship in the U.S., then the problem should be consistent across all western democracies. But it isn’t.

Drutman points to four ways in which America’s polarization is different from–and arguably more dangerous than–that of other countries (I encourage you to click through and evaluate that analysis for yourselves) and notes that in other countries where two parties dominate its politics, populations also display more unfavorable feelings toward the political opposition than populations in multi-party democracies.

In fact, in a new book, “American Affective Polarization in Comparative Perspective,” another team of scholars, Noam Gidron, James Adams and Will Horne, shows that citizens in majoritarian democracies with less proportional representation dislike both their own parties and opposing parties more than citizens in multiparty democracies with more proportional representation.

This pattern may have something to do with the shifting politics of coalition formation in proportional democracies, where few political enemies are ever permanent (e.g., the unlikely new governing coalition in Israel). This also echoes something social psychologists have found in running experiments on group behavior: Breaking people into three groups instead of two leads to less animosity. Something, in other words, appears to be unique about the binary condition, or in this case, the two-party system, that triggers the kind of good-vs-evil, dark-vs-light, us-against-them thinking that is particularly pronounced in the U.S.

Even the urban-rural split, which can be seen globally, is substantially less binary in proportional systems, partly because multiple parties can still win seats in geographically unfriendly areas, resulting in coalition governments with both urban and rural representation.

But it’s not just the lack of a stark urban-rural divide. As Drutman points out, there isn’t a strategic benefit to demonizing the opposition in an election that has more than two parties.

In a multiparty election, taking down one party might not necessarily help you. After all, another party might benefit, since negative attacks typically have a backlash. And because parties can take stronger positions and appeal more directly to voters on policy, there’s less need to rally your supporters by talking about how terrible and dangerous the other party is. Moreover, in systems where parties form governing coalitions, demonizing a side you’ve recently been in a coalition with (or hope to be in the future) doesn’t ring quite as true.

Can the U.S. change its political system to be more proportional? Unlikely. After all, today’s Republicans aren’t even willing to support the right of their opponents to vote….


  1. I’ll have to click through to read the whole analysis, but what I fail to grasp is why aren’t they addressing the causation of the polarization in the USA?

    We just elected our first socialist mayor, but I don’t see that as an option in our two-party system. What happened?

    When I assess our country, I try to look at what was the intent of the Founders. Can we even agree on what they intended this country to be? Is it a constitutional republic or democratic-republic, or is there a difference?

    We know they were concerned about democracies and majority rule.

    Without knowing what we are supposed to be, it’s hard to offer solutions to fix it. You have to know what “IT” is.

    I know that all institutions that provide trust rankings have concluded that we have little trust in “IT.”

    If we don’t trust “IT,” we will not have much luck with a political system that divides “IT” into two pieces. It will be two separate pieces of distrust. Still not good.

    Lastly, we not only distrust “IT,” but we also have no faith in the press (fourth branch of IT), which is supposed to hold “IT” accountable.

    I’m operating in a different international time zone, so pardon all the logic.

  2. There is exceptionalism in many cultures and countries. Islamists express their exceptionalism by saying alluha Akbar.

  3. Tocqueville who basically claimed the phrase American exceptionalism, stated, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”

    “What good does it do me, after all, if an ever-watchful authority keeps an eye out to ensure that my pleasures will be tranquil and races ahead of me to ward off all danger, sparing me the need even to think about such things, if that authority, even as it removes the smallest thorns from my path, is also absolute master of my liberty and my life; if it monopolizes vitality and existence to such a degree that when it languishes, everything around it must also languish; when it sleeps, everything must also sleep; and when it dies, everything must also perish?

    There are some nations in Europe whose inhabitants think of themselves in a sense as colonists, indifferent to the fate of the place they live in. The greatest changes occur in their country without their cooperation. They are not even aware of precisely what has taken place. They suspect it; they have heard of the event by chance. More than that, they are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry. They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.” They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved. They are so divorced from their own interests that even when their own security and that of their children is finally compromised, they do not seek to avert the danger themselves but cross their arms and wait for the nation as a whole to come to their aid. Yet as utterly as they sacrifice their own free will, they are no fonder of obedience than anyone else. They submit, it is true, to the whims of a clerk, but no sooner is force removed than they are glad to defy the law as a defeated enemy. Thus one finds them ever wavering between servitude and license.

    When a nation has reached this point, it must either change its laws and mores or perish, for the well of public virtue has run dry: in such a place one no longer finds citizens but only subjects.”

    Interestingly, when Tocqueville coined American exceptionalism, later on O’Sullivan coined American Romanticism, and of course, between the two, was Manifest Destiny!

