American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is inherently different from other nations. Its proponents argue that the values, political system, and historical development of the U.S. are unique in human history, often with the implication that the country "is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage."
Political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset traces the origins of American exceptionalism to the American Revolution, from which the U.S. emerged as "the first new nation" with a distinct body of ideas Americanism". This ideology is based on liberty, equality before the law, individual responsibility, republicanism, representative democracy, and laissez-faire economics; these principles are sometimes collectively referred to as "American exceptionalism", and entail the U.S. being perceived both domestically and internationally as superior to other nations or having a unique mission to transform the world.
The theory of exceptionalism in the U.S. developed over time and can be traced to many sources. French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville was the first writer to describe the country as "exceptional" following his travels there in 1831. The actual phrase "American exceptionalism" was originally coined by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1929 as a critique of a revisionist faction of American communists that argued that the American political climate was unique and made it an "exception" to certain elements of Marxist theory.
The exact term "American exceptionalism" was occasionally used in the 19th century. In his The Yale Book of Quotations, Fred Shapiro notes "exceptionalism" was used to refer to the United States and its self-image by The Times of London on August 20, 1861. The term's common use dates from communists in the late 1920s, when the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin chastised members of the Faction led by Jay Lovestone of the Communist Party USA for claiming that the U.S. is independent of the Marxist laws of history "thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions." Stalin may have been told of the usage "American exceptionalism" by Broder & Zack in Daily Worker (N.Y.) on January 29, 1929, before Lovestone's visit to Moscow. American communists started using the English term "American exceptionalism" in factional fights. The term was later moved into general use by intellectuals. In 1989, the Scottish political scientist Richard Rose noted that most American historians endorse exceptionalism, and he suggested their reasoning to be as follows:
America marches to a different drummer. Its uniqueness is explained by any or all of a variety of reasons: history, size, geography, political institutions, and culture. Explanations of the growth of government in Europe are not expected to fit American experience, and vice versa.
However, postnationalist scholars reject American exceptionalism and argue the U.S. did not break from European history and accordingly has retained class-based and race-based differences as well as imperialism and willingness to wage war.
In recent years, scholars from numerous disciplines, as well as politicians and commentators in the traditional media, have debated the meaning and usefulness of the concept. Roberts and DiCuirci ask:
Why has the myth of American exceptionalism, characterized by a belief in America's highly distinctive features or unusual trajectory based on the abundance of its natural resources, its revolutionary origins and its Protestant religious culture that anticipated God's blessing of the nation, held such tremendous staying power, from its influence in popular culture to its critical role in foreign policy?
Some historians support the concept of American exceptionalism but avoid the terminology to avoid getting entangled in rhetorical debates. Bernard Bailyn, a leading colonial specialist at Harvard, is a believer in the distinctiveness of American civilization. Although he rarely, if ever, uses the phrase "American exceptionalism," he insists upon the "distinctive characteristics of British North American life." He argues that the process of social and cultural transmission result in peculiarly-American patterns of education in the broadest sense of the word, and he believes in the unique character of the American Revolution.
Origin of term
Some claim the phrase "American exceptionalism" originated with the Communist Party USA in an English translation of a condemnation that was made in 1929 by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin against communist supporters of Jay Lovestone for the latter's heretical belief the US was independent of the Marxist laws of history "thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions." That origin has been challenged, however, because the expression "American exceptionalism" had already been used by Brouder & Zack in the Daily Worker (N.Y.) on January 29, 1929, before Lovestone's visit to Moscow. Also, Fred Shapiro, the editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, noted that "exceptionalism" had been used to refer to the United States and its self-image during the Civil War by The New York Times on August 20, 1861.
Early examples of the term's usage include a declaration made at the 1930 American Communist convention that proclaimed "the storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism."
The phrase fell into obscurity after the 1930s until American newspapers popularized it in the 1980s to describe America's cultural and political uniqueness. The phrase became an issue of contention between the presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign, with McCain attacking Obama for allegedly disbelieving the concept.
History of concept
Alexis de Tocqueville and others (1835)
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. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the natives of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.
