These general descriptive terms — decentralized, diverse, competitive, and contentious — actually describe what makes America unique on a whole host of fronts. Stepping back from the particulars, and from the descriptive analyses offered up by experts in specific segments of American life, one is struck by the way in which what makes America exceptional seems, again and again, to be its resistance to being homogenized and regulated by government.
Not only in his work on Understanding America but also in his vast body of work spanning half a century, James Q. Wilson frequently emphasized the significance of this diversity and libertarian streak. He drew subtle distinctions and analyzed the causes of exceptional outcomes while cautioning against over-generalizing from them. His brand of social science stayed close to the ground — to the facts, to the people's attitudes and behaviors, to complicated motives and patterns — rather than trafficking in simple explanations and easy abstractions. This distinctly Wilsonian approach to exceptionalism is especially valuable today. It demands that we carefully consider the many distinctive — and in some cases unique — features of American life, while urging us to be skeptical about their applicability to other societies. The empirical evidence summarized here and presented extensively in Understanding America shows that, however one defines "exceptional," the term unquestionably applies to us in a purely descriptive sense.
Normatively, the picture is surely mixed. Some of our country's exceptional features — like its political stability, decentralization, competitiveness, successful integration of immigrants, vibrant media, and remarkably robust non-profit sector supported by unparalleled private philanthropy — are praiseworthy. Others, like our growing economic inequality, violence, child poverty, adversarial legal culture, and demoralized public bureaucracy are deplorable. Fortunately, much of this is remediable, as James Q. Wilson would have reminded us. But, I think he would have added, some of it probably is not.