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The American health care system appears to suffer from higher costs and less access than the health care systems of other industrialized nations. This perception has set social scientists searching for “lessons from abroad.” This paper places the dialogue about health system lessons within the context of American political culture. It sketches out some of the distinctive dynamics in the American policymaking process. Those dynamics help explain the problems we face, the programs we have pursued, and the alternatives we have forgone. The same political process which shaped past policies is likely to frame any lessons we try to import from abroad.