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American Exceptionalism and Polarization in an Evolving Western World

American Exceptionalism and Polarization in an Evolving Western World

April 28, 2017 -
1:15pm to 3:00pm
Encina Hall West, Room 400 (GSL)
Event Speaker: 
Mugambi Jouet, Thomas C. Grey Fellow at Stanford Law School

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?

Mugambi Jouet explores these questions in his book Exceptional America: What Divides Americans From the World and From Each Other (University of California Press, 2017). His multidisciplinary research suggests that 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. Jouet argues that 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 more common in America than the rest of the Western world—Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  Although immigration is an exception to this trend given its weight in the political debate on both sides of the Atlantic, the sources and forces of polarization in the United States are often extraordinary compared to other modern Western democracies.


Mugambi Jouet is a Thomas C. Grey Fellow at Stanford Law School. His numerous articles in academic journals and the media have especially analyzed the distinctive evolution of American law, government, and sociopolitical culture.

photograph copyright © Marco Zecchin/Image Center