American Exceptionalism

While waiting in a hotel lobby to meet a friend for lunch, I read a front-page article from USA Today: “Obama and America’s Place in the World.”  The article talks about the way President Obama addresses questions of American exceptionalism and Republican attempts to capitalize on this in order to paint the President as un-American, without having to use those words.

American exceptionalism, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a belief that the country is unique and exceptional in comparison to other countries.  Historically, it did not mean that America was better than other countries, but in the past few years the term has been coopted by those who would like to give that meaning to the phrase. 

British writer G.K. Chesterton noted in a 1922 essay, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence…”  The Declaration’s introduction defines this ideology as liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.

The ammunition used by those who believe that President Obama is un-American doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, is his response in April 2009 (his opponents have to go back twenty months to dig up dirt on him, it seems) to a question by a British journalist about whether America is uniquely qualified to lead the world:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

This strikes me, a passport-holding American who has traveled widely and has spent more than five years living overseas, as a tremendously reasonable, level-headed statement.

What also strikes me, as an American who has seen the way many countries in the world are rapidly moving from “developing nation” to “developed nation” status, is that no amount of arguing how exceptional we are or aren’t is going to help us compete in the 21st century.

Discussing the growth of China with a friend who recently spent two years working in Shanghai, he noted that in just the past few years, China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network (already some 4,600 miles), and they are on track to have as much as 16,000 miles built by 2020.  Compare this to America’s infrastructure, which the American Society of Civil Engineers currently grades as a “D” and will require more than $2 trillion to repair.

Is America exceptional?  No doubt it is.  But the issue isn’t whether we are exceptional or not, it’s whether we are willing to do the work necessary to remain exceptional in the century to come. 

I think all of our mothers taught us that it is immodest to brag.  We may well be the smartest kid in class (or at least want to think we are), but announcing it to our peers rather than spending our time studying for the next test is the surest way to become the schoolyard dummy.  That’s a form of exceptionalism, too, but not one that I suspect any of us want to bequeath to our future generations.

What say you?

Related to this: do you remember the bruhaha surrounding a photo of President Obama reading a copy of the very insightful book “The Post-American World?”  Blog entry from September 2009 about it.

0 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism

  1. I definitely agree with you on this issue. To brag about American exceptionalism and just chanting that USA is #1 is really going to get the country nowhere. It is a lot more constructive to find what weaknesses America has and find ways to resolve, even if this means learning from “the enemy”.For example, the US really needs to learn from China how to have better math education. I agree with the Chinese that no one is allowed to use calculators of any kind until university.

  2. Saying something is easy. Backing up what you say is difficult. In the case of American exceptionalism or any-other-country exceptionalism, the country must take action in order to keep us where we’re at now. Simply saying that we’re awesome and we’re fit to lead is about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.

  3. i definitely agree with your assessment regarding american exceptionalism. i think that, right now, the nation is at a point where they just cannot sustain the lifestyle of abundance that they’ve become known for with the current industries at hand. so essentially what we have is a glut of redundancy on the technological level with scarce government backing for ventures that would otherwise give rise to new avenues of productivity. this, i feel, goes hand in hand with the social attitudes regarding exceptionalism; americans trumpeting what they’ve achieved. after all, while many of the world’s technologies could arguably claim to have roots outside of america, it was america’s unparalleled ability to perfect and mass produce these technologies that enabled it to flourish in the first place. as for obama’s statement, i won’t go into specifics but i will say that i think the un-american slant on him from other politicians, and from myself, is that he doesn’t want to acknowledge….america BEING the natural evolution from british and greek exceptionalism. i don’t know if you recall a post i wrote about “half-education”. in it, i talked about traditions that our civilization was based on. my real problem with obama (and let me preface this by saying i do IMMENSELY respect his power as our president, and I IMMENSELY admire him as a person) is that he seems to want to veer, or even repulse these traditions from what appears to be a culturally based intent.

  4. this is but one well travelled British-Canadian’s view on this ….americans I have met – and lived among at our condo in Florida – are exceptional in their belief the american way is both the best and only way to operate. their utter self-centredness and evangeical zeal to impose their perception on how we should live is certainly exceptional among all peoples I have met in my travels. america remains a nation firmly in decline and I’m not convinced relying on its exceptionalism is a healthy or productive paradigm

  5. The company I work for is one of these multi-nationals with offices in many countries and the “head office” in US. We joke that everytime a global program, standard or initiative is launched, we know that it is from the US head office and likely without any input from other countries. I think you have a broader view than most people because of your travels and also of your keen interest in seeking diverse inputs and perspectives. I look at Americans with a mixture of respect and disappointment and anger. I respect the innovation and initiative. I am disappointed with your country’s politics (the ongoing shift to the right and religious zeal that accompanies this) and the lack of inclusiveness and the alarming concentration of wealth. I am angry with the increasing sense of entitlement.

  6. AMERICA IS NUMBER 1!!! We must be because we win the World Series EVERY year!I agree with the article. Being an American who has traveled quite a bit more than most Americans–from the first world to the third world. I honestly feel that America has completely lost its way. It seems as a country we can’t get anything done anymore because everyone’s worried about someone else’s feelings and by our own lack of drive to get anything done right. America is fast becoming a wasteland. Crime is increasing fast, the economy is in the toilet, and with the Patriot Act and the DHS, is quickly resembling a police state.I noticed something when I was in Taipei. On SF Gate, notice how many shootings and killings are reported on there in 1 week. The day before I left, there was reported rape of a 2! year old. Yes that’s right 2 years old. The big news story of the day I arrived in Taipei…a teen caught illegally selling pens on the Metro. Where would you prefer to live?

