American exceptionalism

The United States of America was one of the first republics of the modern era, and to this day possesses one of the world's longest-lasting political regimes. "The United States," as a single, stable country has survived unmolested since its 1776 founding, and has never undergone a coup, revolution, or other form of internal breakdown leading to the emergence of a new regime. Oh sure, there was the Civil War, but even then the forces of continuity and preservation won- a rare feat that few countries (like, say, India) can claim.

But when you get to be as old as the USA, you start to show signs of your age. Like an old geezer at a rave, the United States is a nation that doesn't quite "fit in" with all the other countries a lot of the time. The US possesses a lot of distinct political-cultural traditions that lack international precedent; the direct result of the country's very unique history and demographics.

My intent here is to talk about the formal institutions of the United States, and how they notably differ from those used in other countries. Many other studies of American exceptionalism focus more on attitudes of Americans regarding matters like religion, politics, and foreign policy, but I've always found obsessing over those matters to be a bit myopic and short-sighted. I think it's more interesting to look at the United States as a state, as opposed to a society, and see how exceptional it is in this regard.


GOVERNMENT

The Cabinet

The United States calls its cabinet members "secretaries" unlike most nations which use the title of "minister."
The only exceptions are:

The US cabinet member responsible for financial affairs is called the "Secretary of the Treasury" and leads the "Department of the Treasury." Most other nations call their equivalent official the "Minister of Finance" and their department the "Department of Finance."

The US cabinet member responsible for international diplomacy is called the "Secretary of State" and leads the "Department of State." Most other nations call their equivalent official the "Minister of Foreign Affairs " and their department the "Department of Foreign Affairs." The title "Secretary of State" is a British term, and is used in UK and some other Commonwealth nations. In the UK, every cabinet secretary is formally called the "Secretary of State" as their full formal title, for example the "Secretary of State for Education" or "Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs." In casual language they are just referred to as the "Education Secretary" etc, however.

It's interesting to note that in the foreign language press American cabinet secretaries are usually referred to as "ministers."

The Central Bank

The central bank of the United States, which is the organ of government responsible for federal monetary policy, is known as the Federal Reserve of the United States. Most other countries call their central bank simply "The Bank of [Country]" for example, "The Bank of England," or "The Bank of Italy." It should be noted, however, that the title "Federal Reserve" was not the first choice, and was simply a name settled on after a lot of trial and error with creating a working central bank. Prior to the Federal Reserve's creation in 1916, the US central bank was called:

The present head of United States central bank is known as the Chairman of the Board of Governors. In most other countries this official goes by the title of "Governor of the Bank." In the US, however, every member of the Federal Reserve board of directors is given the title of "Governor."

The Electoral College

Almost all countries in the world with an executive, decision-making president allow the voters to elect him or her directly, in an open, nation-wide election. This happens in the US as well, of course, but the American system is distinct because of the presence of the United States Electoral College.

The American electoral college is the closest thing to an American parliament, in the sense that it selects the head of government in a similar manner most parliaments select their nation's prime minister. Each state elects a certain number of members to the College, and the members assemble and collectively vote to choose the President of the United States. Of course, nowadays this is just a huge formality. They no longer even put the names of Electoral College candidates on the US ballots anymore. Americans just vote for their president, and the party whose candidate gets the most votes sends some figurehead delegates to symbolically cast their votes for the same person.

What makes the College controversial is the fact that there is always a narrow possibility that the formalities do not go quite as planned. Because the electoral college is a "first-past-the-post" state-based representative body, it is possible for a candidate to win the most seats despite winning only a minority of the popular vote. This is what happened in the 2000 election, when George W. Bush won the most seats but Al Gore got more of the popular vote.

Anyway, the point is, no other country with a directly elected president has to go through such shenanigans. In countries like France, Finland, Ireland, and all of South America, the president is chosen solely on the basis of whoever wins the largest percentage of the popular vote, with no middleman.

The closest equivalent occurs in some countries with figurehead presidents, like India, Germany, and Israel. In those cases the presidents are elected by the national parliament (sometimes along with state legislatures). But since their presidents are largely powerless nobodies, this is not of much practical relevance to the government.

