America's Exception Deception

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

In a democracy, politicians seldom counsel the public to be modest. They flatter and praise the voters, telling them that they are just and wise, hardworking and principled, possessed of boundless vision and common sense. And here in America at least, they also generalize those virtues from the people to the nation itself. America, Americans are endlessly reassured, is unique and special among the world's countries. It isn't just that we're the most important country, which is undeniable, since we have the biggest economy, the biggest (and most frequently deployed) military, and the most influential popular culture. Those things could change someday. Instead, what voters are told over and over again is that we're "exceptional." We're not just stronger or richer; we're better. Indeed, we're stronger and richer because we're better. And we may well be exceptional in how often we're told that we're exceptional. My knowledge of the electoral politics of other nations may be limited, but I don't recall hearing about presidential candidates in Portugal or Peru who feel the need to convince voters that their country is superior to all others and they are the world's best people.

So some people were taken aback last week when Vladimir Putin, in his op-ed in The New York Times last week, took exception to Barack Obama's talk of exceptionalism. "I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States' policy is 'what makes America different. It's what makes us exceptional,'" Putin wrote. "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation." He probably didn't realize that every American president says that sort of thing; it's our national program to build self-esteem. That's how politicians put a gold star sticker on our papers, pat us the head and tell us that we're smart and kind and good-looking, and if the other countries don't like us then that's their problem, not ours.

It was a bit amusing to see Barack Obama being chastised by Putin for his comments on American exceptionalism, since it put conservatives in the uncomfortable position of defending the president for the very thing they spent so much time criticizing him for in the past. It seems like a distant memory now, but Republicans spent most of their 2012 presidential primary competing to see who was most appalled by Obama's allegedly insufficient belief in America's uniqueness. There was barely a Republican contender's stump speech that didn't feature thunderous insistence that, unlike that anti-American socialist in the White House, they knew deep in their red, white, and blue bones that this great land stands alone. Mitt Romney titled his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness; Newt Gingrich offered A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. "America is different," wrote Tim Pawlenty in his book. "And what makes us different makes us great. Barack Obama doesn't see it that way." Or as Sarah Palin put it in her inspiring tome America By Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, Obama "seems to see nothing admirable in the American experience."

The fact that back here on planet Earth, Obama has always peppered his speeches with assurances of America's exceptionalism didn't much matter to them (though it seemed to Putin). Nevertheless, even the most gung-ho hyperpatriot might occasionally feel a tiny tickle of doubt over the fact that his country takes it as its privilege, alone among nations, to invade or bomb whoever it pleases on a regular basis. The assumption that we have every right to do so is neatly justified, however, if we are not just the strongest but also the most virtuous. Our bristling arsenal of weaponry is not the product of a series of happy accidents of geography and history but the consequence of the Lord's grace, unambiguous and eternal. You might recall that in 2003 when Howard Dean remarked offhandedly that "We won't always have the strongest military," the reaction from Democrats and Republicans alike was one of horror, as though he had said that God would eventually forsake us. Perhaps that fear is why it has become all but mandatory for American politicians to end every speech with "God bless America," as though they're reminding the Almighty that America is due more than its share of heavenly consideration.

It's true that having the world's biggest military imposes on us obligations other nations don't have. The citizens of Mongolia don't need to wonder whether they should intervene to stop the carnage of a civil war thousands of miles from their borders. But the truth is that we only undertake humanitarian interventions like the one we're contemplating in Syria when our moral outrage lines up with our economic or geopolitical interests. President Obama may say that simply because we are America, we have to do something about the slaughter in Syria. But we never even considered intervening in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where years of civil war have left millions dead (Obama himself raised the question of the Congo in an interview earlier this year, but didn't answer it).

That's rather unpleasant to think about, if you believe our motives are always pure. But like Stuart Smalley, the desperately insecure self-help addict created by Senator Al Franken in his previous career, we need to keep telling ourselves that we're good enough, we're smart enough, and doggone it, people like us.

In case you haven't heard, education researchers began realizing a few years ago that all that self-esteem building parents and schools have been doing over the last couple of decades doesn't work. It turns out that if you just tell kids they're smart and wonderful, they have trouble when they encounter difficult problems. Cultivating traits like persistence is much more important.

Maybe there's a lesson there for the country. There are certainly things only the United States can do, but perhaps there are some international problems we can't solve. Perhaps we're not the hero of every story. America stands apart from other countries in many ways; some of them are justifiable sources of pride, others not so much. Putin is a repellent character, combining a dictator's inclinations with his own special brand of shirtless buffoonery. But none of us should be surprised when people in other countries get a little tired of American politicians constantly proclaiming our superiority.


This is truly incredible...a person who doesn't even know what is meant by "American exceptionalism" berating it. One would think that a person with a national forum would try to at least know the general outlines of the subject he is writing about. Oh they say, ignorance can be fixed but stupidity is permanent.

when you come across someone like paul waldman, you have to pretty much discount every unfortunate synapse that crosses his neural pathways, as they were. it's worse than knowing nothing. it's combined with the hubris and arrogance to think that you do, and that you ought to be "read" on the subject. hysterical, sad, dangerous.....

Waldman simply appears to be using the more popular definition of the term "American Exceptionalism" (AE), namely that Americans are greater/better than others. There are various definitions. I assume you must be referring to the less known, historical definition of AE. That definition has pretty much fallen off the map.
So, given the now popular definition (ie. the one used mainly by right-leaning politicians), where is Waldman wrong?