  7. I have to agree with you. I have traveled a lot and find that we make horrible tourist outside our own Country. I was ashamed to tell some of the natives of different countries in Europe that I was an American as I watched the actions of my countrymen. Believing we are number one is dangerous as it allows people to rest on their laurels which we all know is poison ivy or oak. How do you wake up a country?

  8. Thank you to everyone for your contribution to this discussion. I’m curious to hear some arguments in favor of American exceptionalism.@Bodhiseeker –  @everyday_yogi –  Education is one area where the US seems to be floundering. In some states we are teaching the un-science of creationism and our universities hand out advanced degrees to foreign students who we then push out of the country, inviting them to take their learning back to their home countries instead of staying in the US to help start the next “new thing”.@TheCheshireGrins – “As useful as a screen door on a submarine.” I love it! =D@ThePrince –  How long ago was your post on that subject? Could you send me a link, please? I’d like to read it.@AppsScraps –  @ElusiveWords –  I’m glad you provided some north of the border perspective. Perhaps more than anyone, our neighbors in Canada are in a good place to view – and scratch their heads at – the antics of Americans.@LostSock21 –  The one exception I would take to your point is that crime actually has been in decline for the past two decades. Here are the FBI statistics that back that up. As for your question about where I would live other than the US, the answer remains Thailand for now, by virtue of Tawn being an only child whose parents are getting older. However, if his parents were not a consideration and the US remained closed to us as a married couple, Canada would be the most likely choice. But the broader point worth making is that I don’t want to live somewhere other than the US; I want to help move the US in a positive direction, to help it compete for the 21st century.@Fatcat723 –  My hope is that discussions like this will help to wake the country up.@tenshii_rage –  Got to be number-one in something! =D

  9. Excellent post Chris. I wish I could recommend it, but xanga is not allowing me that privilege. I agree with cheshiregrins one hundred percent.America considers itself number one… and americans are under that misconception that they are number one. But when you travel and see the strides that other nations like India and China have made and continue to make, you wonder then where all the big american dreams went.

  10. Great discussion. I think that the politicians need to stop snapping at each other and take a good hard look at the state of our nation. I’m not sure that any one plan is the best but we can’t just stand around finger pointing. If we are to maintain any shred of respect and credibility with other nations we need to DO instead of argue. As my grandmother would say, “Pee or get off the pot”

  11. @ThePrince – Thanks for the link Michael.  I recall reading it but not really understanding what you were trying to say.  And since comments weren’t enabled…Could you give me an example of how President Obama doesn’t want to acknowledge America being the natural evolution from British and Greek exceptionalism?  I’d like to understand what you mean by that but don’t think I do.

  12. @ZSA_MD – Unfortunate that Xanga doesn’t want to let you recommend posts.  Perhaps you’ve had your recommending privileges pulled?  Ha ha…  It seems the natural order of the world is that things that get too big or too successful ultimately become complacent.  Will Americans realize that past performance is not a guarantee of future success and make the necessary changes?  I hope so…@murisopsis – I wrote my Senators this week asking them to vote in favor of the proposed reforms to the fillibuster.  While they are both Republicans and I suspect won’t agree, I wanted them to know that this endless process of holding legislation and nominations hostage and not even allowing debate to begin is unproductive and I will hold them responsible if they don’t start working constructively towards governing.

  13. great points, chris. based on my decade long living in USA, it’s always been my understanding that americans are proud to be americans. it is great to see citizens taking a stand and owning their citizenship. how i would wish more of them like that here in my own country. that said, the drawback of such proudness is that the people in general tend to think nothing else but America, with little interest on anything beyond the outskirts of their own homeland. but i can see now that the lack of interests has diminished quite a bit in the past say 5 years. today’s generation is a lot more global minded than those who have proceeded them in generations. as time passes and changes, so will the prosperity and power of countries. in the past, USA has always been the one who right up there on just about anything. their music, food and culture have filtered into other nations and been accepted willingly. now i think is the time where we may have to consider a possibility that USA may no longer be the one to look up to. other growing nations are rising to the challenge and able to push their identity and power to a point that the rest of the world takes notice.i think it is only natural for a nation’s reputation to rise and fall as it always does if we look at history. the question is, will the people of America be willing to embrace the fact that they are not alone and the country does need to be in sync with the rest of the world in order to survive, instead of keep thinking that they are and will always be no.1.

  14. @rudyhou – And right there, you elegantly capture the question at the heart of the matter: Are Americans willing to embrace the fact that they are not alone and need to be in sync with the rest of the world?

  15. i’m also jumping on the agreement bandwagon. i’ve never liked the whole “we’re better than you” attitude, especially when it doesn’t carry as much weight anymore. it just makes everyone else “less than” and provides all manner of excuses. @TheCheshireGrins – “like”

  16. I believe in American exceptionalism. Do I believe that just because we are America we are exceptional, no. America has been, and can continue to be exceptional because it is a nation of free men, men who are there own masters. We are not tied down by the government, creativity is valued, and the free will of American individuals is praised and charrished. America is great because we make it great.  America was exceptional in the past, America is exceptional now, how are we going to ensure that it remains exceptional into the future?

  17. @obamawatch –  Thanks for your comment. My hope is that we will ensure it remains exceptional by engaging in robust but respectful debate, trying to get past the sound bytes so we can understand issues that are inherently more complex (immigration, health care, entitlements, infrastructure, defense, education, etc.), and by actively participating in our democracy by being informed, speaking with others in our community – including those with different opinions than us, and by voting. How’s that sound?

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