    And of course, manifest destiny was to subjugate not liberate. It was to subjugate populations of lesser power to promote a vast agrarian society. This idea was one of the originalists great plans! Slavery, acquisition of land by anyone means, peaceful or not. Elimination of local populations if they would not cooperate. Importing slaves and reservations for the indigenous was a big portion of Manifest Destiny!

    So, we’ve gone so far down the path, we’ve had politicians create their own Dr. Frankenstein’s monster! But Dr. Frankenstein’s monster killed Dr. Frankenstein! When you unleash something that really is based on lies and false narratives, something that unleashed the hatred in the deepest part of man’s soul, you can’t put that genie back in the bottle! It doesn’t matter what you do! This country is changing? This country changed a long time ago, and, this could’ve been prevented if people actually paid attention! Unfortunately the control of our societies destiny has been taken away by con artists and despicable self interests. If you remove the right cornerstone, the entire building will collapse. I think our cornerstone was removed quite a while ago!

  4. Writing the phrase “ Trumpist grievance politics” without including the adjective “white” is journalistic malpractice.

    Anyway, a lot of people are hoping that the moderate wing of the Republican Party splinters off to form a new one. Frankly, I suspect the Democrats will split up into two or more parties before that happens. The tenuous coalition around President Biden is under great strain as his agenda is thwarted, slowed and pared back at every turn.

  5. Lorensacho,

    Allahu Akbar Just means God is great in Arabic, just like Asalama Lakum means, peace be upon you! wa alaykumu salam basically means “the same to you,” and should be your response….

    Here, Christians will say and have said, go with God, or go in peace. In other words be safe, be healthy, be well fed, be well clothed, and shelter well.

    But, the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who promote partisan conduct, goes against these very sayings because just saying something does not help an individual if there in time of trial or necessity. The quote from James the apostle below states how you are to conduct yourself. Most people don’t the same conmen who have rotted politics have also rotted religion.

    “If a brother or a sister is in a naked state and lacking the food sufficient for the day, yet a certain one of you says to them: ‘Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,’ but you do not give them the necessities for their body, of what benefit is it?” (James 2:15, 16)

  6. The prospects of Republicans being allowed to get away with their idiocy is very depressing.

    I am exceptionally depressed watching the news, so I stopped watching. My only power is my vote and my keyboard. I’ve written about this stuff until my fingers bled. Does it feel good to write about it? NO. It just makes me more depressed.

    It seems that Murphy’s Law is now in charge of our society: Anything that can possibly go wrong IS going wrong, and 95% of those wrongs are caused by Republicans.

  7. Thinking that Republicans will come to their senses, particularly among conservatives appalled at the vicious lunacy in front of them, is what got the short-fingered vulgarian nominated and then elected. I don’t think the last 5 years disabused any of such conservatives I know of their naivety, and I think the fact that he did lose a second term only reinforced it.

    I fall on the pessimistic side of the issue here. The current situation won’t be resolved without a convulsive reckoning with our history and those committed to staying on the wrong side of it.

  8. I have written elsewhere that we may wish to adopt a parliamentary system of government, yet I think a two-party system can work if we are issue-oriented and not primarily into demonization of the other party and its members. Thus in my mind there is no good reason to vote for one or the other party’s candidates unless you at least largely agree with such party’s stand on the issues. Unfortunately, we have (I hope temporarily) seen such a system sidetracked by a presidential wierdo where everything and everyone are personal targets of insult while that for which they were elected (governing) goes extinct while the oceans rise and acidify, it is 118 F in ground temperature north of the Arctic Circle etc. It is not only our lack of governing that portends more problems, it’s our example to the rest of the world that it’s O.K. to ignore the environmental (among other) crises (which they by our example can also ignore).

    My bottom line is that whatever form of government we have must be one that eschews insult and insurrection in favor of issue solution whether environmental, fiscal, voting rights or any other pressing issue currently being ignored.

  9. “After all, another party might benefit, since negative attacks typically have a backlash.” We all say we don’t like negative ads, but I can’t remember any that didn’t work, except “Sleepy Joe” and that wasn’t as negative as the orange menace usually was.

  10. Peter Drutman is correct is his assertion that democracy is falling apart in this country. Bipartisan leadership is needed for this country to move forward. Not one vote for the ACA came from the Republican party. There were better solutions. The radical left ha been unwilling to work with Republicans during the Obama adminstration which caused Trump and his administration a clear path into the White House. First and foremost we need to believe that our elections are secure, regardless of how we are influenced to come to that decision. The two party system during the last election has seen the most unethical approaches that havent been used or agreed to before. Article 2 section 1 Clause 2 in the constitution clearly gives states the authority to determine how elections are to be determined. Each nation state is to be represented.
    What makes our nation exceptional is not the power or supremacy some feel, but the principled method that empowers the individual freedom through capitalism and the free market enabling equality. The ventures of some to use social justice to sail our nation into socialist state thru social equity requires some to create fractures and a feel of disparity to get there.European influences and their ideologies continue to challenge our nations principles of individual freedom. In not naming persons, an influence on our nation politically is coming from one who has historically driven markets thru chaos and capitalizing on them. Politicians are using his creativeness to line their pockets and are receiving huge donations. This same person in his own words in an interview had no regrets collaborating with German soldiers while posing as a godson of a Christian while sending those of his own ethnic background to their deaths and collecting their riches. This is what makes our nation unexceptional

  11. Voters still choose who governs. We can’t blame any disfunction in our representation on anyone else.

    What has changed in my experience is where the information comes from to determine how we vote.

