Last week I was having a discussion with a conservative friend who started asking me about what I believed about American exceptionalism. I had heard the phrase several times, mostly from a conservative pundit or politician so I kind of put it away in that box. When my friend started asking me about it, and describing it from his understanding, I said that I can agree with that.
It was an odd experience and I have spent some time reflecting on it over the past week or so. I never thought about American exceptionalism, per se. I am a citizen of the United States, and proud of it. I think my country is a great nation with an amazing history that I support with passion and gratitude. But that does not mean I am a blind-supporter of what my country has done when it was wrong! To admit that my country has made mistakes is not to denigrate the country, nor is it to diminish the great things about the United States. (And a note- my friend was not suggesting that. This is in my reflection, not his.)
So I went an looked up this idea to see a little more about it.
The theory of the exceptionalism of the U.S. can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the country as "exceptional" in 1831 and 1840. Interestingly enough, it's "contemporary" use began when the American Communist Party used the idea to say that the United States was "independent of the Marxist laws of history" since it has so many resources, etc.
Scottish historian writing in the Political Science Quarterly said:
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.Sure, makes sense. Part of the uniqueness of the United States is our very size, location, and incredible diversity of natural and human resources. We are, as I commented to my friend, a political experiment that began in 1776. We have been working at a unique and, at the time, entirely new system.
In recent years, it appears, that this idea of American exceptionalism has become one of those "buzzwords" or litmus tests for conservatives. So here is what I found as some definitions, from Wikipedia's summary:
American exceptionalism is one of three related ideas:
- The first is that the history of the United States is inherently different from other nations. In this view, American exceptionalism stems from its emergence from the American Revolution, thereby becoming what political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called "the first new nation” and developing a uniquely American ideology, "Americanism", based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy and laissez-faire for business. …
- Second is the idea that America has a unique mission to transform the world. As Abraham Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg address (1863), Americans have a duty to see that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
- Third is the sense that its history and its mission give the United States a superiority over other nations.
More from Wikipedia summary:
Although the term does not necessarily imply superiority, many neoconservative and other American conservative writers have promoted its use in that sense. … To them, the U.S. is like the biblical "City upon a Hill"—a phrase evoked by British colonists to North America as early as 1630—and exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.With this in mind, I understand a little more of the problem with this phrase and its use in our political culture. Too often it has indicated a "superiority" or perhaps more clearly, the "inferiority" of other countries. This approach has seemed to me to take the positive idea of exceptionalism or uniqueness and turn it into a political talking point. It turns us away from a sense of humility and gratitude toward a grandiosity and, dare I use it, an entitlement. We deserve this because we are the United States of America!
Yes, I will be accused of taking the extremes of this phrase and turning it against it. But sadly that is what has been happening. American exceptionalism, as an idea or even ideology, is used in its extreme as a way of denying the point of view of those who disagree with the people using the phrase. It goes to a sense that I remember only too well from the 60s- America- love it or leave it. Of course, "loving it" was defined as doing whatever the leadership was telling you to do.
It also takes another famous quote, this one from Stephen Decatur and Wisconsin-related Carl Schurz and turns it around:
"My country, right or wrong." In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.The quote, used as a hammer or wedge in the 60s stopped at the first part, ignoring the second.
In reality it is the amazing ability of this country to work with such diverse and complicated disagreements and work toward agreement or compromise. It is the democratic and republic idea that allows us to go from a nation where only white, male, landowners could vote, to all men and then former slaves (male only) being given the right, and then women (less that 100 years ago!) and, in my era, 18-year olds. It went from an almost aristocratic view of the Senate to a directly-elected body. It developed a separation of powers, advise and consent, political parties that meant something, and a place where freedoms are cherished and built into the governmental, political, and cultural life.
That this ideal, begun almost 250 years ago has survived as it has is amazing, unique, and, yes, exceptional.
But it does not make us immune to the difficulties of other nations not does it, as is often implied, make us exempt from historical pressures that can, and very likely will, someday bring about significant changes. The real test of American exceptionalism will probably not be seen for another 50- 100 years as major world-wide changes will impact the United States. As long as we were able to be as physically separate as we are from the rest of the world, it was easier.
Perhaps that is one of the ongoing debates that this year's election is highlighting again- we are, even in whatever uniqueness or exceptionalism we may have- still a nation among nations. We do not have a special mandate from God to change the world as such. We are perhaps to be a beacon of hope and light. We are having difficulty with some of that. Some of our political leaders on ALL sides are using these issues for their own advancement.
Yet I have a strong belief that the American system, unique and yet flawed, flexible and yet strong, will be able to work through this. I believe this because I also know that the American people can be reasonable and willing to work through issues if given the chance. In addition the stubborn yet focused ability to wrestle with right and wrong and often make the better decision is very much a part of who we are.
This election season has a long, long way to go. It has been a circus sideshow and a horse race and a snowstorm of hateful soundbites. Yet I have a hunch that the American people will prevail over all the politicians and special interests to continue to make the American experiment work.