Why did Donald Trump follow Barack Obama into the White House? Why is America so polarized? And how does American exceptionalism explain these social changes?
In this provocative book, Mugambi Jouet describes why Americans are far more divided than other Westerners over basic issues, including wealth inequality, health care, climate change, evolution, gender roles, abortion, gay rights, sex, gun control, mass incarceration, the death penalty, torture, human rights, and war. Raised in Paris by a French mother and Kenyan father, Jouet then lived in the Bible Belt, Manhattan, and beyond. Drawing inspiration from Alexis de Tocqueville, he wields his multicultural sensibility to parse how the intense polarization of U.S. conservatives and liberals has become a key dimension of American exceptionalism—an idea widely misunderstood as American superiority. While exceptionalism once was a source of strength, it may now spell decline, as unique features of U.S. history, politics, law, culture, religion, and race relations foster grave conflicts. They also shed light on the intriguing ideological evolution of American conservatism, which long predated Trumpism. Anti-intellectualism, conspiracy-mongering, a visceral suspicion of government, and Christian fundamentalism are far more common in America than the rest of the Western world—Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Exceptional America dissects the American soul, in all of its peculiar, clashing, and striking manifestations.
1 • One Nation, Divisible
2 • From the American Enlightenment to Anti-Intellectualism
3 • Th e Exceptional Influence of Christian Fundamentalism
4 • Th e Culture Wars of Faith, Sex, and Gender
5 • Between Democracy and Plutocracy
6 • Millions Standing against Their Own Economic Interest
7 • Mass Incarceration, Executions, and Gun Violence in “the Land of the Free”
8 • America and the World
Mugambi Jouet teaches at Stanford Law School. His writing has been featured in Mother Jones, Slate, The New Republic, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, Salon, The Hill, Truthout, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Monde, and academic journals.
“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. . . . 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.”—London School of Economics Review of Books
"[Jouet] takes a long look at the notion of American exceptionalism in this thought-provoking new book. . . . he tackles his subject with a multicultural point of view, considering anti-intellectualism, fundamentalism, sex and gender roles and the politics of mass incarceration. The book takes the reader right up to the present; Jouet finished writing it just after the 2016 presidential election."—The Mercury News
“Exceptional America is the type of book with which you have to laugh in order not to cry.”—New York Journal of Books
“America is exceptional, just not in the way most conservative 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 and Director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University
“This thought-provoking work explores a political shift that has transformed the concept of American exceptionalism into one of American superiority. 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, bestselling author of The Age of American Unreason
“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, Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, Columbia Law School
“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, Professor of Law and Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, and 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, Robina Chair in Law, Science, and Technology, University of Minnesota Law School, and coauthor of Red Families v. Blue Families
“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, Harold H. Greene Professor of Law, George Washington University Law School, and coauthor of Red Families v. Blue Families
“Exceptional America is a seminal work written by a French author from a comparative framework. It is an eye-opening presentation of America’s contradictions, highly relevant in contemporary politics and a must-read for policy makers.” —Pashaura Singh, Chair, Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Riverside