On American ‘Exceptionalism’

American politicians forever talk about the nation’s “exceptionalism,” a special greatness that sets the U.S.A. apart from all others. But this jingoism requires whitewashing much of U.S. history and ignoring much of the present, too, says Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

Everyone wants to be exceptional, to be special, to be great at something. Parents spend a lot of time assuring their children that they are indeed exceptional, even though they often know that the their offspring will spend their working lives selling mattresses or cars.

When it comes to individuals there is a very wide range of achievements that can make you stand out. Everyone can be exceptional in some way or other. Yet it is not only individuals who need to feel themselves exceptional or great.

Banner for Mitt Romney’s neoconservative foreign policy white paper, “An American Century”

It seems that entire nations, working at some level of collective consciousness, yearn for this status as well. This is particularly true of the citizenry of the USA, who are often told by their politicians that their country is exceptional, special, great the most talented child in the family of nations.

It presently being a political campaign season, one gets these assertions almost daily. Here are some examples:

1. Mitt Romney: “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world.”

Back in the 1960s, when citizens’ ears were more attuned to the country’s sins, the first part of this statement might easily have suggested God’s complicity in genocide. After all, just how was America “created”? Over the dead bodies of innumerable Native Americans. Yet even here Mr. Romney is looking in the wrong direction for American specialness. Colonial massacres were not at all exceptional.

2. Mitt Romney, part II: “I will not surrender America’s role in the world. This is very simple: If you want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am your President.”

Making such a statement begs the question of just what it takes to assure that the U.S. is the “strongest nation on Earth.” Well, the man from Massachusetts gives the recipe in his 2010 book, No Apology: the Case for American Greatness. The recipe: expand American military programs and their funding.

He recommends adding a minimum of 100,000 soldiers to the Marines and Army specifically. He writes as well about updating America’s nuclear stockpile, building a missile defense system and researching into cyber-warfare. Want to be great? Muscle up! As we will see this is a very traditional position.

3. Rick Santorum: To assure that American “exceptionalism” is recognized and promoted, American leaders must a) never suggest that any past policies could have been wrong b) never apologize for anything and c) never suggest that anyone can possibly be as exceptional as we are.

Having gotten that straight, Santorum also goes the muscle up route. American greatness is dependent on recruiting more soldiers because “America is in a war” with evil, which we must learn to recognize for “what it is” like, among other things, “Sharia law.”

It is said that Santorum is “selling himself as a conservative crusader.” However, he sounds like a spoiled child to me, the sort that shouts: “I won’t say I’m wrong! I won’t apologize! I’m better than you are! And if you push me, I’ll call you evil and beat you up!” How great is that?

4. Newt Gingrich: “What makes American exceptionalism different is that we are the only people I know of in history to say power comes directly from God to each one of you, [which means] in America no politician, no bureaucrat, no judge can take those rights away.” Given the history of the United States from slavery through the “war on terror,” someone might want to at least take Newt’s Ph.D. away.

And, despite Thomas Jefferson’s “endowed by their Creator” line in the Declaration of Independence, American rights legally come from the State via the Constitution, which makes no reference to God anywhere but rather to “We the People.” As far as I know Habeas Corpus appears nowhere in the Bible.

The fact that rights come from the state and not God means that, by making up new categories such as “enemy combatants,” the state can (albeit illegally), and indeed has, taken rights away from citizens as well as others. Newt must have been out to lunch when this happened.

As for the assertion that it is only Americans who claim that God directly sends them “power” in the form of rights, it is just plain wrong in another way. Among others, Muslims make this claim when they assert that God is always with the Muslim. He is “closer to you than your own veins” (Quran 50.16). According to the Quran, Allah has delivered rights and obligations to all and, if you heed them, they will put you on the “straight path” to salvation.

5. President Obama also believes in American “exceptionalism.” He talks about the nation’s “unmatched military capability,” the great size of its economy, and “a set of core values” such as free speech that are “enshrined in its Constitution, laws and democratic practices.”

Actually, what makes Obama different than his political foes is not only leaving God out of this, but also his willingness to concede that other countries have exceptional qualities too and that, on occasion, Americans do stupid things for which they should apologize. Maybe coming from an African-American background has something to do with these insights.

Why Are Nations ‘Great’?

Throughout history there has been one major definition for national greatness (or exceptionalism) and that is great military power. As we see, all the mentioned politicians pick up on this theme and those challenging Obama want more troops, more missiles, more nukes.

It has long been this way. Why were the Romans great? Conquest. Why was France under Napoleon exceptional? Conquest. Why was the British Empire great? Conquest. And why is America exceptional? The capacity to force much of the world to its will.

Oh, there are other things people sometimes mention: Roman law and great architecture; the Napoleonic Code and freeing the Jews from their ghettos; England making the seas safe from pirates and introducing the world to Indian food; and finally, when it comes to the U.S., there is that multifaceted thing called “freedom.”

But all that is really secondary. The first and foremost historical criterion for national greatness is: going out, hitting your neighbor over the head and stealing his stuff. That is why “great powers” are great.

Here are some achievements other than military might and conquest that ought to have a higher claim on national greatness or “exceptionalism”:

1. The ability to eliminate hunger among citizens.

2. The ability to provide decent housing for all citizens.

3. The ability to provide healthcare for all citizens.

4. The ability to provide affordable education for all citizens.

5. The ability to provide citizens with productive work at a living wage.

The nation that can provide these primary needs for its people is well on its way to greatness. Indeed, the other things that Americans so value, such as freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights or even the right to vote, are only fully convincing as “inalienable rights” when you are not chronically hungry and your kids aren’t dying of curable diseases.

