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Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation—A book edited by Professor Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson

Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson
Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation
PublicAffairs, 2008

Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law Peter Schuck and co-editor James Q. Wilson have collected essays from America’s leading social scientists in this 704-page book devoted to answering the questions “What is America?” and “How exceptional is it?”

These are questions, they contend, that are not easily answered even by their target audiences: well-educated Americans and cosmopolitan foreigners. They answer them with twenty chapters by America’s leading social scientists analyzing our most important institutions, public policy areas, and cultural domains.

In the book’s preface, they write, “For Americans marinating in their own society, a clear understanding of [America’s] nature and distinctiveness remains elusive…It is a bit odd for any nation to be deeply divided, witlessly vulgar, religiously orthodox, militarily aggressive, economically savage, and ungenerous to those in need, while maintaining a political stability, a standard of living, and love of country that are the envy of the world—all at the same time. To do these things at once, America must indeed be unusual. Or even, as Alexis de Tocqueville said a century and a half ago, exceptional.”

In their concluding chapter, Schuck and Wilson find cross-cutting themes that capture this exceptionalism: culture, constitutionalism, competition, diversity, civil society, welfare state, and demography. Understanding America also calls attention to the country’s most pervasive problems, including the deep polarization of the electorate, the decline of equality and social mobility, and widespread family dysfunction. Ultimately, the editors argue, both the extraordinary successes and abject failures of the United States are closely tied to our sense of freedom—and that redefining that sense of freedom might be the key to improving America.