Exceptional Down to the Bone
From the June 21, 2010, issue of NR.


In recent months, National Review has hosted a fascinating and important discussion of American exceptionalism — the belief that the United States is qualitatively different from all other nations in important ways, and that these differences have given its people different characteristics and caused it to follow different paths. This discussion is particularly relevant now, because there is a sense on the right that President Obama and his allies want to move the country in a direction that is not consistent with “who we are” — to paraphrase the title of Samuel Huntington’s 2004 book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. Is America really exceptional? And does our uniqueness mean that what works in other countries cannot work here? In answering these questions, it helps to look at the deep historical roots of what makes us different, and why.

To pursue this inquiry, we do not need to discuss America in terms of its moral qualities, as political commentators like to do. The Right tends to see exceptionalism in America’s unique virtues, such as its freedom, prosperity, and innovativeness. The Left is more likely to see exceptionalism in America’s unique evil or guilt, focusing on its history of slavery and claiming that it is uniquely oppressive or destructive to the environment. While I generally agree with the former and disagree with the latter, American exceptionalism, if it exists, is not just an opinion or a moral judgment, but a testable and falsifiable hypothesis. To meet this condition, a claim of exceptionalism should have (overall) predictive value, and be subject to negation by identification of contrary evidence.

The first place to look for American exceptionalism is in the underlying culture of the United States. We can think of the deep things in our culture as its bones and the surface things as its flesh, with the narratives we tell about ourselves being the clothes. Since clothes can be self-consciously chosen, and changed frequently, they are sensitive to current conditions, while bones and flesh are much more permanent. Although all are significant, it helps, when thinking about the surface features, to understand what lies beneath.

Consider three critically important bone-level characteristics that contribute to defining a culture. They may at first seem remote from the usual issues people talk about when discussing American exceptionalism, but they form the basis of any culture, including America’s.

The first is a culture’s marriage practices — specifically, who is allowed to marry whom? Are people expected to marry cousins or other relatives (which is called endogamy), or are they expected to marry people who are not related to them (which is called exogamy)? And do adult children get to pick their own spouses?

The second bone-level feature is a culture’s inheritance practices. Are parents required to transmit property to one child only or to divide it equally between their children, or are they free to distribute it however they want?

The third bone-level feature is whether adult children form their own households. Do they stay with their parents or move out? Does the head of the family retain any legal authority over the adult children?

We take for granted the American way of life in these matters. People don’t marry their relatives; they marry by mutual agreement, without their families telling them whom to pick; they can leave their property to whomever they wish; and when they grow up, they move out and start their own families. As normal as all this may sound to us, it has not always been normal in the rest of the world (though Europe has moved more in our direction in modern times, and Japan has always shown some parallels to us in family structure). In fact, taking all these characteristics together, America has been normal only in comparison with the other English-speaking countries.