Where it comes from and why it’s harmful
In the inaugural scene of the show The Newsroom, the main character, Will McAvoy, is asked what makes the United States the greatest country in the world. His response: it isn’t.
“There’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world,” he said. “We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force and number four in exports.”
While it has declined a little in recent years, the belief in American exceptionalism — the concept that the United States is unique or special compared to other countries — is still alive and well, although it is being expressed in different terms than it once was. While fewer people are saying the U.S. stands above all other countries — 28 percent in a 2014 Pew Research Center survey as opposed to 38 percent in a 2011 survey — only a small minority of people in the 2014 poll, 12 percent, said there are countries better than the states. People are less likely to proclaim the U.S. as number one, but they are still not willing to concede the U.S. is not the best. This is a differentiated but still very much present form of American exceptionalism, a concept that dates back hundreds of years.
The origins of the phrase American exceptionalism are most commonly associated with French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville’s writing in the 1830s. However, Walter LaFeber — a retired Cornell University history professor emeritus — said the idea of American exceptionalism predates Tocqueville and extends back to Puritan leader John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon in 1630 in which he described the Puritan colony as an example for others to follow.
LaFeber said there are additional examples of the concept of American exceptionalism in early history.
“[Alexander] Hamilton started out The Federalist Papers… by talking about American exceptionalism,” LaFeber said. “He didn’t use the term as I recall, but he certainly talked about the United States having a unique spirit and experience that was different.”
American exceptionalism has evolved since its inception, however, as LaFeber said it has become more aggressive and expansionist. Walter McDougall, a professor of history and the Alloy-Ansin professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed, saying American exceptionalism has become more global.
“Since World War II they [Americans] have also mostly believed the purpose of this exceptionalism is to defend liberty everywhere and extend it, if necessary by force, to the whole world,” McDougall said. “This is very problematic, and at times dangerous.”
Ian Tyrrell, an emeritus professor of history at the University of New South Wales who has studied American exceptionalism, said the concept of the U.S. as unique and special has turned into an excuse to extend U.S. systems overseas.
“Too frequently there is an assumption that U.S. versions of democracy and liberty need to be exported abroad, usually by persuasion, but too often by force as well,” Tyrrell said. “Moreover, the complexities of other social systems get short shrift.”
American exceptionalism has manifested itself in a negative way through the occupation and “bringing of Western civilization” to other parts of the world. This is exemplified in the Middle East quagmire the U.S. has created with its imperialistic “spreading of democracy.”
In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq in the name of liberating the Iraqi people of an oppressive dictatorship and ridding the country of weapons of mass destruction that were never found. Twelve years later, after the U.S. implemented its so called democratic ideals onto Iraq, the country is still mired in violence. Tyrrell suggested this kind of imperialism results in part because of a belief in American exceptionalism and a desire to maintain U.S. military and political strength.
The aspect of exceptionalism that led the U.S. into Iraq is the dark side of American exceptionalism that promotes expansion and the replacement of culture. However, LaFeber said the concept of exceptionalism isn’t harmful when it’s kept within U.S. borders.
“Exceptionalism at home is fine if we don’t try to impose it on other people or if we don’t think it justifies our imposition of it on other people,” LaFeber said.
The idea of American exceptionalism has also been reinforced and manifested through the education system and a focus on teaching history that reflects well on the U.S. A recent example of this was the Oklahoma legislature’s attempt to defund AP U.S. history, because of the belief the course shows “what is bad about America.” According to a 2015 article by neatoday.org, after an outcry, the sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Dan Fisher, backtracked and proposed a review of the AP U.S. history course and the promotion of a more “patriotic” curriculum.
However, Fisher’s attempt to further promote American exceptionalism through the education system is nothing new. Tyrrell said the concept of American exceptionalism is already reinforced in schools as well as in other aspects of society.
“[American exceptionalism] is a social phenomenon encouraged by the way U.S. history has been taught in schools, with the global connections and contexts neglected, and the way American movies — when they do portray aspects of history as in the movies Amistad and Lincoln — reinforce American values in the exceptional nature of the American commitment to liberty,” Tyrrell said.
The effort to further reinforce American exceptionalism and patriotism in the education system is counterproductive, and reveals one of the many dark sides of thinking one’s country is above all others. The portrayal of history through a patriotic lens promoting only the positive aspects of U.S. history ignores the instances when the U.S. has committed harmful acts.
