The Cult of American Exceptionalism: When Fantasy Bites Back

On the right, the word ‘exceptional’ – or ‘exceptionalism’ – lately has become a litmus test for patriotism. It’s the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution. To many on the left, it has become birther code for ‘he’s not one of us.’

The Origins and Concepts of American Exceptionalism

The theory of American exceptionalism is the idea that America is qualitatively different from other nations.  Proponents of this theory believe that the impetus for American exceptionalism lies in the nature of it’s birth.  America was the first nation to cast off monarchy in favor of a government based on ideas rather than divine right. They hold that the revolution was born from what they consider to be uniquely American ideals of egalitarianism, liberty, individualism and personal freedom.

The notion of American exceptionalism was given voice as early in our history as John Winthrop and his famous “city on a hill” sermon.  It was first popularized by the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his work Democracy in America when he referred to America as “exceptional.”  Historian Gordon Wood took the idea a step further when he declared, “Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.” The specific term “American exceptionalism” was first used in 1929 by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin chastising members of the American Communist Party for believing that America was independent of the Marxist laws of history “thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions.”

Most recently, the idea of American exceptionalism has been elevated to a cult of thought by the conservative and neo-conservative movements in American politics.  Although the theory did not originally imply American superiority to other nations, it has evolved into that concept under the guidance of it’s conservative and neo-conservative promoters.  Although it is still used as some sort of vague argument for the potential failure of socialist policies in America, it has also become a nexus of national greatness and unique American genius that stands against the perceived international conspiracy to undermine America represented in the forms of Barack Obama, any political party other than the GOP, the United Nations, socialists, Islam, al-Qaeda and any other enemy the conservative movement declares.

The Top Five Myths of American Exceptionalism

Stephen M. Walt, of The Financial Times, has written a great article that looks at American exceptionalism as it is currently being invoked by candidates for the presidency, and then compares those idealistic notions to reality.  So let’s take a look at reality versus rhetoric.

Myth 1: There Is Something Exceptional About American Exceptionalism.

The idea that your nation is the best nation is not unique to America.  Every country that has ever projected it’s power into another country has done so on the idea that they had something exceptional to offer.  British exceptionalism was the driving force of the expansion of the British empire.  The British saw themselves as a civilizing force in the world, and accepted the responsibility of that as “the white man’s burden.”  Other nation’s that saw themselves as a civilizing force in the world also include France, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the Soviet Union.  There is nothing unique about the citizens of a country thinking they are exceptional.  That sort of nationalistic belief has led to much grief in the world.  The fact that Americans wish to believe themselves exceptional is certainly NOT exceptional.

Myth 2: The United States Behaves Better Than Other Nations Do.

Pronouncements of American exceptionalism rest on the idea that the United States is a uniquely virtuous nation.  The ideal is that America promotes freedom, nurtures liberty, respects human rights and adheres to the rule of law.  Many Americans like to believe this, not just the adherents to American exceptionalism.  The problem is that it just isn’t true.

For starters, the United States has been one of the most expansionist nations in the world.  From thirteen small colonies on the eastern seaboard, our nation quickly expanded across the expanse of the North American continent.  And along the way we wiped out the native populations that got in our way and confined the few survivors to impoverished reservations.  If another nation stood in our way, we waged war if a financial arrangement to our liking could not be found.

Secondly, since the birth of our nation we have been in a state of almost constant war.  And we have left a dark trail of civilian deaths behind us.  .According to Stephen Walt,

The 1899-1902 conquest of the Philippines killed some 200,000 to 400,000 Filipinos, most of them civilians, and the United States and its allies did not hesitate to dispatch some 305,000 German and 330,000 Japanese civilians through aerial bombing during World War II, mostly through deliberate campaigns against enemy cities. No wonder Gen. Curtis LeMay, who directed the bombing campaign against Japan, told an aide, “If the U.S. lost the war, we would be prosecuted as war criminals.” The United States dropped more than 6 million tons of bombs during the Indochina war, including tons of napalm and lethal defoliants like Agent Orange, and it is directly responsible for the deaths of many of the roughly 1 million civilians who died in that war.

More recently, the U.S.-backed Contra war in Nicaragua killed some 30,000 Nicaraguans, a percentage of their population equivalent to 2 million dead Americans. U.S. military action has led directly or indirectly to the deaths of 250,000 Muslims over the past three decades (and that’s a low-end estimate, not counting the deaths resulting from the sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s), including the more than 100,000 people who died following the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. U.S. drones and Special Forces are going after suspected terrorists in at least five countries at present and have killed an unknown number of innocent civilians in the process.

Some of these military actions may have made Americans more secure.  Without a doubt, these actions made some Americans more prosperous.  But ask yourself, how would you feel about a country who did this where you live?  Yet and still,  very few of our politicians have questioned these policies and Americans still scratch their heads and wonder, “Why do they hate us?”

The United States is also very fond of lecturing other countries about human rights, but what is our own record in that regard?  The United States has refused to sign most human rights treaties, is not a party to the International Criminal Court and has a shameless record of cozying up with dictators when it is convenient.  Remember our friend MubarakThe House of Saud?  The Shah of Iran?  Even Saddam Hussein.