Kammen says that many foreign visitors commented on American exceptionalism including Karl Marx, Francis Lieber, Hermann Eduard von Holst, James Bryce, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc and that they did so in complimentary terms. The theme became common, especially in textbooks. From the 1840s to the late 19th century, the McGuffey Readers sold 120 million copies and were studied by most American students. Skrabec (2009) argues the Readers "hailed American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and America as God's country.... Furthermore, McGuffey saw America as having a future mission to bring liberty and democracy to the world."
Communist debate (1927)
In June 1927 Jay Lovestone, a leader of the Communist Party USA and who would soon be named as general secretary, described America's economic and social uniqueness. He noted the increasing strength of American capitalism and the country's "tremendous reserve power" and said that they both prevented a communist revolution. In 1929, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, disbelieving that America was so resistant to revolution, called Lovestone's ideas "the heresy of American exceptionalism," which was the first use of the specific term "American exceptionalism." The Great Depression appeared to underscore Stalin's argument that American capitalism falls under the general laws of Marxism. In June 1930, during the national convention of the Communist Party USA in New York, it was declared, "The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism and the whole system of opportunistic theories and illusions that had been built upon American capitalist 'prosperity.'"
America in Mormonism
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) believes that the Americas, including the United States is a unique place, populated by a chosen people composed of Lamanites (Indigenous Americans) and Mormons for a singular destiny, linking the United States to the Biblical promised land in the Book of Mormon, with the Constitution of the United States being divinely inspired. Joseph Smith argued that the millennial New Jerusalem was to be built in America (10th Article of Faith) and reported God as saying "it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood" (D&C 101:79–80).
Although officially shunned by the LDS Church, fundamentalist Mormons believe in the White Horse Prophecy, which argues that Mormons will be the ones called upon to preserve the Constitution as it hangs "by a thread".
In general, Americans have had the consideration of national "uniqueness." The historian Dorothy Ross points to three different currents regarding unique characteristics.
- Some Protestants believed American progress would facilitate the return of Jesus Christ and the Christian Millennium.
- Some 19th century historians linked American liberty to the development of liberty in Anglo-Saxon England.
- Other American writers looked to the "millennial newness" of America. Henry Nash Smith stressed the theme of "virgin land" in the American frontier that promised an escape from the decay that had befallen earlier republics.
Obama Administration and later
In April 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama responded to a journalist's question in Strasbourg with this statement: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Obama further noted, "I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."
Mitt Romney attacked Obama's statement and argued it showed Obama did not believe in American exceptionalism. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said that Obama's "worldview is dramatically different from any president, Republican or Democrat, we've had... He grew up more as a globalist than an American. To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation."
In a speech on the Syria crisis on September 10, 2013, Obama said that "however, when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our kids safer over the long run, I believe we should act.... That is what makes America different. That is what makes us exceptional."
In a direct response the next day, Russian President Vladimir Putin published an op-ed in The New York Times, articulating, "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.... We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."
Putin's views were soon endorsed by future President Donald Trump, who declared the op-ed "a masterpiece." "You think of the term as being beautiful, but all of sudden you say, what if you're in Germany or Japan or any one of 100 different countries? You are not going to like that term," Trump said. "It is very insulting, and Putin put it to him about that."
Some left-wing American commentators agree with Trump's stance; one example is Sherle Schwenninger, a co-founder of the New America Foundation, who in a 2016 Nation magazine symposium remarked, "Trump would redefine American exceptionalism by bringing an end to the neoliberal/neoconservative globalist project that Hillary Clinton and many Republicans support." However, Trump has also advocated an "America First" policy, emphasizing American nationalism and unilateralism, though with a greater emphasis on non-interventionism than imperialism.
American exceptionalism has been a plank of the Republican party platform since 2012. The platform adopted in 2016 defines it as "the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership" and affirms that the U.S. therefore must "retake its natural position as leader of the free world."
The term was adopted by former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in his 2015 book Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America.
Professor Mugambi Jouet commented that Republican support for American exceptionalism arose in opposition to Obama, and was coded as anti-Obama in the same way that arguments for states' rights were coded as anti-Black.
