We are a nation comprising more than 330 million people who've proven that we're capable of doing great things. So why have we adapted a sense of untenable, rugged individualism?
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“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” said then-President Barack Obama in an April 2009 interview with Edward Luce of Financial Times.
Obama would go on to extol American values of democracy and “our belief in free speech and equality,” and pointed to the country’s place in the world as an economic and military powerhouse. To those not brought up on the mythology of “American exceptionalism,” Obama’s comments likely came off as standard-fare diplomacy and the words of a man who was proud of his country without belittling the contributions of others to the world order. Unfortunately, for him, that’s not quite how it played back home, especially among his political rivals.
For instance, Fox News host Sean Hannity claimed that Obama had “marginalized his own country by saying our sense of exceptionalism is no different than that of the British and the Greeks,” and asking viewers if they could “name something exceptional about Greece these days.” Oof! Conservative columnist James Kirchick called it a “strange response,” and wrote, “If all countries are ‘exceptional,’ then none are, and to claim otherwise robs the word, and the idea of American exceptionalism, of any meaning.” Ouch!
So what is American exceptionalism, and what role does it play today?
Simply put, American exceptionalism is the idea that the U.S. is a unique force in the world and a global leader to be emulated. Its origins are often traced back to 19th-century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, in which he wrote, “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one,” though the term “American exceptionalism” itself was coined by American communist Jay Lovestone during the 1920s as a means to explain the role capitalism played in preventing Soviet-style communism from taking root in the U.S. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that “American exceptionalism” became a political ideology unto itself, steeped in arrogance, self-importance, and destiny. That ideology, which is at its core a form of American supremacy, full of its “Rah rah! We’re number one!” self-expectations and self-confidence—in which the good things that happen to you are the result of living in “the greatest country in the world,” while bad things are to be treated as personal failings—permeates U.S. culture to the point of self-parody, even when boasts and bravado aren’t backed by facts.
The Good Ol’ Bootstraps
The Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated the role of “exceptionalism” as a virtue in 2022. While other countries were making significant investments in protecting citizens’ physical and financial well-being, the U.S. took a bare-minimum approach. Yes, most Americans received some financial help during the pandemic, but it was met with cries that people were lazy for being concerned about catching a deadly virus in the workplace. The U.S. is a country that prides itself on telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, a phrase that originally intended to highlight the impossibility of actually picking oneself up by their bootstraps but morphed over time into a slogan supporting the exceptionally American idea of rugged individualism. If you’re hungry, if you’re sick, if you’re struggling in any way, shape, or form—that’s on you. That’s the American belief system at work: If you got sick or died from COVID, then that was your own failing. Truly exceptional, indeed.
The Economist’s Democracy Index lists the U.S. as the 26th most democratic country in the world—a “flawed democracy” closer to Botswana and Chile than to Canada or Australia. Reporters Without Borders ranks the U.S. at number 42 on the most recent edition of its annual World Press Freedom Index, adding, “In the United States, once considered a model for press freedom and free speech, press freedom violations are increasing at a troubling rate.” In a 2021 Commonwealth Fund analysis of 11 “high-income countries”’ health care systems, the U.S. spent the most money while achieving the worst outcomes of all countries surveyed. The United Nations ranks the U.S. as number 21 on its Human Development Index, an assessment of education, health, and standard of living. None of this is meant to suggest anything particularly negative about the U.S., but serves as a reminder that for all the discussion of “exceptionalism,” there are arguments to be made that the country doesn’t live up to the level of boasting it does on the world stage.
