American Exceptionalism

liberty skittishIs America exceptional? Listen to any politician and the answer must be YES! Apparently one of the requirements to run for office is a willingness to say that America is the greatest nation ever, the most wonderful place on earth. Republican contenders for their party’s Presidential nomination have recently been polishing their exceptionalist credentials.

Rick Perry’s campaign website says, “Rick Perry will restore confidence in the American Dream and American Exceptionalism.” His campaign book, “Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington” (2010), proclaims that Americans are “a people blessed by the Almighty”. Mitt Romney writes in “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness” (2010) that the US is “the world’s leading nation”. Hermann Cain is behind in the polls, so he may need even stronger words. In The American Spectator, March 2011, he wrote: “There is no denying it: America is the greatest country in the world.” Then he repeats the sentence a few lines later.

President Obama offered a different view at a press conference in 2009: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Perry in “Fed Up” comments sarcastically on this statement, and says, “America is unique in its greatness”. Romney also criticized Obama’s statement in his book, saying it means that Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism at all. For conservatives, only Americans can rightfully be exceptionalists.

Throughout our history, Americans have claimed exceptional status for our country. John Winthrop, the Puritan leader, thought of his version of America as a “City upon a Hill”: the Puritans of New England would serve as a model for the rest of the world. As a conscious creation of settlers from many countries, a new nation with an unprecedented Constitution, the US was a exceptional nation. But what about now?

Last week I happened to be taking 11 international students to the Lincoln Museum in Springfield and thinking about what American exceptionalism might mean to them. I have been trying to explain my homeland to Africans, Asians, and Europeans. The US is very different from their home countries: for example, our farms and cars and houses are enormous compared to what they are used to. In those ways, every country is exceptional, with different languages, customs, history and economy. When does exceptional mean better?

As we might expect, the stronger the statements about America as the greatest nation, the more ignorance or disdain is displayed about the rest of the world. It is much more difficult to proclaim that the US is best after getting to know another country. Living elsewhere confronts you with two uncomfortable truths.

The first is that other people’s ways of doing things might actually be better than our own. The Germans and the Chinese have better train systems. The Dutch and the Scandinavians are far better at teaching languages to school children. Many peoples are more hospitable to strangers and we have the highest per capita rate of murders with firearms of any industrialized country. To say “America is the greatest” begs the question, “At what?”

A second truth is that Obama is right: each people sees their own country and culture as exceptional and exceptionally good. It makes no sense to argue for American exceptionalism with a Nigerian or a Swede. They might agree that our buildings are taller or our per capita income higher, but then ask, “So what?” Any claim that we are better people, more moral or more happy or more just, will provoke an argument without end.

American exceptionalism is dangerous. The desire to proclaim superiority leads to stupidity, such as Perry’s claim in “Fed Up” that the US has “the best health care system in the world.” It leads to attempts to hide any possible flaws, especially the most embarrassing ones, like our violent denial of Constitutional rights to black Americans through most of our history or our enormous prison population. Exceptionalism of the “We are the greatest” variety is an adult form of the elementary school boast, “My father can beat up your father.”

Steve HochstadtLeaving arrogance and ignorance aside, it is worth thinking about what is exceptional about the US. Our exceptional flaws should provoke us to seek corrections. Our exceptional virtues, such as our ability to challenge authority, our free press, our system of higher education, and our wide variety of good beers, can be sources of pride.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

Published by the LA Progressive on August 30, 2011
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."