We have not made the gross tyrannical blunders other nations have.  We are definitely not the worst of the lot.  But we are not exceptional.  When we have perceived ourselves to be vulnerable to an external threat, we react with little regard for moral principle.  This does not make us monsters, but it also doesn’t make us exceptional.

Myth 3: America’s Success Is Due to Its Special Genius.

WIthout a doubt, the United States has been a successful nation.  Proponents of American exceptionalism tend to portray our success on the world stage as a direct result of the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, the genius of the United States Constitution, the priority of American individualism, and the hard work and creativity of our citizens.  When the story is told in this way, we are a global success because we are exceptional.

There is a grain of truth in this way of thinking.  It’s no accident that people all over the world want to immigrate to America.  Our technological and scientific successes are due in part to our open political system.  But this notion never adds in the immense amount of luck and good fortune dealt to the United States.  Our continent is rich in natural resources and navigable rivers.  We had the cushion of two great oceans to protect us from foreign interferance.  The native population we displaced was technologically and numerically inferior. And during much of our early history, the Europeans were preoccupied with fighting among themselves.  One can’t deny that the United States did many things right,  but to soley account our success to a special genius or “manifest destiny” without factoring in our luck of geography and fortune of circumstance leaves the narrative incomplete.  Without any luck, we would be exceptional.  But with the immense luck we have had, we are not an exception.

Myth 4: The United States Is Responsible for Most of the Good in the World.

Whenever a positive development takes place in the world, we love to try and figure out a way that the United States facillitated that development.  Most Americans like to consider our nation as a force for good in the world.

Again, this isn’t an idea that is totally false.  The United States has been a force for peace and stability in the world on many occasions including the Marshall Plan, the creation and management of the Bretton Woods system, its rhetorical support for the core principles of democracy and human rights, and its mostly stabilizing military presence in Europe and the Far East. But the belief that all good things flow from Washington’s wisdom overstates the U.S. contribution by a wide margin.

As Geoffrey Hodgson, author of The Myth of American Exceptionalism, states,

…the spread of liberal ideals is a global phenomenon with roots in the Enlightenment, and European philosophers and political leaders did much to advance the democratic ideal. Similarly, the abolition of slavery and the long effort to improve the status of women owe more to Britain and other democracies than to the United States, where progress in both areas trailed many other countries. Nor can the United States claim a global leadership role today on gay rights, criminal justice, or economic equality — Europe’s got those areas covered.

Finally, any honest accounting of the past half-century must acknowledge the downside of American primacy. The United States has been the major producer of greenhouse gases for most of the last hundred years and thus a principal cause of the adverse changes that are altering the global environment. The United States stood on the wrong side of the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa and backed plenty of unsavory dictatorships — including Saddam Hussein’s — when short-term strategic interests dictated. Americans may be justly proud of their role in creating and defending Israel and in combating global anti-Semitism, but its one-sided policies have also prolonged Palestinian statelessness and sustained Israel’s brutal occupation.

So, in a nutshell, the United States tends to overstate the good it does while completely failing to acknowledge the areas in which our policies have been counter-productive.  When we work with others, we are responsible for some of the good in the world.  But we are also responsible for contributing to a lot of the bad in the world too.  This does not make us evil, but it also doesn’t make us exceptional.

Myth 5: God Is on Our Side.

The most crucial component of American exceptionalism as preached by American conservatives is that God has a special destiny for the United States.  They proclaim with great fervor that the United States is ordained by God to lead the rest of the world.  To put it bluntly…Our God is better than your God, and God is on our side.

Ronald Reagan told audiences that there was “some divine plan” that had placed America here, and once quoted Pope Pius XII saying, “Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.” Bush offered a similar view in 2004, saying, “We have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom.”

It is wonderful to believe that you live in a great nation.  But when a nation starts believing they have a mandate from God to lead the rest of the world in from the wilderness, a come-uppance will soon be at hand.  This same hubris and religious arrogance preceded the downfall of ancient Athens, Napoleonic France, Imperial Japan and many other relics of history.

As Stephen Walt put it,

Despite America’s many successes, the country is hardly immune from setbacks, follies, and boneheaded blunders. If you have any doubts about that, just reflect on how a decade of ill-advised tax cuts, two costly and unsuccessful wars, and a financial meltdown driven mostly by greed and corruption have managed to squander the privileged position the United States enjoyed at the end of the 20th century. Instead of assuming that God is on their side, perhaps Americans should heed Abraham Lincoln’s admonition that our greatest concern should be “whether we are on God’s side.


How American Exceptionalism Hurts More Than Helps

It’s not surprising that we find the notion of American exceptionalism comforting given the difficult times we find ourselves in.  It’s not surprising that our political leaders are proclaiming American exceptionalism with increasing intensity to cover for the absence of solutions to the problems that face us.  But it is dangerous.  It leads us to misunderstand our place and role in the world.  And on the basis of that misunderstanding, bad decisions are made. Decisions that lead to ill-advised tax cuts, two long and unsuccessful wars, and a financial meltdown driven by greed and corruption.  Bad decisions that  equate free speech with money and corporations with people.

I am proud to be an American.  We have done many good things in the past and have the potential to do many good things in the future.  But before we can find our new path in the 21st century, we must learn to acknowledge the world as it really is.  Self-serving political rhetoric will not get us there.  We must learn to see ourselves as others do.  We are a part of the international community of nations and people…not an exception to it.

Write if you hear something good.