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During the recent Democratic presidential debate, Bernie Sanders suggested that Americans “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.” Hillary Clinton, however, thought the policy solutions would be found closer to home. “We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system.” Commentators declared that in that moment, Clinton “clearly gained the upper hand” and “walloped” Sanders. But is it really so crazy to suggest that Americans could copy a thing or two from foreign lands?
There’s a deeply ingrained resistance in the United States to the notion of emulating policies from other countries. Of course, Americans vary enormously in their openness to outside thinking. But as Hillary demonstrated, even the Democrats are often wary of borrowing foreign ideas. Meanwhile, many Republicans would scoff at the notion that the rest of the world could solve America’s challenges in health care, transportation, or education. In 2011, Mitt Romney declared: “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers.”
Not all countries are like this. British politicians routinely tour their European neighbors to discover how the Finns handle education or the Germans run their train system, and then loot any smart ideas they stumble across. The British recently introduced a new early-childhood education system: Sure Start. The name might ring a bell. It was partly modeled on the American Head Start program. But U.S. politicians rarely go hunting for ideas abroad, and many would never dream of naming an initiative after a foreign program.
Why are Americans often skeptical of learning from policy solutions implemented elsewhere? U.S. identity is founded on a sense of political exceptionalism. The United States is seen as a unique repository of ideals under God’s watchful providence—the city on a hill. And America’s national success has only reinforced popular resistance to looking abroad for inspiration. Over the course of the 20th century, the United States bested every major rival and became the world’s sole superpower. Why copy British decline, Japan’s stagnant economy, or Greek debt? Ideology also comes into play. As other advanced democracies have embraced extensive welfare systems, the United States has become a relatively conservative member of the Western club. Today, the American right fears that copying fellow democracies means lurching to the left.
But here’s the catch: Shunning overseas policy innovation is…