Causes in historical context
Scholars have explored possible justifications for the notion of American exceptionalism.
Absence of feudalism
Many scholars use a model of American exceptionalism developed by Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz. In The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), Hartz argued that the American political tradition lacks the left-wing/socialist and right-wing/aristocratic elements that dominated in Europe because colonial America lacked feudal traditions, such as established churches, landed estates, and a hereditary nobility. As a result, American politics developed around a tradition of 'Lockean' liberalism. Although some European practices of feudal origin, such as primogeniture, were transmitted to America, Hartz argued that their abolition during the American Revolution only confirmed the US' liberalism.
The "liberal consensus" school, typified by David Potter, Daniel Boorstin, and Richard Hofstadter followed Hartz in emphasizing that political conflicts in American history remained within the tight boundaries of this liberal tradition, especially regarding private property, individual rights, and representative government. The national government that emerged was far less centralized or nationalized than its European counterparts.
Some scholars, however, have disputed whether feudalism was absent from America. Sheldon Wolin has argued that the American Revolution was a reaction against increased centralization by the British government, while Karen Orren has claimed that aspects of feudal employment law lasted in America as late as the 1930s. James T. Kloppenberg has criticized Hartz for viewing American politics as a liberal consensus, arguing that this oversimplifies US history. On the other hand, Catherine A. Holland, while accepting other criticisms of Hartz, has argued that this is a misinterpretation, and that Hartz acknowledged divisions within American politics (albeit divisions within liberalism).
Puritan roots and Protestant promise
Parts of American exceptionalism can be traced to American Puritan roots. Many Puritans with Arminian leanings embraced a middle ground between strict Calvinist predestination and a less restricting theology of Divine Providence. They believed that God had made a covenant with their people and had chosen them to provide a model for the other nations of the Earth. One Puritan leader, John Winthrop, metaphorically expressed this idea as a "City upon a Hill: the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model for the rest of the world. That metaphor is often used by proponents of exceptionalism. The Puritans' moralistic values have remained a component of the national identity for centuries.
In that vein, Max Weber was a pioneer in delineating a connection between capitalism and exceptionalism. Eric Luis Uhlmann of Northwestern University argues that Puritan values were eventually taken up by all other Americans. Kevin M. Schultz underlines how they helped America to keep to its Protestant Promise, especially Catholics and Jews.
American Revolution and republicanism
The ideas that created the American Revolution were derived from a tradition of republicanism that had been repudiated by the British mainstream. The historian Gordon S. Wood has argued, "Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy." Wood notes that the term is "presently much-maligned" although it is vigorously supported by others such as Jon Butler.
Thomas Paine's Common Sense for the first time expressed the belief that America was not just an extension of Europe but a new land and a country of nearly unlimited potential and opportunity that had outgrown the British mother country. Those sentiments laid the intellectual foundations for the revolutionary concept of American exceptionalism and were closely tied to republicanism, the belief that sovereignty belonged to the people, not a hereditary ruling class.
Religious freedom characterized the American Revolution in unique ways when most major nations had state religions. Republicanism, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, created modern constitutional republicanism, which limits ecclesiastical powers. The historian Thomas Kidd (2010) argues, "With the onset of the revolutionary crisis, a significant conceptual shift convinced Americans across the theological spectrum that God was raising America for some particular purpose." Kidd further argues that "a new blend of Christian and republican ideology led religious traditionalists to embrace wholesale the concept of republican virtue."
Jefferson and the Empire of Liberty
According to Tucker and Hendrickson (1992), Jefferson believed America "was the bearer of a new diplomacy, founded on the confidence of a free and virtuous people, that would secure ends based on the natural and universal rights of man, by means that escaped war and its corruptions." Jefferson sought a radical break from the traditional European emphasis on "reason of state," which could justify any action, and the usual priority of foreign policy and the needs of the ruling family over those of the people.
Jefferson envisaged America becoming the world's great "Empire of Liberty," the model for democracy and republicanism. He identified his nation as a beacon to the world, as he said when he departed the presidency in 1809: "Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other areas of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence."