Acting / interim presidents

Political leadership in the United States has been remarkably stable over the years, mostly because the US Presidency is such a well-designed and stable institution. Once a president is elected, he's quite hard to get rid of until the next scheduled election rolls around. Impeachment is very complicated and has never been successfully attempted, and other than that, Congress and the cabinet don't really have many tricks at their disposal to depose the Head of State or force an emergency election. Of the 43 American presidents, only nine have not served at least one full term — that is, at least four years in office — and only one has resigned. That's almost an 80% success rate.

Because of the rigidly defined terms and set election dates, there have not been very many "brief" presidencies. Only two presidents served for less than a year, and that's because they both died in office. Most other countries have far more leaders that served for such brief periods, especially in the 20th Century. In fact, when you look at many other official lists of national leaders, you often have to outright ignore half of them, because they're either "acting" or "interim" or "caretakers" or what have you. To put it another way, every US president has an official oil portrait hanging in the White House. In many other countries, some presidents are considered insignificant enough to skip, because though they may have held the office briefly for some reason, "they don't really count."

The United States constitution specifically allows for someone to "act" as President, during times in which the current present is incapacitated or otherwise unable to serve for a prolonged amount of time. Former Vice President Cheney and former Vice President Bush both served as acting president during their time in office, but in both cases they only held the position for less than a day.

There is no constitutional mechanism to allow for an explicitly "interim" president, but theoretically it could still happen. Any non-vice president (ie: a house speaker or cabinet secretary) who automatically ascends to the presidency someday will likely be regarded as an interim American leader, because in all likelihood he won't have a long-term interest in keeping in the job. Gerald Ford probably would be considered an interim president had he not made a last-minute decision to run for office in 1974.


NATION

Landmass

In 1959 Alaska became America's 49th state. Since then, the borders of the United States have been quite unusual. While the American "mainland" remains one, giant cohesive blob of land from California to New York, there is also a large blob of land up north, bordering the nation of Canada and completely geographically isolated from the rest of the 50 states. Geographers call areas like Alaska "non-contiguous exclaves" and very few countries have such territories as part of their borders.

Non-contiguous exclaves have historically tended to be invasions waiting to happen. After the first World War Poland was given a corridor of land which split Germany into two pieces. The Germans then invaded Poland to rectify the situation, and I forget what happened next.

When Pakistan separated from India in 1947 the new country consisted of two parts, "West" Pakistan, and the much smaller province of "East" Pakistan. East Pakistan was entirely landlocked by India, and as a result when the East Pakistanis started pressing for independence, the Indian army invaded to help the province separate. Today it's the country of Bangladesh.

Four other countries currently have broken-borders like the US. They are:

I doubt the Canadians will ever invade Alaska, but I must say, I have heard a lot of grumblings over the years about how the state "should be ours...."

The US State of Hawaii is also a bit unusual, but overall it's far less of an anomoly, as lots of countries have scattered island territories and possessions.

The Name

In the 2002 French film In Praise Of Love at one point a character rants that the United States of America is a country without a "real name." After all, the US is not the only country in "America," he notes. Technically all the citizens of all the countries in North and South America are "Americans" in some manner. Likewise, for citizens of the USA to go around calling their country "the United States" makes little sense, as several other countries use "the United States" in their full titles as well — consider "the United States of Mexico" or "the United States of Brazil." In fact, one could just as accurately describe Brazil as being "the United States of America" with this logic.

This is something of a semantics game, but it is a valid observation. There are very few countries in the world with a name as vague as the USA's. The United States never did create a new nationality for itself. Instead they just hijacked the term "American" for this purpose, a name which had always been (and to some extent still is) a very broad geographic description. Think of the Organization of American States, for instance. When you visit Latin American countries they often bitch about this matter, and refuse to call people from the US "Americans" out of protest, instead calling them things like "North Americans" or "United Statesians."

