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‘American exceptionalism’: What is it and is it true?

We hear the phrase “American exceptionalism” so often that we forget to ask ourselves what it’s supposed to mean, what facts support the notion and whether those facts are real or exist mostly in the truthiness region of our fevered national self-adoration.

Surely every nation is exceptional is some way or another. The phrase “American exceptionalism” apparently dates at least from Alexis de Tocqueville’s book about America in the 1830s, and apparently means that we are exceptional in exceptional ways, with the details of these ways to be filled in later or to meet the needs of a speaker at a political rally, who needs to hear some applause and asserts, for example and against all evidence, that the United States has the greatest health care system in the world.

On Friday (forgive me for being slow to mention it), the New York Times ran a terrific piece headlined “The Opiate of Exceptionalism,” in which Times writer Scott Shane argued that “this national characteristic, often labeled American exceptionalism, may inspire some people and politicians to perform heroically, rising to the level of our self-image. But during a presidential campaign, it can be deeply dysfunctional, ensuring that many major issues are barely discussed [because…] Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.”

Shane notes that the United States is number one in the world in the rate of obesity and the portion of its population that it imprisons, but neither of those issues gets mentioned on the campaign trail.

On the other hand, in the portion of children living in poverty “of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania…This country comes in only 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a higher education.”

A candidate who wanted to bring up hard unpleasant truths, Shane wrote, “might hammer on infant mortality, where the United States ranks worse than 48 other countries and territories, or point out that, contrary to fervent popular belief, the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.”

Social mobility refers to the likelihood that a person will move across socioeconomic or, to use a forbidden word, “class” lines during their lifetimes. The American self-myth is that this is the nation of opportunity, and sometimes it is. But compared to other developed nations, ours is a nation in which the children of the rich get (or stay) rich and the children of the poor are likely to remain poor. 

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/24/2012 - 10:48 am.

    Inconvenient truths

    …but that won’t stop some from their usual habit of blaming the victim. Getting sick is your own fault. Being poor is your fault. Not having a college degree is your fault (or the teacher’s fault – whatever works better for the day’s argument). Etc., etc., ad nauseum.

    They’re all areas that might be influenced by state and/or national policy, and, to fall back on cliché, the bottom line is that those who have money, power, influence, etc., write rules that benefit themselves first. Not always exclusively, but first, nonetheless. The Puritan doctrine of “the Elect” seems to me to be just as alive and well in 21st century America as it was in the 17th century. Maybe the most inconvenient of the truths is that we DO have socioeconomic classes, and socioeconomic mobility, while it does happen, is far more, and increasingly, the exception rather than the rule.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/24/2012 - 10:53 am.

    The New Colossus” Not like

    The New Colossus”

    Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

    —Emma Lazarus, 1883

    Who want’s to acknowledge the fact that, indeed, it was mostly the “wretched refuse”, who had insufficient standing, money or power in the old land, are the ancestors of those who make up America today?

    And a generation or two in this land are sufficient to make you as a god, “With conquering limbs astride from land to land”.

    Perhaps the wide-open spaces that always existed to the west that allowed the constant reinvention of Americans also allowed the forgetting of the humble beginnings and common roots of almost everyone. It becomes apparent that the exceptionalism lies in the formerly boundless land that was there for the taking (a big thanks to the Native Americans–so sorry for you, if only you were as exceptional, you could be great, too!).

  3. Submitted by Rich Crose on 10/24/2012 - 10:56 am.

    No Apologies

    We will not apologize for America –not even to Americans!

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/24/2012 - 11:22 am.

    Convenient myths

    Might also reference Keillor, Garrison:
    “All our children are above average”

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/24/2012 - 11:23 am.

    Some conservatives

    simply deny the statistics.
    See Bush, G.W.:
    “We make our own reality”

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/24/2012 - 12:18 pm.

    Not to mention …

    “The United States’ economic freedom score of 76.3 drops it to 10th place in the 2012 Index. Its score is 1.5 points lower than last year, reflecting deteriorating scores for government spending, freedom from corruption, and investment freedom. The U.S. is ranked 2nd out of three countries in the North America region, and its overall score remains well above the world and regional averages.”

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/24/2012 - 01:44 pm.


      Of course, this is the WSJ, and they repeat the old canard that government has expanded under Obama.
      It’s clearly a political statement.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/24/2012 - 02:34 pm.

      It’s so sad….

      The current right’s fetish of “economic freedom.”

      It’s all part of the managed transition from “of the people, by the people, for the people” to “of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations”.

      Continue to grease the slide to the time when business is paramount, Mr. Tester!!

      Go on, continue to spout the corporate pap that the founding ideals of this country can be boiled down to a single purpose, “maximize profit”!!