Basis of arguments
Marilyn B. Young argues that after the end of the Cold War in 1991, neoconservative intellectuals and policymakers embraced the idea of an "American empire," a national mission to establish freedom and democracy in other nations, particularly poor ones. She argues that after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration reoriented foreign policy to an insistence on maintaining the supreme military and economic power of America, an attitude that harmonized with the new vision of American empire. Young says the Iraq War (2003–2011) exemplified American exceptionalism.[failed verification]
In 2012, the conservative historians Larry Schweikart and Dave Dougherty argued that American exceptionalism be based on four pillars: (1) common law; (2) virtue and morality located in Protestant Christianity; (3) free-market capitalism; and (4) the sanctity of private property.
In a 2015 book, Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney sets out and argues the case for American exceptionalism and concludes: "we are, as Lincoln said, 'the last, best hope of earth.' We are not just one more nation, one more same entity on the world stage. We have been essential to the preservation and progress of freedom, and those who lead us in the years ahead must remind us, as Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan did, of the unique role we play. Neither they nor we should ever forget that we are, in fact, exceptional."
Republican ethos and ideas about nationhood
Proponents of American exceptionalism argue that the United States is exceptional in that it was founded on a set of republican ideals rather than on a common heritage, ethnicity, or ruling elite. In the formulation of President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, America is a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." In Lincoln's interpretation, America is inextricably connected with freedom and equality, and the American mission is to ensure "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." The historian T. Harry Williams argues that Lincoln believed:
In the United States man would create a society that would be the best and the happiest in the world. The United States was the supreme demonstration of democracy. However, the Union did not exist just to make men free in America. It had an even greater mission—to make them free everywhere. By the mere force of its example, America would bring democracy to an undemocratic world.
American policies have been characterized since their inception by a system of federalism (between the states and the federal government) and checks and balances (among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches), which were designed to prevent any faction, region, or government organ from becoming too powerful. Some proponents of the theory of American exceptionalism argue that the system and the accompanying distrust of concentrated power prevent the United States from suffering a "tyranny of the majority," preserve a free republican democracy, and allow citizens to live in a locality whose laws reflect those voters' values. A consequence of the political system is that laws can vary widely across the country. Critics of American exceptionalism maintain that the system merely replaces the power of the federal majority over states with power by the states over local entities. On the balance, the American political system arguably allows for more local dominance but prevents more domestic dominance than a more unitary system would.
The historian Eric Foner has explored the question of birthright citizenship, the provision of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) that makes anyone born in the United States a full citizen. He argues that:
birthright citizenship stands as an example of the much-abused idea of American exceptionalism... birthright citizenship does make the United States (along with Canada) unique in the developed world. No European nation recognizes the principle.
Global leadership and activism
Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh has identified what he says is "the most important respect in which the United States has been genuinely exceptional, about international affairs, international law, and promotion of human rights: namely, in its outstanding global leadership and activism." He argues:
To this day, the United States remains the only superpower capable, and at times willing, to commit real resources and make real sacrifices to build, sustain, and drive an international system committed to international law, democracy, and the promotion of human rights. Experience teaches that when the United States leads on human rights, from Nuremberg to Kosovo, other countries follow.
Peggy Noonan, an American political pundit, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world, it tries to be a force for good because it is exceptional."
Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney explores the concept of United States global leadership in a 2015 book on American foreign policy, Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America, co-authored with his daughter, Liz Cheney, a former official of the U.S. Department of State.
Proponents of American exceptionalism often claim that many features of the "American spirit" were shaped by the frontier process. Following Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis, they argue that the American frontier allowed individualism to flourish as pioneers adopted democracy and equality and shed centuries-old European institutions such as royalty, standing armies, established churches, and a landed aristocracy that owned most of the land. However, the frontier experience was not entirely unique to the United States. Other nations had frontiers without them shaping them nearly as much as the American frontier did, usually because they were under the control of a strong national government. South Africa, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and Australia had long frontiers, but they did not have "free land" and local control. The political and cultural environments were much different since the other frontiers neither involved widespread ownership of free land nor allowed the settlers to control the local and provincial governments, as was the case in America. Their edge did not shape their national psyches. Each nation had entirely different frontier experiences. For example, the Dutch Boers in South Africa were defeated in war by Britain. In Australia, "mateship" and working together were valued more than individualism was in the United States.
