United States — September 24, 2012 9:05 pm

Understanding American Exceptionalism


The HPR’s world editor, my close personal friend, and serial shirt unbuttoner Josh Lipson is an intellectual of sorts. He is interested in such high-minded concepts as transhumanism, and knows more about near eastern cultural curiosities than anyone I know.

I was surprised, therefore, when I saw on Facebook that Josh had “liked” a recent column on the student daily’s consistently embarrassing Op-Ed page.

The piece in question, written by Jorge Araya, unfortunately misunderstands the concept of American Exceptionalism.

Araya ably takes apart the claim that the United States is the greatest country in the world in a rant that could have been delivered by an ill-drawn and self-righteous Aaron Sorkin character.

American workers are not the most productive or the most prosperous, and they are certainly not the most educated (on that last count, they are failing miserably). For now, the U.S. economy remains the world’s biggest, but that will change in less than five years as the Chinese economy overtakes it. Furthermore, as Brazil, India, and other developing countries continue to emerge as world powers in their own right, America’s importance on the world stage is sure to diminish, although it will certainly remain significant.

American Exceptionalism argues that the United States is the best at everything. This isn’t true. Therefore, American Exceptionalism is bunk. Q.E.D.

The problem with this formulation is the definition of the term. In a way, Araya can be forgiven, because politicians–including both of the ones running for president–have been advancing this inane definition of American Exceptionalism ad nauseum.

The word “exceptional” has two definitions: 1. forming an exception or rare instance; unusual, and 2. unusually excellent; superior. Araya, and most everyone else, jumps to the second, normative definition, bypassing the merely descriptive first one. The origins of the term American Exceptionalism go back to Hamilton and especially Tocqueville, whose touchstone “Democracy in America” distills the essence of the young country that the great French thinker found so intriguing. Tocqueville emphasized not how fantastic the US was–although he admired much about America and realized its world-changing potential–but how unique it was.

America, more than any country before or after 1776, was (and is) an experiment. The genesis of its government was more deliberate and more daring than anything the world had seen. Instead of the long pre-nation-state history of European countries, it had a blank slate. It had a wide open frontier, and a commercial character wholly separate from the aristocratic and religious institutions of the Old World.

This exceptionalism (in the first sense of the word) has been perpetual despite the march of history and the rise of innumerable new states. America’s short and relatively non-exploitative colonial history can scarcely be compared to the colonial experience of much of the developing world. It has at turns (and occasionally simultaneously) been an imperialist and anti-imperialist power. It is a country of immigrants to an unusual degree, and its economy escaped socialism. Few Western countries have as tortured a racial experience as America’s. And, not inconsequentially, it has been the world’s lone superpower, and has influenced international relations and mass culture more than any other nation.

Yes, every country’s history is unique. Every country has its own culture. But America consistently and dramatically resists comparison to any other nation. This is what we should mean when we talk about American Exceptionalism.

Apart from what the “true” definition of American Exceptionalism is, I would argue that we should use this more nuanced definition because it is infinitely more interesting, and leads us to thoughtful self-reflection instead of towards partisan bickering. America is exceptional in part because it is a great experiment in democracy. I think Araya, Josh, and I would agree that pushing that experiment forward–practically and intellectually–is more important than arguing about who we are or are not better than.


Photo Credit: Life On Dover Beach

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=509871668 Julian Ward

    Why not just not use the term?

    On the one hand you admit that “every country’s history is unique” and that “every country has its own culture”… and thus no country is “exceptional”. But you then go on to say that America is exceptional specifically because it “dramatically resists comparison to any other nation”.

    This last point, though true, should not be used as a point of pride for so-called “American Exceptionalism”.

    It is only Americans themselves that reject comparison with other nations, whereas in most other nations (I can only imagine), people are willing to look outside their borders to see how other people function, and then adjust themselves accordingly. Americans do not.

    This is not something of which to be proud, nor is it something on which to base a political philosophy.

    Drop the phrase, and join the rest of the world.

  • Paul Schied

    Hey Julian. Thanks for reading.

    When I say that America “dramatically resists comparison to any other nation,” I mean that it resists comparison EMPIRICALLY, not that Americans personally chaffe at the US being compared to other nations. The former, I would say, is more-or-less objective (although of course arguable).

