Working Papers

American Exceptionalism and the Quality of Life in the United States

Some Preliminary Statistical Observations


This paper is a preliminary investigation into the question of “American Exceptionalism and the Quality of Life in the United States.” For the purpose of this study, which compares the United States to 19 other wealthy democratic countries, American exceptionalism refers to the distinctive social, political, and economic character of the United States in comparison to other wealthy democracies. Specifically, it implies that the United States is something of an “outlier” — that it tends to be located towards the extreme on various key dimensions that distinguish societies from one another. Note, by the way, that the claim is not that the United States is better or worse than other countries, but that it is different. Unlike some contemporary uses of the concept of “American exceptionalism,” this definition in no way implies American superiority.

In recent decades, however, the concept of American exceptionalism has come under increasing criticism from historians and social scientists. This is not the place to review these criticisms in detail, but I want to take a moment to note the key factor that has, as one historian put it, placed the concept of American exceptionalism in “ill repute”. According to the historian Dorothy Ross, the fundamental flaw of scholars who use the framework of American exceptionalism is that they “believe, against all odds, that inquiries into American uniqueness can be pursued apart from ideology.” The claim, in short, is that the idea of American exceptionalism is inherently ideological; more specifically, that it is part of what C. Wright called “the great American celebration.”

This interpretation of the political meaning of American exceptionalism is not without foundation and in fact has a very long pedigree dating back to 1630 when John Winthrop famously said, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city up on a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” Other well-known usages of this conception of American exceptionalism include a speech given by John Fitzgerald Kennedy in January 1961, eleven days before his inauguration and Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address, 28 years later, delivered on January 11, 1989. And in recent times, during the 2008 presidential election, Sarah Palin repeatedly referred to the United States as an “exceptional nation.”

To determine whether the United States is in fact an exceptional nation, we have gathered data on a variety of domains. The results are presented graphically and include sections on:

  1. Political Economy (1-6)
  2. Elements of American Exceptionalism
    1. Religion (7-10)
    2. Law (11-13)
    3. Marriage, Family, and Sex (14-18)
  3. American Exceptionalism and the Quality of Life: Some Problem Arenas
    1. Incarceration and Homicide (19-20)
    2. Health (21-24)
    3. Paid Vacations (25)
  4. Arenas Where the United States is Functioning Well
    1. GDP per Capita (26)
    2. Research Universities (27)
    3. Nobel Laureates (28)
  5. The United States in the International System
    1. Defense (29-30)
    2. National Pride (31)
    3. International Treaties (32-33)

Following the graphic presentation of statistical data, the paper concludes with a brief discussion. This section includes a summary of some of the main findings and identifies some key areas for future research.