      If we try hard enough, we CAN be just like China.

      • Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/24/2012 - 06:11 pm.

        It’s always struck me as odd

        that so many of those who demand that rights be specifically enunciated by the U.S. Constitution to be considered valid simultaneously claim the right to economic freedom, which is not only not specifically expressed anywhere in the Constitution but is specifically made subject to the powers of Congress in many ways, including but not limited to taxation and the Commerce Clause.

        A certain Congresswoman comes to mind.

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/29/2012 - 08:07 am.

          Specific Rigths

          Those who “demand that rights be specifically enunciated by the U.S. Constitution” are wanting limits on gov’t power, not on the rights of the peoples. Any other reading is bizarre.

  7. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 10/24/2012 - 10:47 pm.

    Simple answer

    American exceptionalism is fading because of greedy corporations, too many lousy politicians and the destruction of campaign financing laws.

  8. Submitted by mark wallek on 10/24/2012 - 07:50 pm.

    What passes…

    Mediocrity is the new standard for exceptional, observation indicates.

  9. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 10/24/2012 - 08:34 pm.

    God’s Exceptional People?

    I’m surprised that Eric did not refer to how the notion of “American Exceptionalism” has become another article of (literal) faith for rightest evangelicals and how certain candidates (especially Gingrich and Santorum, but now especially Romney) have used such code language to court that voter base. Of course, the notion that it was God who made America “exceptional” has been around ever since Governor Winthropadford and his “city on a hill” in Boston (a favorite line for Ronald Reagan), but the fervor with which “exceptionalism” has been espoused by certain candidates in the last few decades (especially beginning under the previous President) suggests that they have something even more messianic in mind.

  10. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/24/2012 - 09:08 pm.

    Propaganda pure and exceptionally simple !

    Stark statistics Erick. There are also numbers out there for the likely hood of breaking out of a socio economic class. They ain’t very good either. This data is reported over and over again and is ignored over and over again. Or subterfuged into non existence with a chicken in every pot Republican promise that has Never materialized in almost all of our pockets until serious Democratic thinking was put into place.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/25/2012 - 07:21 am.

    Specifics and the constitution

    Along the lines of Mr. Hamilton’s comment, it’s always struck me as odd that those who require specifics deny the right to privacy, yet proclaim that the second amendment guarantees the right own an assault rifle despite the fact the word “gun” appears nowhere in the amendment.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/25/2012 - 09:15 am.

      A well armed militia

      is what the Second Amendment refers to.
      I believe that the Constitution of the State of Virginia does refer to muskets.

  12. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/25/2012 - 09:30 am.

    Is it true?

    My vote is no, it is not true at least in objective, provable facts. America is unique in the sense that any nation is unique and it fills a larger space in our consciousness because we who live here experience nothing else. So if it exists, such existence is ” mostly in the truthiness region of our fevered national self-adoration.”

    But on that level of “truthiness” is where believing something can make something be true. “Exceptionalism” is true only in the sense that because of the number of people believing it, our unrealistic self-regard defines part of national character. I have come to believe that we define ourselves by how good we feel about ourselves and part of that is how we feel “exceptional” because we are “American.” “Proud to be an American” is how we often say it and to one another as a “shared value.” I suppose I think so too.

    The problem with this “exceptionalism” is that it often tilts toward self-delusion and is so easily manipulated. I swear it will be the end of all we hold most dear unless we can overcome it.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/26/2012 - 09:28 am.

    Enough nonsense, American Exceptionalism is a myth

    Exceptionalism is one of America’s founding myths, actually it’s a constellation of myths encompassing manifest destiny and a number of other fantasies. It’s not that the US isn’t exceptional in some ways, but the exceptionalism myth provides a variety of self serving explanations and rationales that obscure the true nature of our history and behavior as a nation. Exceptionalsim creates a comforting narrative that conceals our nations history of imperialism and conquest behind a wall of illusory “virtue”.

    Exceptionalism pretends that American “power” is a virtue rather than a weapon that is wielded on behalf elite Americans. This myth is actually quite destructive in that it obscures the true nature and American power and the reasons for it’s applications. The truth is that American uses it’s power no differently than any other nation, but the myth converts our aggressions into benign interventions.

    When you talk about the decline or preservation of “exceptionalism” your really talking about a decline or preservation of American power. The fact that we’re even talking about exceptionalalism rather than power proves the myth is doing it’s work, after all we didn’t invade Iraq with our virtue.

  14. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/29/2012 - 08:18 am.

