One can hardly imagine how much [the] division of sovereignty contributes to the well-being of each of the States which compose the Union. In these small communities . . . all public authority . . . [is] turned towards internal improvements. . . . [T]he ambition of power yields to the less refined and less dangerous desire for wellbeing.
–Alexis de Tocqueville
It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.
–Justice Louis Brandeis
It is, of course, no longer politically correct to characterize anything American as exceptional. In days gone by, descendants of the Pilgrim faithful spoke easily of their country as a “city upon a hill,” a “New Jerusalem” whose hallowed light shone as a beacon for all nations to see. It was not difficult for nineteenth-century Americans to imagine a national destiny that spread “from sea to shining sea.” Even in the mid-twentieth century, school children learned to sing of a “sweet land of liberty” made beautiful by its “purple mountains,” “spacious skies,” and “amber waves of grain.” Most felt that the United States had been called to end—or at least contain—tyrannies of unimaginable villainy in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Maoist China. When Americans looked at their nation, they saw an exceptional land upon which God had shed his grace.
In the aftermath of World War II, university scholars joined in a secularized version of the hymn. They marveled at a pluralist America able to hold its political leadership accountable while avoiding mass uprising that could translate into totalitarian tyrannies. Such talk now seems antiquated, even self-indulgent. For many today, the United States is better understood as just another society at the advanced stage of capitalism. American and European problems and politics are converging. If any country is exceptional, it is China, or one of the four Asian Tigers, or perhaps India or Brazil. Or, to state the situation in its most undeniable terms: Every country is exceptional. Each has its own distinct geographical location, origin, history, social composition, and political institutions. The United States is no more exceptional than Canada, or Mexico, or what have you.