Countries with similarly vague names include the Republic of South Africa, the Central African Republic, and the United Arab Emirates. Like the US, these countries are named after political/geographic entities, and fail to create a specific nationality for their people as a result. One might include the United Kingdom in the list as well, but to be fair the country's full name is actually The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Capital District

In most countries, the capital city is just that — a city that also happens to be the capital. But in the United States the situation is a bit weirder. The city of Washington is not part of any state in the union, rather it is the only city in a specially-created "District of Columbia," which is a unique political entity unto itself. The logic was that this was supposed to give the capital a sort of neutral status, because it would not "belong" to any one state.

Nowadays a lot of people question this concept, however. The half-million residents of Washington, for example, largely get screwed by the deal. Since they do not legally live in any state they do not get to elect any members of Congress (instead they get to elect one hack "delegate" who has no voting powers, and can only watch).They still get taxed and governed by the federal government though, which has prompted them to bring back "no taxation without representation!" as a rebellious rallying cry.

Only a few countries have copied the idea of creating a federal district for their capital city:

Country Capital District Are residents able to elect voting representatives to the national parliament?
Australia Australian Capital Territory Yes
Argentina Autonomous city of Buenos Aires Yes
Brazil Federal District Yes
India National Capital Territory of Delhi Yes
Mexico Federal District Yes
Venezuela Capital District Yes

These cities share some of DC's problems, in that many of their local concerns are jointly managed by the federal government and their own weak, elected municipal (or in the Indian and Australian cases, state) style government. As you can see from the chart above, however, DC is the only capital district where citizens are not given any voting members in the national legislature.

SYMBOLS

Coat of Arms

The United States lacks a formal coat of arms, which is unusual for a western nation (but increasingly less unusual, globally). The "Great Seal of the United States" is most often used as an equivalent of a coat of arms when necessary, such as on the cover of US passports.

National Anthem

The American national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner, is somewhat unusual by today's standards in that it does not explicitly mention the "United States" or "America" anywhere in the lyrics. Most contemporary anthems do mention the country name, but this is largely because most nations are young, and only wrote their anthems in the last few decades. Older countries tend to have more historical anthems that don't conform to the sort of "Oh, Country X, how we love thee" style that is now so prevalent.

Along with the US, other notable countries that don't mention the country's name anywhere in the anthem include the United Kingdom, Japan, Sweden, Spain, and Holland.

Official Language

Though most Americans speak English as their sole language, the American government in its long history has never bothered to make English the official language of the country. Almost all countries in the world have at least one official language, which in turn serves as the language the government is mandated to provide services to its citizens in. In the US, by contrast, the federal government will provide various services in dozens of different languages, should they be requested.

The only other countries without an official language are the UK, Australia, and Sweden.

Abstract noun parties

America's two major political parties are named after abstract nouns, and not specific ideologies. The Republican Party is not called the "Conservative Party" for example, nor are the Democrats called the "Liberal Party." Among mature democracies this is a bit unusual, as most countries generally give their parties ideological names, using terms like "liberal" "conservative" and "socialist" to indicate to voters where they stand.

The reason why the two main parties in the US lack such qualifiers in their names is basically because they are very old. They originally arose as catch-all coalition parties in the early 19th Century, when partisanship was more about strategy and simply winning elections than conforming to any consistant set of ideological values. Most political parties elsewhere in the world arose much later, however, often in the post WWI-ea. At that time the polarization between liberals, conservatives, etc was very intense, so it only made political sense to explicitly ally with one side over the other.

Here are the main parties in some of the world's main western democracies, it's usually pretty easy to tell where they stand on the issues from their names:

Country Centre-left party Centre-right party
Australia Labour Party Liberal Party
Britain Labour Party Conservative Party
Canada Liberal Party Conservative Party
France Socialist Party Union for a Popular Movement
Germany Social Democratic Party Christian Democratic Union
Italy Democrats of the Left Forza Italia
Norway Labour Party
Progress Party
New Zealand Labour Party National Party
Holland Labour Party Christian Democratic Appeal
Spain Socialist Workers' Party People's Party
Sweden Social Democrats Moderate Coalition Party

My suggestion is for the Republicans to switch their name to "Party for a Conservative Republic" and the Democrats can be the "Liberal-Democratic Party."

FOREIGN POLICY

Nucelar war

The United States is the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons for war purposes. Other countries have developed nukes and blown them up for tests, but the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II remain the only instances of such weapons actually being used against people.