    American exceptionalism rests on a couple of unique features of the United States. Unlike every other country on earth in the 18th century, the United States was a created system, not one that simply grew up from custom and tradition. France is France because the territory of France was conquered by the people who shared the French culture, etc. not because a group of people tried to design the best system they could. That’s a huge difference. It’s harder to see now, because other countries followed the US example (to varying degrees). Along with this, the US was the first to embrace the Enlightenment ideas that rights are innate and not dependent on the whims of a monarch.
    The other unique thing is that the US broke the class society mold. People here could start in obscurity and end up with great wealth and position. This simply wasn’t as true in the rest of the world. This is still reflected today. The US is a symbol to the world of a place where hard work can bring great success. Just look at the immigrant families who have opened restaurants and other businesses. Or the huge amount of immigrants who work several jobs here so they can send money to families back to their native lands. Again, this isn’t as unique anymore, but that’s simply because other countries have started to catch up.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/30/2012 - 09:55 am.

      We broke the mold

      But we’re pouring ourselves into a new one. The opportunity to be socio-economically mobile has narrowed since the hay day of movin’ on up. In fact, when we broke the mold, other countries broke out too and have done a better job of expanding mobility.
      It’s not a matter of catching up, those other countries have actually learned the lesson better than we did. In fact, the American concept of earning your place in society is largely bunk. Working hard from the bottom rarely gets you to the top and being lazy at the top means you are still doing pretty well (not that that’s surprising).

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/29/2012 - 11:08 am.

    More myth than exceptional

    The constitution cemented class into the nations fiber, note who was given the right to vote. The idea that America was “Classeless” then or now, is pure myth. Remember, the US was one of the last nations in the world to outlaw slavery and did so only as a result of civil war, the US has not always led the world. The lack of any established monarchy made Americas upper class a little different in character, but in the end they were pretty much the same when the Titanic went down.

    It’s true that many of the founders embraced the Enlightenment (something contemporary Christians don’t seem to be aware of) but the Enlightenment was a European phenomena, It’s pretty clear that the folks who created it were the first ones to embrace it.

    It’s important to remember that America didn’t come out of the box the way you see it today. We made progress over time, but so did almost every other country in Europe. The US lagged behind many European countries in civil rights, women’s rights, and labor rights, and in many ways still lags behind in these areas.

    Americas greatest advantage has been it’s geography. We’ve sat between peaceful neighbors to our North and South for 200 years (with the exception of war with Mexico and some trouble with Zapata). We’re behind two big oceans to the east and west and this means that the US hasn’t been invaded or occupied with any serious consequence in 200 years. With the exception of southern cities in during the Civil War our cities and factories have never been reduced to rubble, and our population has not been decimated. These facts have given the US huge advantages. We did not have to rebuild anything after WWII. Henry Ford was pumping out his cars and selling them to an affluent American middle class Europe was fighting or recovering from WWI. It was America’s intact and unmolested manufacturing capacity that turned it into a world power. It’s not that our factories were better, they just weren’t bombed out. Do you think Hollywood would have been the cultural influence it’s been had L.A. been leveled in WWI and again in WWII? Of course the moving images of affluent Americans driving new cars around a landscape untouched by war captured the imaginations of all who saw them in the post war world. To world ravaged by war American was literally a paradise. But the wold saw Sydney Portier showing up for dinner, they didn’t see Strange Fruit hanging from southern trees.

    Sure a lot of people come to the US seeking opportunities, but a lot of people also go to Europe, South Korea, and India. When my wife went to Bangladesh a couple years ago the plane was full of East African’s on their way to Bangladesh looking for work.

    Yes, our founding fathers created the most durable democracy in history, and we should be proud of that, but we need to recognize that they didn’t create the country you see today. The America you see today is the product exceptional people who fought sometimes bloody struggles to end oppression of various kinds. But such struggles are not unique to America. We have a proud history of ingenuity, and many accomplishments but the notion that this has been the result of some special and unique quality rather than geography, luck, and historical momentum, is largely a national myth that informs a nationalistic narrative.

    As for the land of opportunity, the US actually has far less economic mobility than many countries:

    “In recent years several large studies have found that vertical inter-generational mobility is lower in the United States than in most developed countries.[11] A 1996 paper by Daniel P. McMurrer, Isabel V. Sawhill found “mobility rates seem to be quite similar across countries.”[12] However a more recent paper (2007) found a person’s parents is a great deal more predictive of their own income in the United States than other countries.[4] The United States had about 1/3 the ratio of mobility of Denmark and less than half that of Canada, Finland and Norway.[1] France, Germany, Sweden, also had higher mobility, with only the United Kingdom being less mobile.[1]”

    Source: Economic Mobility Wikipedia

    The problem with national myths is they can glorify illusions at the expense of reality. There’s much to be proud of as an American, but illusions of exeptionalism obscure our reality and prevent real progress. Instead of taking intelligent and rational action to solve our most serious problems we wait for the myth step forward and save us. This is little more than magical thinking.

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