Mobility and welfare
For most of its history, especially from the mid-19th to the early-20th centuries, the United States has been known as the "land of opportunity" and in that sense prided and promoted itself on providing individuals with the opportunity to escape from the contexts of their class and family background. Examples of that social mobility include:
- Occupational: children could easily choose careers that were not based upon their parents' choices.
- Physical: geographical location was not seen as static, and citizens often relocated freely over long distances without a barrier.
- Status: as in most countries, family standing and riches were often a means to remain in a higher social circle. America was notably unusual because of an accepted wisdom that anyone, from poor immigrants upwards, who worked hard could aspire to similar standing, regardless of circumstances of birth. That aspiration is commonly called living the American dream. Birth details were not taken as a social barrier to the upper echelons or high political status in American culture. That stood in contrast to other countries in which many larger offices were socially determined and usually difficult to enter unless one was born into the suitable social group.
However, social mobility in the US is lower than in some European Union countries if it is defined by income movements. American men born into the lowest income quintile are much more likely to stay there than similar people in the Nordic countries or the United Kingdom. Many economists, such as Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, however, state that the discrepancy has little to do with class rigidity; rather, it is a reflection of income disparity: "Moving up and down a short ladder is a lot easier than moving up and down a tall one."
Regarding public welfare, Richard Rose asked in 1989 whether the evidence shows whether the U.S. "is becoming more like other mixed-economy welfare states, or increasingly exceptional." He concluded, "By comparison with other advanced industrial nations America is today exceptional in total public expenditure, in major program priorities, and in the value of public benefits."
The historian Michael Kammen argues that criticisms against the topic were raised in the 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War. According to Kammen, many intellectuals then decided, "The American Adam had lost his innocence and given way to a helpless, tarnished Gulliver." At about the same time, the new social history used statistical techniques on population samples that seemed to show resemblances with Europe on issues such as social mobility. By the 1980s, labor historians were emphasizing that the failure of a workers' party to emerge in the United States meant that America was not exceptionally favorable for workers. By the late 1980s, other academic critics started mocking the extreme chauvinism displayed by the modern usage of exceptionalism. Finally, in the mid-1980s, colonial historians debated the uniqueness of the American experience in the context of British history. On the other hand, Wilentz argued for "distinctively American forms of class conflict," and Foner said there was a "distinctive character of American trade unionism."
The third idea of American exceptionalism, superiority, has been criticized with charges of moral defectiveness and the existence of double standards. In American Exceptionalism and Human Rights (2005), the Canadian commentator Michael Ignatieff treats the idea negatively and identifies three main sub-types: "exemptionalism" (supporting treaties as long as U.S. citizens are exempt from them); "double standards" (criticizing "others for not heeding the findings of international human rights bodies but ignoring what the organizations say of the United States"), and "legal isolationism" (the tendency of U.S. judges to ignore other jurisdictions).
Exceptionalism as "exemptionalism"
During the George W. Bush administration (2001–2009), the term was somewhat abstracted from its historical context. Proponents and opponents alike began using it to describe a phenomenon wherein certain political interests view the United States as being "above" or an "exception" to the law, specifically the law of nations. (That phenomenon is less concerned with justifying American uniqueness than with asserting its immunity to international law.) The new use of the term has served to confuse the topic and muddy the waters since its unilateralist emphasis, and the actual orientation diverges somewhat from prior uses of the phrase. A certain number of those who subscribe to "old-style" or "traditional American exceptionalism," the idea that America is a more nearly exceptional nation than are others and that it differs qualitatively from the rest of the world and has a unique role to play in world history, also agree that the United States is and ought to be entirely subject to and bound by public international law. Indeed, recent research shows that "there is some indication for American exceptionalism among the [U.S.] public, but very little evidence of unilateral attitudes."
