Why does a country built on the concept of liberty have the highest incarceration rate in the world? How could the first Western nation to elect a person of color as its leader suffer from institutional racism? How does Christian fundamentalism coexist with gay marriage in the American imagination? In essence, what makes the United States exceptional?
In this provocative exploration of American exceptionalism, Mugambi Jouet explores why Americans are far more divided than other Westerners over basic issues—including wealth inequality, health care, climate change, evolution, the literal truth of the Bible, abortion, gay rights, gun control, mass incarceration, and war. Drawing inspiration from Alexis de Tocqueville, Jouet, raised in Paris by a French mother and a Kenyan father, wields his multicultural sensibility to parse the ways in which the intense polarization of U.S. conservatives and liberals has become a key dimension of American exceptionalism—an idea widely misunderstood to mean American superiority. Instead, Jouet contends that exceptionalism, once a source of strength, may now spell decline, as unique features of U.S. history, politics, law, culture, religion, and race relations foster grave conflicts and injustices. This book offers a brilliant dissection of the American soul, in all of its outsize, clashing, and striking manifestations.
Mugambi Jouet teaches at Stanford Law School. His writing has notably been featured in the New Republic, Slate, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, Salon, Guernica, The Hill, Truthout, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur, and Le Monde, France’s flagship newspaper.
“This thought-provoking work explores a political shift that has transformed the concept of American exceptionalism into one of American superiority in recent decades. The author, raised in Paris by a French mother and a Kenyan father and a graduate of American universities, brings the invaluable perspective of an insider-outsider to the double-edged impact of exceptionalist ideology on both the United States and the world. With a combination of appreciation and skepticism, he recognizes the positive exceptionalism of America as a 'city on a hill' as well as a negative insularity that has made the United States an outlier among Western democracies on issues ranging from capital punishment to international human rights treaties.”—Susan Jacoby, author of bestseller The Age of American Unreason
"America is exceptional, just not in the way most conservatives think. What makes us exceptional, argues Mugambi Jouet in this engaging and learned book, is precisely the degree to which American conservatives reject ideas that are well-accepted in the rest of the western world and instead embrace punitive criminal justice policies, fundamentalist religious beliefs, and an anti-intellectualism that rejects established findings ranging from global warming to biological evolution. Seeking to understand rather than condemn, Jouet offers a rich and revealing portrait of the America that produced President Donald J. Trump." —Jacob S. Hacker, Professor of Political Science, Director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University, and author of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class
"This book is so necessary today. Mugambi Jouet analyzes how the rise of mass incarceration is a microcosm of American society's larger evolution in the past thirty years. This insightful and powerful book, coming from a remarkable comparative perspective, shows well how American attitudes toward criminal justice, health care, economics, race, religion, gender, human rights, and other key issues are more interrelated than we realize."—Bernard Harcourt, Director, Cloumbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, Columbia University
"The election of Donald Trump, writes Mugambi Jouet, was not an exceptional departure from American ways of thinking. Rather, the intensifying conservatism that produced it is exceptional when compared to other Western democracies and to America's own asserted values of liberty, equality, and justice. From a multidisciplinary and global perspective, Jouet brilliantly dissects the historical, political, and ideological reasons why Americans are so polarized from other nations and from each other. Exceptional America sheds fresh light on the peculiar and alarming state of U.S. politics today." —Dorothy Roberts, author of Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century.
"Mugambi Jouet traveled from Paris, France, to Houston, Texas, as a college freshman and has been trying to make sense of the American experience ever since. The result is a richly textured account of the forces that make the United States unlike anywhere else in the world."—June Carbone, University of Minnesota Law School
"Using a comparative perspective, and seeking to place American values in a larger context, Jouet provides perspectives on the pervasive culture war that divides Americans."—Naomi Cahn, George Washington University Law School
"Exceptional America is a seminal work written by a French author from a comparative framework. It is an eye-opener of America's contradictions, highly relevant in contemporary politics and a must-read for policy makers." —Pashaura Singh, author of Life and Work of Guru Arjan: History, Memory and Biography in the Sikh Tradition.