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Exceptionalism by the numbers
America the Outlier

American exceptionalism is a hotly debated topic, and much decried by one particularly dyspeptic op-ed contributor to the New York Times. Some people believe it’s a real phenomenon, others think it’s a dangerous idea. But does America really stand out in a measurable way?

Pew Research Center crunches the numbers, and its Fact Tank blog reports that on a number of key issues, Americans are genuine exceptions to rules and trends:

Americans’ emphasis on individualism and work ethic stands out in surveys of people around the world. When Pew Research Center surveyed people in 44 countries last spring, 57% of Americans disagreed with the statement “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” a higher percentage than most other nations and far above the global median of 38%.

True to the stereotype, surveys showed that Americans are more likely to believe that hard work pays off. When asked, on a scale of 0 to 10, about how important working hard is to getting ahead in life, 73% of Americans said it is was a “10” or “very important,” compared with a global median of 50% among the 44 nations.

America is also a strong exception to the global correlation between religiosity and wealth. In general, the wealthier a country is, the less religious. Not so in America, as Pew’s most fascinating chart shows:

US stands out as rich nation highly religious

Another weird American trait that the numbers bear out is our sense that things are going well. Pews respondents, when asked if “today is a good day,” were much more likely to respond positively if they were American. Generally, we are more individualistic, less fatalistic, more confident that hard work will bring success, more religious (than other rich countries) and happier. It seems Americans aren’t like other people after all.

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  • Anthony

    Another set of numbers Pew did not mention (survey for): 93 million Americans drop out of labor market (about 102 million aren’t working – 93 million plus 9 million counted as officially unemployed). Another overlooked Pew statistic: 62.8% labor force participation rate; and a more telling number was: 46% of Americans are working (148 million out of a population of 320 million). Though, in line with outlier theme, don’t let Pew’s overlooked numbers alarm; America has always had a history of less people with a paid job than the majority of its population – just numbers…

    • Enemy Leopard

      It strikes me as inaccurate to say that 93 million Americans dropped out of the labor market. Many of those people are homemakers or students. The recent decrease in the labor force participation rate is lamentable, but one needn’t exaggerate it.

      • Anthony

        Implication in last sentence – don’t be so hasty (no exaggeration intended).

  • Andrew Allison

    “Americans’ emphasis on individualism and work ethic” is empty rhetoric. The reality, as Anthony notes, is that 93 million people have dropped out of the workforce, and we have the lowest labor force participation in over 40 years and the highest percentage of the population on welfare since the Great Depression.

    • qet

      Yes but the spirit of capitalism and the Protestant ethic is still our official ideal, and it’s not clear to me that the ideal must necessarily be sacrificed to the reality. It’s a good ideal, after all. Better than the others.

      • FriendlyGoat

        The main Protestant ethics, are embodied in one of the most famous Bible verses, John 3:16, the very famous Lord’s prayer and the golden rule. Capitalism (if under society’s control and taxed, per 20th century norms here) is a wonderful tool and the world’s best economic system. But Protestant Christianity is not capitalism and capitalism is not Protestant Christianity.

    • Jacksonian_Libertarian

      The same thing happened in Great Depression 1.0, huge numbers of unemployed. The major reason no one recognizes that we are 7 years into Great Depression 2.0, is that American’s are orders of magnitude richer than we were in the 1930’s. A study by Heritage showed that more than 95% of all American people classified as poor, had all of the following: Refrigerator, Color TV, Hot and Cold running water, Stove, Microwave oven, heating, air-conditioning, Phone, and those with children had a game box.
      Americans really are different, and our only hope in avoiding the welfare state disasters of the Europeans, is to embrace those differences and join and support the objectives of the TEA Party (Fiscal Responsibility, Strict adherence to the letter of the Constitution).

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