On September 12, 2013, in the context of U.S. President Barack Obama's comment about American exceptionalism during his September 10, 2013 talk to the American people while he was considering military action on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized Obama: "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
Critics on the left such as Marilyn Young and Howard Zinn have argued that American history is so morally flawed because of slavery, civil rights, and social welfare issues that it cannot be an exemplar of virtue. Zinn argues that American exceptionalism cannot be of divine origin because it was not benign, especially in dealing with Native Americans.
Donald E. Pease mocks American exceptionalism as a "state fantasy" and a "myth" in his 2009 book The New American Exceptionalism: "Pease notes that state fantasies cannot altogether conceal the inconsistencies they mask, showing how such events as the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and the exposure of government incompetence after Hurricane Katrina opened fissures in the myth of exceptionalism."
The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued that the automatic assumption that America acts for the right will bring about moral corruption although Niebuhr supported America's Cold War policies. His position, "Christian realism," advocated a liberal notion of responsibility that justified interference in other nations.
US historians like Thomas Bender "try and put an end to the recent revival of American exceptionalism, a defect he esteems to be inherited from the Cold War." Gary W. Reichard and Ted Dickson argue "how the development of the United States has always depended on its transactions with other nations for commodities, cultural values and populations." Roger Cohen asks, "How exceptional can you be when every major problem you face, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to gas prices, requires joint action?" Harold Koh distinguishes "distinctive rights, different labels, the 'flying buttress' mentality, and double standards. (…) [T]he fourth face—double standards—presents the most dangerous and destructive form of American exceptionalism." Godfrey Hodgson also concludes that "the US national myth is dangerous". Samantha Power asserts that "we're neither the shining example, nor even competent meddlers. It's going to take a generation or so to reclaim American exceptionalism."
Inconsistent support for democracy
Though the United States has been remarkably democratic, politically stable, and free of war on its soil compared to most European countries, there have been major exceptions, most notably the American Civil War. Even after the abolition of slavery, the federal government ignored the requirements of the Equal Protection Clause with respect to African-Americans during the Jim Crow era, and with respect to women's suffrage until the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920. Though the Guarantee Clause gives Congress the responsibility to ensure a republican form of government in the states, successful white supremacist coups in local governments were tolerated in the Election riot of 1874 and Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. (Many other coup attempts were successfully suppressed.)
The United States military, diplomats, intelligence agencies, and foreign aid have been used to protect democratic regimes in many countries, including many Allies of World War II, First World democracies during the Cold War, and Israel. In its regime change activities, it has also brought democracy to many countries, sometimes by force. These include the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom (which the U.S. later annexed), and the governments and protectorates created in areas defeated in World War I, World War II, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and the 2003 Iraq War. The U.S. victory in the Cold War allowed democracy to spread to many countries in Eastern Europe.
The United States has also sometimes supported the overthrow of democratically elected governments in pursuit of other objectives, typical economic and anti-communist. These include the United States occupation of Nicaragua to prevent or control the construction of a transcontinental canal, the 1913 Mexican coup (against the orders of the President; see United States involvement in the Mexican Revolution), the 1941 coup deposing Arnulfo Arias to secure the Panama Canal, the 1953 Iranian coup d'état, the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état, the 1960 overthrow of Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the 1964 Brazilian coup d'état, and the Dominican Civil War. The United States reversed its previous support for a military junta and restored democracy to Haiti with Operation Uphold Democracy in 1994-95. One study found the United States had interfered with foreign elections 81 times, the most of any country.
In 1898, Pope Leo XIII denounced what he deemed to be the heresy of Americanism in his encyclical Testem benevolentiae nostrae. He targeted American exceptionalism in the ecclesiastical domain and argued that it stood in opposition to papal denunciations of modernism. In the late 19th century, there was a tendency for US Catholic clergy to view American society as inherently different from other Christian nations and to argue that the understanding of Church doctrine had to be enlarged in order to encompass the "American Experience," which included greater individualism, tolerance of other religions, and separation of church and state.
Herbert London defined pre-emptive declinism as a postmodern belief "that the United States is not an exceptional nation and is not entitled by virtue of history to play a role on the world stage different from other nations". London ascribed that view to Paul Krugman and others. Krugman had written in The New York Times, "We have always known that America's reign as the world's greatest nation would eventually end. However, most of us imagined that our downfall, when it came, would be something grand and tragic."
