only in America!

When informed that the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Ireland, was Jewish, Yogi Berra exclaimed, “Only in America!”

I was in the jury pool in Middlesex County, Mass. a couple of weeks ago. Of the dozen cases before the court that morning, 11 were settled with pleas, and one proceeded to a bench trial because the defendant waived his right to a jury.

The judge came out to thank us for our service, explaining well that our presence in the jury chamber was a reminder to both sides that they could face a panel of citizens. Warming to his theme, he informed us that only in the United States do we have a right to a trial by jury.

Actually, the number of countries in which juries play important roles is about fifty. Even in the USA, we have juries because England has required them since 1215. Some seminal American jury trials took place while Massachusetts was still a British colony: the libel case against John Peter Zenger, the Boston Massacre Trials.

The jury pool in a diverse American city is a beautiful thing: people come together from all walks of life and all nations of the earth to deliberate as equals. The instructional video was appropriately inspirational, showing diverse Massachusetts citizens at work as jurors. In the video, they even wear varied costumes in the jury box: a guy in a hardhat, an athlete in uniform, etc. It’s a symbol of equity + diversity.

But why the impulse to defend democratic and liberal institutions as unique to the USA? The most common claim of this type is that we are uniquely a nation of immigrants. By my calculation, the US ranks 67th in the world in the percentage of its people who were born overseas, just behind Germany and far behind the republic just to our north (which also uses juries).

Can’t something be good even if it also happens in other countries? What anxiety underlies this urge to claim exceptionalism? Could it be in the back of the judge’s mind that the US ranks below all comparable countries in both public safety and incarceration?

If patriotism depends on the empirical claim that we perform better than everyone else, it is a thin reed. One response is to assume that our form of government is literally unique: only in America! Then no empirical comparisons are needed. But that’s not a viable response, because often many other countries do the same thing. The right response is to be proud of the good things–like jury trials in Massachusetts–and to work to change the bad things (like racial bias in Massachusetts’ criminal justice). That is patriotism that isn’t contingent on exceptionalism.

See also: American exceptionalism and anxieties about American exceptionalism.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.