Stanford researcher explores sources of America’s political divide in new book

Stanford law expert Mugambi Jouet analyzes what has led to the current political divide in America and what separates the United States from other Western countries in a newly published book.

The United States is currently experiencing a deep political and social divide, according to many experts. But what has led to this polarization?

Portrait of Mugambi Jouet, a lecturer at the Stanford Law School.

A new book by Law School lecturer Mugambi Jouet examines American exceptionalism as among the root causes of political polarization in the U.S. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Mugambi Jouet, a Thomas C. Grey Fellow and lecturer at Stanford Law School, tackles this question in his new book, Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other.

Jouet examines the ideological evolution of American conservatism and how American exceptionalism is among the root causes of current political polarization in the country. Jouet also explores what sets the U.S. apart from other Western countries.

Stanford News Service interviewed Jouet about his research.


How and why did you start working on the research behind this book?

I grew up in Paris in a multicultural environment, as my mother is French and father Kenyan. At 17, I moved to the United States for college and ultimately lived in many regions, including the East Coast, South, Midwest and West Coast. I was always fascinated not only by how America compares to other nations but also by the great contrasts within the U.S.

I started this research during the Barack Obama presidency to examine the sources of the nation’s polarization and why Americans often intensely debate issues that generally are not controversial, or less so elsewhere, in the modern Western world, such as universal health care, gun control, the existence of climate change, abortion and contraception. Additionally, I wanted to examine the roots of Donald Trump’s political rise, which I trace to a long-term ideological evolution.


What do you believe is the biggest takeaway from your research?

The United States is exceptionally polarized compared to other Western nations due to unique aspects of its history, culture, politics, legal institutions, religious attitudes, race relations and foreign policy. Even though divisions exist in all countries, there are far more sources and forces of polarization in America. Its polarization is also frequently over very basic issues, such as whether people should have a right to medical treatment, whether to allow unlimited spending by special interests in political campaigns, whether global warming is a hoax, whether to torture terrorists and whether people should have an unbridled right to bear arms.

Moreover, the U.S. has many other unique features within the West, including mass incarceration, the death penalty, a tendency to exempt itself from international human rights treaties, and a substantial minority of Biblical literalists who reject the theory of evolution and believe in apocalyptic prophecies.

People often overlook these differences by correctly noting similarities between the anti-immigration, nationalistic movements of President Trump and far-right European parties aiming to dismantle the European Union. Even on immigration, however, America is different because it has long been the Western country with the largest share of racial and ethnic minorities, whereas Europe’s population was essentially white until the surge of immigration from former colonies in the post-World War II era. Institutional racism is therefore more rooted in the U.S., which partly explains its greater wealth inequality and harsher penal system.


What are some of the primary sources behind the current divisions that exist among Americans?

Four interrelated ideological factors stand out. First, anti-intellectualism is exceptionally strong in parts of America. This fosters anti-rationalism, skepticism of education and receptiveness to propaganda like conspiracy theories. Second, Christian fundamentalism can exacerbate certain ideological mindsets, such as anti-intellectualism, authoritarianism and a black-and-white worldview stressing ideological purity. Third, market fundamentalism shapes a virulent suspicion of government that’s also bolstered by these prior factors in its intransigence and fact-free assertions. Finally, racial resentment is not a new factor either, but it has reached new dimensions in a diversifying U.S. where whites might no longer be the majority by 2050. Racial animus is connected to the prior factors. For example, it shaped propaganda about Obama’s forged birth certificate and insinuations that Obamacare is a handout primarily for blacks and Latinos, which isn’t factually true.

Intriguingly, these social problems partly have roots in admirable aspects of American society, such as its tradition of religious liberty and egalitarianism, as well as the country’s remarkable demographic diversity. These positive aspects of American exceptionalism can manifest themselves in inspiring, contradictory and self-destructive ways.


What does American exceptionalism mean and how does it relate to the cultural and political polarization in the U.S.?

Today, people assume it means a faith in America’s inherent greatness, namely “exceptional” in the sense of “superior.” But the term was not frequently used in U.S. politics until the Obama presidency. That’s largely because the Republican establishment routinely used it as a rhetorical weapon to accuse Obama of betraying “American exceptionalism” and the nation’s heritage. The term became a dog whistle – coded language appealing to certain citizens – and an anti-Obama rallying cry with nativist overtones, like how the phrase “states’ rights” was previously used to rally whites hostile to desegregation. Certain figures, including Trump, took claims about Obama’s un-American values a step further by spreading conspiracy theories about his identity, such as the notion that Obama has a forged U.S. birth certificate or jihadist sympathies.

But, historically, American exceptionalism has primarily meant that the United States is an exception compared to other countries, for better or worse. The nation’s extraordinary polarization today embodies what American exceptionalism means.

In an earlier age, the U.S. stood out as the first Western democracy to emerge from the Enlightenment. Throughout history, Americans have made phenomenal contributions to the humanities, literature, science and the spread of democracy throughout the world. This suggests that the nation’s present difficulties are not insurmountable.


What surprised you the most during your research?

In France, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen has increased her popular support partly by sanitizing her rhetoric and often using dog whistles to promote her nativist agenda. In doing so, she distanced herself from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the pioneer of the modern French far right, known for his incendiary statements. However, in America, there has been an opposite trend. Donald Trump’s nationalistic campaign commonly avoided the dog whistles long used by other politicians, as he regularly made overtly inflammatory statements about undocumented immigrants, Muslims and other minorities.

Finally, it was striking to document the many contradictions within American society. For example, Americans played a significant role in the development of feminism and the sexual revolution, which had a great international impact, yet the United States is among the Western nations where women’s reproductive rights remain the most staunchly contested. A comparable contradiction exists on numerous other issues, such as race, economic policy, science, religion and human rights. This makes America a fascinating country to research and write about.