According to RealClearPolitics, declarations of America's declining power have been common in the English-language media. In 1988, Flora Lewis said, "Talk of U.S. decline is real in the sense that the U.S. can no longer pull all the levers of command or pay all the bills." According to Anthony Lewis in 1990, Europeans and Asians are already finding confirmation of their suspicion that the United States is in decline. Citing America's dependence on foreign sources of energy and "crucial weaknesses" in the military, Tom Wicker concluded "that maintaining superpower status is becoming more difficult—nearly impossible—for the United States." In 2004, Patrick Buchanan lamented "the decline and fall of the greatest industrial republic the world had ever seen." In 2007, Matthew Parris of The Sunday Times wrote that the United States is "overstretched," and he romantically recalled the Kennedy presidency, when "America had the best arguments" and could use moral persuasion, rather than force, to have its way in the world. From his vantage point in Shanghai, the International Herald Tribune's Howard French worries about "the declining moral influence of the United States" over an emergent China.
In his book, The Post-American World, Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria refers to a "Post-American world" that he says "is not about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else."
Similarities between US and Europe
In December 2009, historian Peter Baldwin published a book arguing that despite widespread attempts to contrast the "American way of life" and the "European social model," America and Europe are actually very similar in a number of social and economic indices. Baldwin claimed that the black underclass accounts for many of the few areas in which a stark difference exists between the US and Europe, such as homicide and child poverty.
The historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto argues that it be commonly thought that all people consider themselves exceptional. In most cases in which the subject has been broached, the similarities between the conflicting parties outweigh the differences. Things such as the "dynamic wealth creation, the democracy, the accessibility of opportunity, the cult of civil liberty, the tradition of tolerance," and what Fernández-Armesto considers evils such as the materialistic economy, the excessive privileges of wealth, and the selective illiberality are standard features in many modern societies. However, he adds, America is made exceptional by the intensity with which those characteristics are concentrated there.
Differences between the US and Europe
Various commentators have claimed that the United States is different from wealthy countries in Europe in several ways:
- Lack of universal health care
- Lack of gun control
- Mass incarceration
- Lack of a major socialist political party and a generally more capitalist laise-faire economy, especially before the 1930s and substantial anti-statism generally
- Lack of a major party that is in favor of aristocracy and monarchy (like the Tory party in the UK)
- Continued use of the death penalty
- Widespread Christian fundamentalism and entailed beliefs such as support for teaching creationism in schools, opposition to abortion, and opposition to insurance coverage for contraception
- Substantial immigration for its entire history, and a higher proportion of racial minorities, which Jouet claims has reduced support for welfare state policies
- Tolerance for special-interest campaign contributions and lobbying
- Substantial anti-intellectualism, arising in part from Christian fundamentalism
- Substantial climate change denial, arising in part from anti-intellectualism
- Modern use of torture to interrogate terrorists
Effects of American exceptionalism
Critics of American exceptionalism argue that it has led to some of the expansion that is seen during the 18th and 19th centuries in the Americas. Deborah Madsen argued that the effects of American exceptionalism have changed over time, from the annexation of Native American lands then to the ideas of Manifest Destiny (which encompassed the Mexican-American war and the purchases of land in the 19th century).
Madsen also cited Frederick Douglass, a prominent black abolitionist before and during the American Civil War (1861–1865), who argued that the idea of American exceptionalism was absurd because the inherent nature of slavery still existed at the time.
Supporters of American exceptionalism may argue that it is the purpose of the United States to spread democracies to nations that are under tyrannical governments. This can be seen in the contemporary 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
- American decline
- American civil religion
- American imperialism
- Americanism (ideology)
- International rankings of the United States
- Moral equivalence
- Juche (nationalist North Korean state ideology)
- Sonderweg (theory about an exceptional development of German National History)
- Yamato-damashii (Japanese spirit)
- Nihonjinron (Japanese uniqueness)
- Russian Idea (Russian global purpose idea)
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