Treaties

As many internationalists in both the US and elsewhere never tire of pointing out, the government United States often takes radically un-mainstream positions when it comes to ratifying international treaties.

The two most glaring examples:

Things that used to be unusual, but less so now

Presidency

The United States was the first country to use the title of "President" for its head of state. Now the majority of the world's countries use the title. Indeed, every single republic in the world uses the name, even dictatorships. For a while other countries tried using titles like "Director of the Republic" or simply "Head of State of the Republic" but now unless a country has a king, it will have a president of some form.

Money color

For a long time American currency was known for only appearing in one color- green. Most other countries color-code different denominations, or simply use money that features multiple colors on individual bills. The greenness of American money has its roots in the 19th Century. At the time green dye was rare, and thus considered difficult for counterfeiters to obtain. This bit of American uniqueness is now slowly being phased out, however, as new US bills introduced in the early 2000's now include multi-colored inks to help differentiate bills.

Decimalized currency

Today, most of us take the existence of decimalized currency for granted. That is to say, a currency in which 100 somethings (say, cents) add up to make a larger thing (say, a dollar). This was not always the case though. Many countries originally had currencies which used bizarre and arbitrary fractions as their basis. The English Pound was the most infamous (and long-lived) example. Unlike today, where one pound is worth 100 pence, until 1971 one pound was worth 20 shillings, with each shilling being worth 12 pence (and each pence being two half-pence). The numbers were rather arbitrary and confusing, hence why they were changed.

It's debated as to whether or not the US was the first country to introduce decimalized currency; some accounts give Russia credit with this. Regardless, the United States was certainly one of the first nations to do so, and helped popularize the practice. Thomas Jefferson had been a big proponent of decimalization , and on his urging the US dollar was decimalized in 1792. Today every country except Mauritania, Japan, and Madagascar use the American-style 100 small = 1 large formula for their currency.

Metric System

Officially, the United States is one of only three countries (Liberia and Burma being the other two) that has not officially switched to the metric system. The US uses the "customary system" which is also known as the "English" or "Imperial" system, because it has its roots in the UK. Of course, Americans are not simply backwater kooks stubbornly clinging to an archaic system the rest of the planet has completely discarded. The custom/imperial system actually continues to thrive in defacto use all over the world, as in many cases countries only formally adopted the metric system in the last 20 years.

Contrary to popular misconception, however, the United States Federal government is officially pro-Metric, and it is still official US policy to eventually switch. Implementation of the system has been at a snail's pace, however.

Consumer products in the United States are labeled in metric, and American scientists no longer use the imperial system in research. Overall, America has made considerable progress in making Metric volume and distance measurements fairly mainstream.

The Anglican Church

39 countries in the world are home to a branch of the Anglican Church. Unsurprisingly, almost all of them are countries with a history of colonization by the British Empire.

Some find it unusual that the US branch of the church uses the title "Episcopalian" instead of "Anglican" to describe itself. The reasons for this originally stemmed from the aftermath of the Revolution, in which the American branch of the church aggressively sought to separate itself from the authority of London. Nowadays, all Anglican churches, or "provinces" as they are known, are independent from the authority of London, and are only allied to one another in a symbolic commonwealth. Titles wise, the US church is not that distinct as we can see from this chart:

NAMES OF ANGLICAN CHURCHES AROUND THE WORLD

"The Anglican Church of..." "The Episcopal Church of..." "The Church of..."
  • Australia
  • Burundi
  • Canada
  • Congo
  • New Zealand
  • Japan
  • Kenya
  • Korea
  • Mexico
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Tanzania
  • Brazil
  • Cuba
  • Hong Kong
  • the Philippines
  • Scotland
  • the Sudan
  • the United States

 

 

  • Bangladesh
  • Burma
  • England
  • India
  • Ireland
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Rwanda
  • South Africa
  • Uganda
  • Wales


Note: I only included full countries in this list. Some churches of the Anglican Communion exist as churches for entire geographic areas, for example the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of the Americas

 

Know any other examples of American uniqueness I missed? Email me at jjmccullough@gmail.com