On American Exceptionalism

Image via Joanne Bamberger/All rights reserved

Every once in a while I hear the phrase “American Exceptionalism.” It’s usually used in the context of one politician tearing another down by saying that they don’t believe in it. The inference there is that the speaker does believe in American Exceptionalism and is therefore a better American because he or should wont tolerate criticism of America.

This always makes my head hurt.

According to Wikipedia, American Exceptionalism “refers to the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other countries.” Since that idea was first presented by Alexis de Touqueville, I think it’s fair to say that he was right. At that time. Now? I dunno. Maybe. Probably. Or not. I’ve never lived anywhere else so I can’t say if other places are better or worse, other peoples better or worse. I do think it’s a bit arrogant to assume one nation is the best one simply by virtue of having been born there. And claiming unilateral exceptionalism with no qualification of America’s flaws is simply intellectually dishonest.

If you had to ask me to give an example of American Exceptionalism, I would be able to give an instant, unhesitant answer: on September 11, 2001, Americans acted exceptionally. On that dreadful, frightening day, as we all struggled to make sense of the tragedy, we didn’t riot, loot, or hoard. Instead, thousands upon thousands of Americans lined up to give blood. Americans gave of themselves and waited for what each minute of that day would bring. It was remarkable. I tear up just thinking about it.

I have a harder time coming up with another example as clear as that one. Which is why I wonder, are we really exceptional among the human race? Or are we a flawed nation with the promise of being exceptional when the opportunity arises?

Americans created the cotton gin, the assembly line, the automobile, the airplane, the nuclear bomb, chemotherapy, and the Internet. All of that is exceptional. But American history is also riddled with racism, sexism, homophobia, class inequality, corrupt politics, and unequal distribution of resources of all kinds. That is not exceptional. That is exactly the same set of issues that every society has faced since the dawn of civilization .

So are we exceptional or not? Are we in a decline? Are we rising to new heights? Is being American something to be proud of or just an accident of birth?

And does being proud of America matter?

It is possible to see the flaws in a landscape and still long to beautify it. Unconditional pride and acceptance are not always virtues. In fact, they could be seen as failings in a situation such as this. Like the parent who beams as their child tears apart the department store, smiling blindly on a flawed nation leaves one unable to seize opportunities for improvement.  Some of the most exceptional Americans knew that: Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., and FDR all come to mind.

Just as the doctor who understands disease hasn’t lost faith in the human body’s abilities, a citizen who understands America’s weak points probably hasn’t lost faith in America’s ability to be exceptional. Demonizing the politician or the pundit or the blogger who points out areas for social improvement as being a non-believer in American Exceptionalism, really says more about the intractable nature of the the critic. And a nation of intractable critics unwilling to work to improve our nation? Would be an unexceptional America indeed.


  • I think it’s probably beneficial for people to be patriotic and proud to be an American. If we’re not what does that say about us? That we lack identity or self-esteem as a people? In my opinion American Exceptionalism doesn’t hold that we are a superior race (That would or people be Naziism or White Supremacy or Black Supremacy). I think it is an idea that compels us to drive ourselves forward, push ourselves to a new and more progressive place.

    The most exceptional thing that America has done for the entire world is to invent Democracy through a Constitution born of rebellion against the status quo of the old world though a Great Compromise. Our system, though tedious and frustrating works. We criticize the government because we WANT our country to be so exceptional as to do better. We fought to end slavery because we wanted to be better. We ended segregation because we wanted to be better. When you know better you do better. We’re a young country, toddlers really, and we take a lot of bold risks with new ideas and we try new things. Trying new things and taking bold risks as an enormous Democratic entity means we’re inevitably going to fall down a little and that’s OK. Because we keep getting back up and striving to be more exceptional than we were yesterday or last decade.

    As a result of our Great Experiment, Democracy has spread over the Earth, bringing more economic and political stability than the world has ever known. It has freed other peoples from Fascist Governments, Communist Governments, Caste Systems, slavery, cruelty, inhumane treatment and governments that commit heinous crimes, even genocide, against their own people.

    Is it perfect? No. Is it working? Yes. Does it make us exceptional? Absolutely. And we continue and will continue to be more and more exceptional. Which is kind of awesome.

  • Thanks Rebekah Kuschmider for the share

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