What they mean by "American exceptionalism".

Rather unsurprising news:

“While 80 percent of Americans think that America “has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world,” more than a third say President Obama does not share that belief, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Dec. 10-12.”

It’s interesting to me that “American Exceptionalism” has lately become a Conservative catchphrase. As I’ve said many times on this blog, the reason for this is that American Exceptionalism is, in my opinion, a fancier word for Nationalism.

There are, admittedly, some attempts at non-Nationalistic definitions of American exceptionalism; such as this from Heritage Foundation:

“To really understand what sets America apart, we need to go beyond numbers to examine the heart and soul of the nation: the ideas of the Declaration of Independence. Unlike other nations that derive their meaning and purpose from some unifying quality—an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history, an ancestral land—America is a country dedicated to to the universal ideas of equality and liberty. The truths we hold to be self-evident apply to all men—not just all Americans.” 

There seems to me to be something paradoxical about the idea that one country (and its citizens) are “special” precisely because they believe that all people, regardless of nationality, are to endowed with equal opportunity and liberty. All non-Nationalist interpretations of Exceptionalism suffer from similar flaws.

Now, it is probably true that when Alexis de Tocqueville first expressed this idea, it was more accurate and more pronounced. I think that America was probably more different from Europe in 1800s than it is today. America and Europe have since grown more alike and, despite what Conservatives will tell you, the change has not only been in the direction of us becoming more like them. They also became more like us, in some ways.

Ironically, because of America’s standing in the world, it is inevitable that other countries would seek to emulate it, thus eroding our “exceptionalism”. And because America’s good qualities are indeed “the ideas of the Declaration of Independence” and not “an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history, an ancestral land”, it is relatively easy to emulate them. If you learn English and can find a copy of the Declaration Independence, you are all set to begin copying America’s unique qualities.

But this argument would be unlikely to persuade those who speak most loudly of American Exceptionalism, because they do not really think it is only these ideas which make us exceptional. For them, while it may not be “an ethnic character”, it really is a “common religion”–see the so-called “War on Christmas”, a “shared history”–ask the Texas school board–and “an ancestral land”–which is why Republicans are always celebrating hunters and farmers and “small town values.”

I’m not accusing the Conservatives of lying, exactly. They want to think that their policies and philosophies are grounded in the simple logic of the Founding Documents, instead of resorting to quasi-mystical beliefs in “ancestral land” and so forth. But the trouble is, because such beliefs are what really motivate them, and since they cannot say it outright–and probably are not even consciously aware of it–they must resort to other, flawed arguments.


  1. 80%? Wow. I think we are still a good Country, but, unique, better? Nah.And yes, the Industrial Revolution was a glorious time, but I think one of our biggest flaws is not willing to change. And we do need to change and accept what other Countries can offer us.P.S. That Industrial Revolution was better for some. America was built from the sweat of immigrants. But, I digress. : )

  2. America was great when everyone was in their proper place. As much as they may say we're unique with the ideals of Jefferson and the Declaration, we still haven't fully achieved it and the ones proclaiming exceptionalism are actively trying to destroy liberty and equality.

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