American exceptionalism

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See also: American nationalism

American exceptionalism is, for the purposes of this article, a political philosophy that the United States, as opposed to the majority of nations, was created based on shared ideology rather than shared history. American nationalism is a subset of this belief system, a subset that affects national conduct. It can be argued if distinguishing between exceptionalism and nationalism is meaningful, but that is the assumption here.

Historically, the term was defined by Alexis de Tocqueville. "...qualitatively different from all other countries," and based on the values of that creed as liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics.[1] Not all agree with his principles, especially egalitarianism. [2]

Seymour Martin Lipset observed that the U.S. is based on a shared creed rather, than as most nations, a shared history. He quoted G.K. Chesterton as saying that creed is "set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the U.S. Declaration of Independence." [3] Others, including Samuel Huntington and Gunnar Myrdal, add to that creed democracy, the rule of law, and general "progress."[4]

Elaborating on shared creed versus shared history, he mentioned Winston Churchill's opposition to banning the Communist Party:

Winston Churchill once gave vivid evidence to the difference between a national identity rooted in history and one defined by ideology in objecting to a proposal in 1940 to outlaw the anti-war Communist Party. In a speech in the House of Commons, Churchill said that as far as he knew, the Communist Party was composed of Englishmen and he did not fear an Englishman. In Europe, nationality is related to community, and thus one cannot become un-English or un-Swedish. Being an American, however, is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are un-American.

Current political use

A number of contemporary conservatives define it as essential to their view of America, often putting it in the context of Barack Obama not believing in it. Newt Gingrich said the President does not understand "American exceptionalism refers directly to the grant of rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence," and that it is a term "which relates directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God." In a Financial Times interview, Obama said

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional...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.

Sarah Palin countered in her book, Going Rogue, "Maybe President Obama grew up around coaches who insisted that all the players receive participation 'trophies' at the end of the season and where no score was kept in youth soccer games for fear of offending someone . . . when President Obama insists that all countries are exceptional, he's saying that none is, least of all the country he leads."

"With a more intellectual sheen than the false assertions that Obama is secretly a Muslim or that he was born in Kenya, an argument over American exceptionalism "is a respectable way of raising the question of whether Obama is one of us," said William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution."[5]

It is a basic assumption of the Tea Party movement.

International effects

Given global communications, attitudes, as presented to the world, can produce reactions. While Benjamin Barrett, in Jihad vs. McWorld[6], deals with Westernization and globalization rather than explicitly American values, the point of cultural communication is well made. Kohut and Stokes, writing for the Pew Research Center, certainly do not deny there is Japanese exceptionalism and Argentinian exceptionalism, to take two examples. These forms of exceptionalism do not present a unique problem because even Japan's economic power is not as wide-reaching as the difference produced by the magnification of American attitudes by the many dimensions of American power. The Falklands War did not have the impact of the Iraq War.

When they write "others often resent those differences," they refer to attitudes. [7] They suggest three main forms of American exceptionalism "that shape both the ways that U.S. citizens look at the world and the ways that the world looks at them", although they agree the categories are not exhaustive:

  • "Misunderstood exceptionalism -- American values and attitudes that many in the United States as well as abroad regard as part of the problem, though there is little evidence to support this contention.
  • "Conditional exceptionalism -- Aspects of the American character that are distinctive, but not so much that they are destined to consistently divide the American people from the rest of the world. These include values and attitudes that are products of the times or subject to the course of events and the influence of American leadership.
  • "Problematic exceptionalism -- How Americans view themselves, their country, and the world in ways that reflect potentially unbridgeable, persistent gaps in opinions on important issues.

Misunderstood exceptionalism

Outside the U.S., some of the major concerns are "religiosity" and "nationalism".

According to a 2003 article in The Economist, [8] only one thing unsettles George Bush's critics more than the possibility that his foreign policy is secretly driven by greed. That is the possibility that it is secretly driven by God….War for oil would merely be bad. War for God would be catastrophic." While the Obama Administration is not overtly religion-driven, the Christian Right is still highly visible, and internal and external perceptions of it may well vary.

Concern about religiosity may confirm existing prejudices, such as that the U.S. is on a systematic war against Islam. Traditional strong U.S. support for the State of Israel, including Christian Zionism, is certainly an issue with both pragmatic and propagandistic aspects.

Kohut and Stokes say "nothing is more vexing to foreigners than Americans' belief that America is a shining city on a hill -- a place apart where a better way of life exists, one to which all other peoples should aspire. ... Americans also hold a number of other attitudes that mitigate their nationalism." The misconception part here refers to polling data that shows that despite the statements of some politicians, "Americans' pride in their country is not evangelistic. The American people, as opposed to some of their leaders, seek no converts to their ideology." Polls indicate that democracy promotion is not a widespread goal of the average American, although American security is important. Only 31 percent agreed with George W. Bush's point, in the 2005 State of the Union address, in which building democracy in the Middle East should be a major goal of U.S. foreign policy. " Their real priorities were preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and maintaining U.S. military power, not planting the flag of American-style democracy in far-away places."

Conditional exceptionalism

The "American Creed" does conflict with the ideas in other societies. However, they also contain two immense flaws, which are indeed implicit in the term "creed."[7]

  • They are fertilizer for a demagogic appeal, a messianic belief
  • "precisely because they are so universally held within America, they contribute to a national conformism that both limits debate within America and in some respects cuts America off from the outside world."

Problematic exceptionalism

"The world's biggest complaint about the United States is that Washington too often acts unilaterally, without concern for the interests of others. Certainly the American public is ambivalent about multilateralism, running hot and cold on whether the United States should cooperate with allies or adopt a go-it-alone approach." [7]

Also, Kohut and Stokes express concern with the rhetoric of "taking back" America and restoring an older, purer American society", expressed by certain American conservatives, often but not necessarily linked to the Republican Party (United States) and the Christian Right. It "reflects the continuing conservative religiosity of many Americans; it has also, however, always been an expression of social, economic, and ethnic anxieties." That this is not universal, however, is evidenced in the current restructuring of the U.S. political right.

Another dimension is not true American exceptionalism, but "big power" exceptionalism, such as being one of the five declared states with nuclear weapons or one of the permanent "veto"-bearing members of the United Nations Security Council. One delicate negotiation added Russia to what was then the Group of Seven economically powerful nations.


  1. Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy In America, vol. 1 (of 2), Project Gutenberg
  2. William J. Murphy, Jr., "Alexis de Tocqueville in New York: The Formulation of the Egalitarian Thesis." New York Historical Society Quarterly 61 (January/April 1977): 69–79
  3. Seymour Martin Lipset (1996), American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Washington Post
  4. Anatol Lieven (March 2004), "In the Mirror of Europe: The Perils of American Nationalism", Current History, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  5. Karen Tumulty (28 November 2010), "American exceptionalism: an old idea and a new political battle", Washington Post
  6. Benjamin Barber (1996), Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World, Ballantine, ISBN 034538304
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes (9 May 2006), The Problem of American Exceptionalism: Our values and attitudes may be misunderstood, but they have consequences on the world scene, Pew Researcher for the Public and the Press
  8. "God and American Diplomacy," The Economist (premium content), 6 February 2003 quoted by Kohut and Stokes