    There is still variability among the electorate in what motivates different voters. Some are simply single issue or party voters, while others are informed voters but with different sources for their information. Some sources are more or less old-fashioned reporting and some are in it strictly for the profit and they report whatever creates audience loyalty through bias confirmation, another term for propaganda or advertising. It is certainly not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

    Bottom line is that political dysfunction has become a major driver of entertainment media profit and we collectively, apparently, can’t imagine a good fix for that.

  12. Suggest humbly that most voters now (as the encouraged to) vote “against”….the other party, a policy, a group, etc. instead of “for”. Voting against captures far more energy and more votes. Remember 20008 when some were roused by “CHANGE” – when little happened, they have responded – per one of my fav songs: “We won’t be fooled again…”.

  13. I just subscribed to “The Flip Side” which presents the civil arguments of conservatives and progressives around an issue. It’s wonderful to see perspectives from both sides with civil language.

    I have felt for some time that we really do have more than one party, more like four. Progressives, centrist Republicans and Democrats, and those on the extreme right. I do wish we had a multiparty system because it would force representatives to reach across and form coaltions. Would it stop people from demonizing another party? Maybe not.

    Black Votes Matter now has freedom riders traveling the south in a bus. They are following in the steps of the 60’s civil rights movement. They are protesting voter suppression.

    I often wonder what would happen if a diverse group of people of different political orientations met together to generate policies that would address the opportunities and threats our nations faces ie global warming, electric cars, the rural/urban divide, health care, infrastructure, wealth inequity,racial justice etc. The group would have very skilled moderators and there would be ground rules people had to follow to avoid demonizing and shouting matches. I just wonder if the citizens could come up with policies and present them to our state legislature and Congress. Maybe it should be a group of young adults. The question is would representatives take their recommendations seriously?

  14. Having traveled outside the US a lot during the last (gasp) 50 years, I can reasonably assure you that those outside the US have a clear definition of “American Exceptionalism” based on the behavior of US visitors: rude, crude, loud, expecting special treatment, me-centered…

    Given the culture of the young today, I would not be shocked to see them “keep the faith” with this and perhaps accentuate it.

  15. I am on Face Book and I have “friends” who are Trumper’s. Their posts all seem to center around the “good old days”. They constantly post memes about bringing back prayer in school (led by the teacher no silent prayers as you must witness to all your faith in God), children should be spanked at home and at school for discipline purposes, fanatic loyalty and respect for the police, socialism is just a mask for communism, Covid 19 protocols were just a way to deny “freedom” and should be resisted, the election was stolen from The Trumpet.

    The GOP has NO ideology or philosophy for governing other than what The Trumpet says it is. The old GOP has been thrown aside and is in a trash bag.

    There is no common ground with The Trumpet’s who now control the GOP.

  16. I think the greatest threat to our continued self-governance if this foolish belief that “it has always been this way” and “nothing has changed” and “there is nothing we can do about it anyway.” All three are demonstrably, dangerously and, perhaps, fatally, wrong.

  17. I am working today, but wanted to add my two cents here.

    When I studied political science, years ago, my comparative politics class led me to the conclusion that in parliamentary systems, you usually ended up with two major coalitions (like Labor and Likud which ruled in Israel for decades). Only then, or when one party dominated did you have effective government. Otherwise you had the Third and Fourth French Republics – not paragons of effective government.

    Currently, we have a multiparty system withing the two major parties. The Democrats have a coalition of Liberals and Center-left working with Center-Right and Conservatives. The Republicans have a few Conservatives left in a sea of Reactionaries.

    What is neglected in many analyses is the other feature of American politics – the love affair with local control. If all politics was national, congressional districts were national, and the Presidential election was national (popular vote), a lot of this dysfunction might not have been able to begin. Maybe some Tea Party members would get elected, but the national Republican Party might have kept to Barry Goldwater’s rejection of John Birch types.

    Let the States deal with state issues, but voting rights and voting districts (even locally) should be separate.

    Simple answers like more parties might lead to more gridlock. Stopping the “I can lock down my state by rigging the rules” attitudes might go a lot further to resolve the problem.

    Then again, I didn’t say I had an easy answer.

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