‘American exceptionalism’ refers to the supposed uniqueness of the United States in the world. This may be viewed positively, as in the writings of many American conservatives and liberals, or negatively, in criticisms usually voiced by foreigners, especially leftists and cultural elitists. No matter how many times the trope has been assailed, it keeps resurfacing. Though in principle comparisons of the us with other states should be made on a global scale, in practice they focus on the supposed differences between the us and Western Europe. With The Narcissism of Minor Differences, Peter Baldwin joins a long line of American counter-attacks against foreigners’ critiques of the country. footnote1 He tends to quote not social scientists but journalists and politicians, especially those writing for centre-left publications such as The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and Tageszeitung, plus writers like Will Hutton and Emmanuel Todd, flanked by the film-maker Lars von Trier, who makes harshly critical films about the us despite never having been there. Their attacks centre on what the former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook described in 2004 as ‘feral us capitalism’. In Baldwin’s summary, such critics portray America as ‘harsh, dominated by the market, crime-ridden, violent, unsolidaristic and sharp-elbowed’.
Baldwin does not spend time quoting positive American views of us exceptionalism or serious European comparative scholarship on the differences. He says he is concerned with ‘popular perceptions of difference across the Atlantic and the way that these perceptions inform the middlebrow press’. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. Journalists are probably more important than academics, and such stereotypes are indeed widespread. In 2002–03, while giving lectures across Europe attacking the Bush administration’s foreign policy, I sometimes found myself pushed by the force of such stereotypes into defending America.
Baldwin’s counter-attack is very simple. His book consists of 212 bar-charts and graphs—one every other page!—plus his commentaries on them. They all have the same easy-to-read format, making crystal clear the comparison between the performance of the United States and that of anywhere between 8 and 18 European countries on social indicators covering the economy, the welfare state, inequality, crime, education, the environment, nationalism, religion and science, and other areas. He cumulatively builds the argument that only rarely is the us at one or the other extreme on these indicators, and where it is, it rarely lies ‘off the charts’. Usually, the American performance is safely within the spectrum of European countries. Baldwin draws two conclusions from this: first, that the us is not exceptional, and second, that Europe ‘is not a coherent or unified continent’, the range of differences within it much broader than is normally appreciated. Thus ‘either there is no coherent identity, or—if there is one—the United States is as much a European country as the usual candidates’. As a riposte to journalistic simplifications this is fine. But as a statement of comparative sociology it is not exactly deep.
Baldwin is of course right that, since Western Europe contains advanced countries at roughly similar levels of development to the us, they will obviously resemble each other more than any of them do most other states. From the point of view of Tanzania or China, they must look rather similar. However, it does mean that the less developed countries of Europe, especially Greece and Portugal, will sometimes be the extreme cases, which is not something that Baldwin recognizes. For him to say—as he repeatedly does—that the us lies ‘within the European spectrum’ might not be adequate where the characteristic in question varies with level of development, and those which are most similar to the us are the least developed European countries. Baldwin also sets a very high bar for exceptionalism. When one typically has data on 12–18 countries, it is likely that one or two of them will outdo the us even if the rest do not. The most obvious cases here are Iceland and Luxembourg, with such tiny populations that a few cases can and do produce extreme values, as we shall see.
Alongside country-level data, Baldwin includes a sprinkling of charts on the performance of individual states of the American Union, justifying this by observing that us states are comparable in size to individual European countries. But it was clearly the results that drew him into this analysis, for they sometimes reveal that states like Mississippi might fit European stereotypes, whereas states like Massachusetts sometimes do not, since they lie among the better performing European countries. This is so, unsurprisingly, in areas subject to state rather than us federal law, such as gay marriage and the minimum wage, but it is also true for two other measures, life expectancy and the murder rate (though not the prison population). There will also be differences between the regions of European countries, but since Baldwin produces no provincial data for these, we cannot here make the necessary comparisons, and these charts are of limited relevance to his overall argument.