Princeton University history professor David A. Bell wrote the chapter on American exceptionalism in the recently released book, Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past. In it, Bell highlighted the role former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) played in mainstreaming the term and using it as a political weapon against his opponents during the 1994 midterm elections. From one of Gingrich’s campaign speeches:
We have to recognize that American exceptionalism is real, that American civilization is the most unique civilization in history, that we bring more people of more ethnic backgrounds together to pursue happiness with greater opportunity than any civilization in the history of the world. And we just don’t say that anymore. Let me be candid. Haitians have more to learn from America than Americans have to learn from Haitians. The same is true of Bosnia. As far as I’m concerned, this counterculture notion, this politically correct notion that, “Oh, gee, we shouldn’t make any value judgments,” that’s silly. The Declaration of Independence is a value judgment. It says we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
To borrow a word from Gingrich, this seems silly. One could easily praise the U.S. and its role in the world without pretending that American actions are ordained by God and are therefore always correct or justified, but that’s the message Gingrich put out there, in part to dare his political foes into coming across as “anti-American” by disagreeing with his premise. It’s why American politicians across the political spectrum have tripped over themselves in the years that followed to demonstrate that they, too, believed in Gingrich’s transparently ludicrous and self-centered view of the world. It’s why that quote at the beginning of this piece from Obama, in trying to find the right balance between being politically correct (declaring a full-throated belief in American exceptionalism) and understanding that expressing such a belief in an international setting would come off as needlessly arrogant, walked head-first into an outrage trap set by Gingrich 15 years earlier.
A Post-Exceptionalism World
But maybe things are changing.
“I think American exceptionalism may actually be on the decline as a myth right now,” Bell writes to me in an email. “What I argue in [Myth America] is that it first really started to take off in the political arena—as opposed to the social sciences, where it had been going strong since the 1950s—in the 1990s.”
“The Republicans, especially Gingrich, found that it gave them a useful way to bash Democrats as unpatriotic without actually calling them unpatriotic or traitors,” he continues. “Meanwhile, since the phrase is essentially meaningless (“exceptional” in relationship to what? to whom? it’s usually left unsaid), a lot of liberal Democrats fell over themselves exclaiming how deeply they did believe in American exceptionalism because it allowed them to appear patriotic without getting in trouble with their own base over what they thought America had done right. Hillary Clinton rarely let a speech go by without invoking it.”
Bell’s point about the meaninglessness of “exceptionalism” makes sense, and one could certainly argue that leaving the “what?” and “who?” questions “left unsaid” is core to the American relationship with the term. Yes, the U.S. certainly is exceptional in a number of important ways. And just as the term’s original use in communist circles was not intended as a compliment, the same can be said about the U.S.’s exceptionalism in its status as one of the only countries on Earth not to mandate some form of paid parental or sick leave protections, and one of the only countries to have essentially given up on the challenge of reducing gun violence through gun control. “I’m built different” is a meme, but it’s also a core element of American life that is drilled into us from an early age.
But Bell explains that the U.S. elections of Donald Trump and Joe Biden may inadvertently lead the U.S. out of the age of Gingrichian “American exceptionalism,” though whether or not that’s a good thing depends on one’s perspective.
“But since Trump’s election, and especially since 2020, I’m not sure [exceptionalism] has been quite as important in our politics. Trump himself hates the phrase because all he cares about in countries is toughness, and he sees China in particular as ‘eating our lunch.’ He doesn’t want us to be exceptional—certainly not in any idealistic way—just tougher than everyone else. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have lost all compunction about calling Democrats traitors, so they don’t need to keep trotting out this difficult, multisyllabic phrase in their own speeches. And the phrase is also a bit highfalutin for Joe Biden, and his “we’re all folks here’ style. So it’s fallen a bit out of favor with at least some of the Dems as well,” he adds.
Does this mean that America, or by extension, Americans, aren’t exceptional? Of course not. The United States is a country of more than 330 million people that have time and again proven themselves capable of doing great things, alone and together. If Trump and Republicans have helped shift us away from the “exceptionalism” narrative by more honestly expressing disdain for their political rivals, and if Biden’s folksy approach to his public speeches has helped do the same, perhaps that will leave us in a sort of post-exceptionalism world to reflect upon and reassess.
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