    I don’t think that the concession that no two countries have the same exact history and culture necessarily torpedoes American Exceptionalism. As I tried to lay out, America is in many ways FUNDAMENTALLY different from other nations. One could make the case for Columbian or Ghanian Exceptionalism, I just think that American Exceptionalism is more apparent as a viable concept. You could charge that this is because I’m American; I can’t definitively rebut that, but I will mention that Tocqueville was French.

    I also want to be clear that the crux of my argument is explicitly non-normative. Although it’s obvious why American Exceptionalism might lead to pride (“we’re special, so we must be better than everyone else”), that’s not what I’m arguing for. The one normative thing I will say is that I think recognizing America’s inherent differences from other countries is a useful step in figuring out how to make America better. I also don’t think acknowledging American Exceptionalism precludes “look[ing] outside [one's] borders to see how other people function, and then adjust[ing] [oneself] accordingly” And the claim that Americans don’t do that is just false, both because Americans aren’t a single bloc, and because on the whole I don’t think Americans are as insular as they’re often characterized.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=509871668 Julian Ward

    Thanks for the solid response to my drunkenly produced comment.

    I don’t have much to say in response, except that I still don’t understand what the point is in trying to make the case for American Exceptionalism at all. You suggest that it can be used to figure out ways to make America better, but I don’t understand how that could be possible nor what would make you think that. I’m actually curious to know.

    There was definitely a time when America was exceptional in the world, but there are so many other countries that are so comparable to the U.S. now that it seems a moot point to prove who’s more exceptional.

    My actual view on the effects of thinking that American Exceptionalism exists is in line with what you said it could produce: “we’re special, so we must be better than everyone else”. I agree, this definitely exists—all the way up to everyone in government (save a few). But I wouldn’t call this attitude “pride”, so much as I would call it cockiness and a holier-than-thou attitude toward the rest of the world.

    I think that if Americans made the active choice not to view their country as exceptional, but instead as equal among nations, America wouldn’t find itself in the predicaments it currently faces, and might actually be able to improve itself.

  • Paul Schied

    I’ll throw out a couple examples of how American Exceptionalism could be informative/useful.

    Let’s look at Libya. That was a situation where there was a real chance of a humanitarian crisis: Ghadafi going house to house killing people. If you look at the US like every other country, we have no special responsibility to prevent that. The implicit argument that the President made (despite his NATO posturing) was that as the world’s lone superpower we had both the unique capabilities necessary to prevent the massacre, and also the additional moral responsibility to do so as a nation uniquely concerned with human rights abroad. The President said in his speech justifying the intervention, “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other nations. The United States of America is different.” Now, you can disagree with the decision and question it in relation to atrocities occurring elsewhere, but essential to the calculus is that America is very different even from it’s allies.

    Let’s look at trying to combat urban poverty. The issue in America involves a number of elements stemming from it’s exceptional character. Socioeconomic inequality in America is far more closely tied to issues of race in America than in other countries, and government run social welfare programs are in general more disfavored by the American electorate than others in part because of America’s national history of valuing liberty and private action to solve social problems. Applying a solution pioneered in a foreign country might work, but it is likely to run aground practically, socially, or politically if we don’t consider the exceptional factors influencing the issue area in the United States.

    I just had a discussion today in class in which a student who had lived in Europe suggested that the American election process would be improved if public debate focused more on the party platforms and less on the individuals running and their personal characteristics and policy preferences. American Exceptionalism would help us get to a useful critique of this suggestion: America, unlike many countries in Europe and elsewhere, has developed a two party system that necessitates greater focus on individual candidates because of the wide variety of potential policy preferences a given Democrat could have as compared to a given member of a (much smaller and so more narrowly construed) party in a multiparty democracy.

    These are just a few examples of where American Exceptionalism seems in one way or another to be relevant to arriving at a workable solution, decision, or preference. There is definitely an argument to be made that in practice American Exceptionalism leads to “cockiness and a holier-than-though attitude.” I would argue that this need not necessarily result, and we should simultaneously try to be aware of the ways in which the United States is exceptional, and treat other nations with humility and respect.

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