As a comparativist, I was once fond of claiming that the study of American politics is, or at least should be, a subfield of comparative politics. America is, after all, just one country among many. Now that I work in Japan, I have been forced to recognize that political scientists who study their own country are not comparativists. American politics is and should be an independent subfield in its own right. Nevertheless, even when studying one’s own country, it is worth the effort to put that country in a comparative perspective. That is the task Wilson sets himself in Only in America.
Putting the United States into comparative perspective is largely a task of debunking myths. Perhaps Wilson’s most useful debunking is his simplest: America is not only not the only democracy in the world, it is not even necessarily the best democracy. While this point may not seem to need saying at all, it is surprising how often American undergraduates simply assume that everyone in the world would prefer to live in the United States if they had the chance. It is worth the effort to inform American students that American democracy faces some serious problems, such as low voter turnout and maldistribution of wealth, and that many other countries look more democratic than the U.S. on these dimensions. All democracies have something to learn from the other democracies.
Wilson also takes on the more serious academic task of debunking more academic myths of American exceptionalism. He first takes on the idea that the government of the United States is significantly smaller than those of western Europe. Though he finds some support for this notion, the gap has narrowed in recent years and, “If we allow for the importance of regulations and tax expenditures, the United States has more in common with most other advanced industrialized democracies than with itself in earlier eras” (79–80). He presents a set of institutional characteristics that presumably set the United States apart from other democracies: institutional fragmentation, the pervasiveness of elections, the judicialization of politics, and “statelessness.” Again he finds that the United States is indeed somewhat different but clearly not sui generis. Other democracies share aspects of each of these characteristics, and one can see evidence of convergence from both directions—other democracies becoming more like the U.S. in some respects and the U.S. moving closer to the international norm in other respects.
Wilson discusses several different possible causes for the observed differences between America and other democracies but justifiably pays the most attention to the issue of cultural uniqueness. He provides several fascinating tables comparing American attitudes to those of OECD nations. Though the U.S. does differ in some respects, he finds little support for the idea that American values differ substantially from European values. An analysis of the political agenda in the United States produces similar results. Enduring cultural differences cannot, by themselves, explain America’s underdeveloped welfare state or any of the other observed differences between the U.S. and other democracies.
The basic point that Wilson makes is that “while American politics is different, it is not unique” (126). This is an important point that deserves repeating in undergraduate classes on American politics but one that will surprise very few political scientists. Wilson does a good job of debunking the myths but does not produce new insights into either American or comparative politics. For Wilson, the “comparative context” is the United States and other democracies. He does not attempt to find America’s place in a broader constellation of democracies. He only stresses that America is not that different from other democracies. I was most disappointed with his treatment of cultural differences. He concludes that cultural explanations are difficult and that American political culture is not that different from other democratic political cultures but that “it would be a brave—even foolhardy—analyst who wanted to ignore culture totally” (40). It is hard to disagree with this statement, but it is also hard to learn anything from it.