LaFeber said examples of this in U.S. history are the continuation of slavery after many other countries had banned the practice as well as the comparatively long time it took the U.S. to grant women the right to vote.
However, LaFeber said there are some positive ways in which the U.S. has been unique, pointing to the form of government set up following the American Revolution as exceptional for that time period.
Tyrrell said the U.S. is exceptional up to a point.
“The United States is almost exceptional in a number of ways, most particularly through the importance of constitutional guarantees of freedom from the oppression of the state,” Tyrrell said. “But a fair number of other countries do have Bills of Rights and strong traditions of individual liberties.”
An additional way the concept of American exceptionalism is ingrained in society is through the political rhetoric used by those vying for high government positions. A 2011 article titled “American Exceptionalism and the Politics of Foreign Policy” from The Atlantic detailed the use of American exceptionalism as a campaign tactic in the 2012 presidential race. The article mentioned how then-candidates for the Republican nomination Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney all made comments criticizing President Barack Obama’s commitment to American exceptionalism. Romney said of Obama: “We have a president right now who thinks America’s just another nation. America is an exceptional nation.”
However, the Republican candidates’ attacks on Obama’s commitment to American exceptionalism are misguided as Obama also adheres to the language of American exceptionalism. He said in 2009 that he believed in American exceptionalism, and he repeated that sentiment in 2014.
“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” Obama said in a 2014 speech at West Point Military Academy. “But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”
While the GOP candidates’ blind belief in American exceptionalism plays into the problems with the concept of the U.S as special, Obama’s more nuanced view of American exceptionalism also has its issues, as discussed in a 2014 article from The Nation titled “It’s Time to Rethink American Exceptionalism,” by David Bromwich, a professor of English at Yale University.
Bromwich wrote of Obama’s thoughts regarding American Exceptionalism:
“The context made it clear that he meant the United States was the greatest country in the world: our stature was demonstrated by our possession of ‘the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,’ uniquely tasked with defending liberty and peace globally; and yet we could not allow ourselves to ‘flout international norms’ or be a law unto ourselves.”
Bromwich argued “defending liberty and peace globally” and not flouting international laws are contradictory principles. This is a lesson that can be learned from the U.S. actions in Iraq and the Middle East.
American exceptionalism has clearly become highly politicized. The belief in the concept of the U.S as special has become something of a requirement in order to hold higher office, Tyrrell said.
“It’s obligatory to genuflect to American exceptionalism to be elected president or even to be taken seriously as a candidate,” Tyrrell said.
McDougall said when politicians talk about American exceptionalism, they are playing to what the people want to hear.
“Americans have almost always wanted to believe that their country was set apart by God to thrive in liberty,” he said.
The necessity for politicians to continually reinforce voters’ need to believe the U.S. is the best is a drag on the quality of political rhetoric. However, it means politicians are less likely to address meaningful problems facing the country and more likely to talk superficially about how “great” the U.S. is.
In a 2011 article in Foreign Policy titled “The Myth of American Exceptionalism,” Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, wrote the belief in the U.S. as unique or special makes it more difficult for people in the U.S. to see the country’s fundamental problems.
“This unchallenged faith in American exceptionalism makes it harder for Americans to understand why others are less enthusiastic about U.S. dominance, often alarmed by U.S. policies, and frequently irritated by what they see as U.S. hypocrisy,” he wrote.
In his article, Bromwich argued the concept of American exceptionalism is false and isn’t healthy for a nation to believe in.
”Unconditional love of our country is the counterpart of unconditional detachment and even hostility toward other countries,” he wrote. “None of us is an exception, and no nation is.”
American exceptionalism is not unique to the U.S. LaFeber said many other nations believe they are exceptional. He cited the British and the French as firm believers in their country’s exceptionalism.
However, the difference between U.S. exceptionalism and other nations’ beliefs in their own exceptionalism is the more blatant perpetuation of American exceptionalism both abroad through military power and domestically through political campaigns as well as the education system. McDougall said American exceptionalism can be dangerous.
“When exceptionalism is exploited, for instance to promote a partisan, political or military agenda, then its dark side is revealed,” he said.
Evan Popp is a sophomore journalism major that is tired of the United States pretending to be better than it is. You can contact him at [email protected].