That doesn’t mean that they are not important and should not be fought for, it just means that rights come in the form of an hierarchical package and the American package is incomplete.

The sound bite versions of greatness or “exceptionalism” that come from our politicians are so superficial and decontextualized as to be meaningless. They are the verbal equivalent of that little hammer doctors use to make your lower leg jump forward. Sure, they get a response, but do you really know what it all means?

Then again many Americans just can’t see beyond the big army, big navy (ah, those Navy Seals), and big air force. Guns, guns, guns, that is the traditional, historical road to greatness. Just read a bit of history. All the rest is fluff.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

12 comments for “On American ‘Exceptionalism’

  1. WiseFather
    March 6, 2012 at 15:00

    American Exceptionalism is the puffery used to excuse misadventure abroad and inaction at home. In a recent post I analyze the American Exceptionalism concept and contrast it with a healthy patriotism that could help unite the public against those few who are ruining America. http://www.ragingwisdom.com/?p=629

  2. Vierotchka
    March 6, 2012 at 11:42

    With regard to the five achievements listed other than military might and conquest that ought to have a higher claim on national greatness or “exceptionalism”, there are several countries that qualify, among them we find Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Switzerland. These countries also have very socialistic tendencies.

  3. Bob Loblaw
    March 4, 2012 at 17:46

    “Free Thinking” is entirely subjective.

    The primary answer when a “Patriot” is asked why America is so great is that we are “free”.

    Never mind, most patriots’ ideas of freedom depend upon an exceptional America. The white hat riding in to save the damsel as he slays whatever villain is in question. This sacred idea is behind approval of American conquest and plunder for United Fruit, Standard Oil from a century ago to the Halliburtons, GE, Boeing, and Rands of today.

    When confronted with historical facts, these freedom loving peoples automatically dismiss such silly “propaganda” as antiAmericanism, hatred of America invites suggestions to just leave.

    But free thoughts are scarce amongst the loyal American because of this filter we all learned in our history classes.

    Free thoughts are weeded out. How many of us just pull up at a red light, without thinking, nobody within miles/ blocks, and we wait for that light to cycle and give us permission to proceed?

    I’m not suggesting that we all ignore red lights, I just ask, are you consciously deciding to follow the light’s instructions or are you just a robot obeying without calculation?

    How great are we if we wait and wait for a decent signal for cel phone functions? Many many poorer nations have optimized service that would have those customers impatient and disappointed.

  4. Dan S.
    March 4, 2012 at 09:51

    I’d like to comment on Mitt Romney’s statement that “America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world.” The fact is, the men who actually founded this nation said exactly the opposite. The very first sentence of our Declaration of Independence declares the intention for the United States “to assume among the Powers of the Earth the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”. An EQUAL place AMONG the “Powers of the Earth”. Imagine that.

    And yes, I love David Hamilton’s satirical comment, especially since, at one time, it could have been said seriously.

    • David Hamilton
      March 5, 2012 at 20:58

      Thanks, and yes it could have at one time been said seriously. I was pretending to be naive. My point was to show how far we have gotten away from the original things that did set us apart from other nations. One could say that we are the complete opposite now.

  5. Roger Thomas
    March 4, 2012 at 07:16

    David Hamilton’s sarcasm graphically described the delusion from which most Americans suffer. Just because you have the vote, you believe that it means you are in a democracy whereas the reality is the you are in a ‘plutocracy’, and manipulated by mainly the wealthy Zionist Americans and by their control of your media. Their first loyalty is to Israel not to the USA. So much for the ‘land of the free’ with Zionists determining those who will take the reins of power and instructing you on your foreign policy.

    Sure, you have might and have abused your military strength to devastate several countries and slay hundreds of thousands of innocents and you still think that God saves America – check that out in your afterlife.

    Your government prefers to bankrupt itself wasting billions on warfare whilst leaving a huge underclass of impoverished and hopeless citizens. How many trillions of dollars are you in hock for with the Chinese, the soon-to-be replacement superpower? Yep, you sure are great and exceptional.

  6. March 2, 2012 at 21:16

    David, your belief that we are a free thinking people flies in the face of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by business and political interests each year to guide us to those “free thoughts” of which you seem so proud. Your belief is an illusion that demonstrates one of the most often used logical fallacies – Compliment the Consumer. If you are interested in learning about some fundamental political propaganda techniques, take a look at http://www.propagandacritic.com/

    If you want to read about the philosophical origins of the development of political and business propaganda in the US, read Edward L. Bernays’ 1928 brief but beautifully written masterpiece, Propaganda. http://books.google.com/books?id=JlcPgPt17KcC&printsec=frontcover&dq=bernays+propaganda&hl=en&sa=X&ei=A29RT8TDKMbL0QH7hNA9&ved=0CDoQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=bernays%20propaganda&f=false

    Chapter 1 of Propaganda begins,

    “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

    “We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together in a smoothly functioning society.”

    • Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake
      March 3, 2012 at 11:52

      Gee, Bill Chapman, don’t you get it? Mr. Hamilton was being satirical and ironic. The big signal was taking Prez. Bush’s phrase, “I am the decider,” and using it for all Americans. Read more closely, won’t you?

  7. David Hamilton
    March 2, 2012 at 19:27

    I think we are great because we don’t go overseas in search of monsters to destroy; yet, our heart is with the oppressed and wishes them well.

    And we have this great government structure of checks and balances – better than the Romans and the Florentines – that limits powers of individuals and self-interested groups, that prevents rulers and groups of bad men from lording it over us! We are free! We are the deciders! (indirectly of course, but still). No thing has any power over the free thinking of we the people.

    • weaver
      March 3, 2012 at 04:21

      Excellent satire, Mr Hamilton.

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