And so are a number of other countries (perhaps every last one, in their own way).

Steven Taylor* posts excerpts from and a link to an interview with an American political operative who has done some work in Israeli elections. He comments:

This struck me on a couple of levels. First, this is fundamentally what comparative political inquiry is: the systematic understanding of similarities and differences across cases to help produce a broader understanding of the political. Second, it is a good example of how groups of people like to think that they are somehow exceptional or unique when, in fact, they only think that because they don’t know all that much about other places. This is a mistake that Americans writ large make all time. Of course, everybody thinks that they, or their group, is exceptional (and maybe sometimes they are), but often our view of how special we are is derived from the fact that we only know one thing and we just assume that it has to be special.

There’s not much to disagree with there, that we can learn from other countries and they can learn from us. As Americans, we are often more enthusiastic about the latter than the former.

That said, when we do so, I think that there are ways in which we do have to consider that we are different (just as we should consider ways in which other countries are different from us). To use an example of international comparison that conservatives make, for instance, I don’t think that there is a whole lot that we can learn from Switzerland’s high rates of gun ownership and low rates of gun crimes. And when I take a position against learning from Scandinavian experience, it’s not political rhetoric. Even things that Scandinavian countries do that I like – such as Sweden’s voucher system – are mostly transferable to the US in my mind and imagination. Not that it wouldn’t work, or that it would, but it’s speculation. Ditto Finland.

A lot of my thirties has been spend learning the notion of context-dependent. While I am generally a supporter of gun rights here, if I were in Singapore or Japan, I’d likely not support a second amendment there. I used to glibly state “any nation that needs a draft to staff an army is probably not worth protecting,” but having learned more about the situations in some other countries (like Israel), I’ve learned it’s remarkably context-dependent. And my argument comes across like “any country that has to pressure people to get vaccinations deserves to be struck with polio.

Now, when I talk about the US as being exceptional, one thing I am not willing to argue is that we are exceptional in our exceptionalism. Being the ugly American that I am, there aren’t many countries I actually know enough about to know how alike or different they are than we are. That’s not to say I sink into absolute relativism and decline to make judgments, though I try to be less judgmental of them than I am of US.

In many ways, I don’t worry about when we are out of sync with the rest of the world. I mean, I look at our health care system and the fact that it’s different than elsewhere nearly isn’t as troublesome as the fact that it’s expensive and inefficient. I oppose the death penalty, but the fact that it is banned elsewhere doesn’t play much of a role, and so on. I have a not-admirable tendency to get irked when internationalists look at how we are out of step and seem to imply that such should be an indication that we are deficient. We are us. Exasperating, chaotic, diverse, gargantuan us. Unique, for better or worse.

To one of the points that Taylor specifically points to, I don’t really look at multi-party systems like what Israel has and envy it. I believe that there are definite advantages to the American two-party system. Which sometimes gets me looks like I am the American who is closed off to other options. Truthfully, there are some aspects of other systems I do like (the National/Liberal distinction in Australia, for example), though I am not sure how we would get from here to there. I do like New York’s fusion ticket… but the party apparatus destroyed that. So to an extent, it is very much the sort of status quo bias that Taylor has criticized. But I suppose it’s the small-c conservative in me that is skeptical of widespread electoral reform.

Which all brings me back to my general support for federalism, where it becomes easier to try things on our shores with our people to then start expanding as they prove effective or limiting exposure when they prove not to be. I am far more comfortable taking something that is working in New York and California and rolling it out nationally than I am taking something that is working for Japan or even Australia. (Some of this emanating from a view not typically associated with what Taylor is talking about: My belief that Americans can screw just about anything up, no matter how well it works elsewhere.)

* – I should note that I have a history is misinterpreting a lot of what he says, and niggling at it. Even though I am not sure we are even all that far apart politically, there is just a bit of a disconnect at times and I am sure it’s my fault. This post is not a case where I think I am rebutting what he says, merely tracing my own thoughts of my own reaction. There is a good chance that we disagree only a little, or not at all.

Category: Statehouse

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