Yes. In addition to not knowing what exceptional means as it is understood for this discussion, Paul fails to recognize what that means in our every day life. In post Soviet-Putin Russia, an article that criticizes the government (such as Sen. Jim Demints letter to Putin) regularly gets people imprisoned and worse.

The concept of American exceptionalism originated with Alexis de Tocqueville in his sentinel two-volume thesis “Democracy in America.” In 1831, the French government sent him to study American prisons. For nine months, the young man (he was 25) traveled extensively studying American economics, sociology and political institutions.

He did not use the word “exceptionalism.” The American Communist Party brought the word to the lexicon in the 1920s.

Tocqueville thought America was “exceptional” because it had not evolved as European nations had. Born from revolution, America, in Tocqueville’s estimation, was the world’s first “new nation.” Its nature grew from a unique ideology of liberty, individualism and equality.

European communists in the early 20th century believed the collapse of western capitalism and revolt of the working class were imminent. American communists, however, thought an exceptionalism principle applied to the United States. Its industrial might, abundance of natural resources and absence of class distinction would hold collapse and revolt at bay for an extended period. (We might ask, How much of this is true today?)

In our time, “exceptionalism” has come a long way from meaning different or fortunate. We clearly mean better. Would-be officeholders cannot enter political competition without explicitly acknowledging American superiority. Concepts and utterances such as “American decline” or “end of empire” are taboos in the political dialogue.

Perhaps President Putin does us a favor.

Flag waving may have its place, but when we substitute it for problem-solving, are we patriots or fools?

We worry our kids are among the worst educated in the developed world; but when common sense is the measure of things, does it matter? If we embrace or reject science as it compliments or diminishes our personal beliefs and preferences, is the Age of Enlightenment still in our rearview?

Many, if not most philosophers would say the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (particularly the Bill of Rights) are crowning jewels from the Age of Enlightenment. If exceptionalism requires we ignore the wisdom of Enlightenment – that reason is supreme and everything is open to criticism – do we really think patriotism based in exceptionalism and dogmatically driven “common sense” provides sufficient guidance for decision-making in an era of constant change, competition and danger?

There was a time when we were less occupied with our omnipotence and grandeur. We thought our republic was an experiment, a great one to be sure, but an experiment nonetheless. It would not always meet our expectations, but we would make it better next time.

We still take pride in the belief our republic is self-correcting. At one time that meant we were willing to work on problems and deficiencies. Any proposition the nation can mystically heal itself if only government would ignore problems would seem strange to the pragmatic people who founded and built this country.

We were not always a people who felt the need to brag on ourselves or to have our ideals of superiority constantly reinforced by politicians. We could accept our nation was imperfect but clung to the proposition it was on an endless journey to becoming “a more perfect union.”

A constant stream of objective measures paints a portrait of fading greatness. We can ignore data or we can respond. We can push government away and expect unrestrained capitalism to create an equitable society for ourselves and our kids. Or we can push government into the fray to “promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . . .”

If exceptionalism were just feel-good ideology promoting optimism and encouraging us to face down hard times with confidence, it would serve us well. It is not. It undermines our will to face reality and make the collective sacrifices that are greatness.

Interesting post. Just two points: Tocqueville said America is "quite exceptional" -- note the qualifier. Also, a lot of his contemporaries disputed this claim, including John Stuart Mill. If the US was born in revolution, so was Tocqueville's France.
I wouldn't dispute your claim re: CPUSA, but according to Harvard's Daniel Rodgers, the term "American Exceptionalism" only entered the US political lexicon after World War II -- by no coincidence, the start of the so-called "American Century".
Re: "Many, if not most philosophers would say the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (particularly the Bill of Rights) are crowning jewels from the Age of Enlightenment." Well, American ones, perhaps. Nations such as Canada, whose liberal democracy was based on as explicit a rejection of the United States' political structure as the US's was from Britain might disagree, as might nations such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand whose democracies owe little, if anything, to the US.
Generally, I find Americans OK. But their belief that no-one made any contribution to the liberal democratic state other than themselves is a little wearing....

Interesting, insightful comments. Thanks for the serious read.

Tocqueville’s qualifier is noted. Interesting isn’t it, more than 180 years later we can still bicker about the finer points of “Democracy in America.”

I did not mean – he said defensively – to imply America’s “crowning jewels” from the Age of Enlightenment are superior to other foundations of liberal democracy. Had I had access to your insight before posting, I probably would not have used the adjective.

Even in agreeing, we have shades of disagreement. You find American claims of specialty “wearing.” I can understand how, when looking at us from a distance, one could feel that way. You might think that garnering that reaction would give us pause.

I was coming from a different perspective, however. I was looking at the concept’s internal effects and finding them too often counterproductive and dangerous.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed , equality became the rational for political action for the first time . That was exceptional.
With oceans on both sides the United States is invulnerable to invasion . That is exceptional.
The U.S. is blessed with abundant natural resources and farmland . That is exceptional .
The notion that our freedoms come from god and not man , kings or government is central to our identity . That is exceptional.
The belief that we as a nation are superior to others is nonsense , we do believe however we are blessed.

"When the Declaration of Independence was signed, equality became the rational for political action for the first time"? Uh yes, shame about the slave owners who wrote and signed it and those pesky American Indians who had to be exterminated (although as we are all equal in death, maybe you have a point there).
With oceans on both sides the United States is invulnerable to invasion? Um, someone forgot to tell the Brits that when they burned down the White House in 1814. Also, am I the only one who has noticed the mass of Latin Americans illegally streaming into the US via Mexico?
Canada, Australia, New Zealand all have abundant natural resources and farmland, so does South Africa. May be they're exceptional, too.
The notions that freedom comes from god and not man, kings or government ? That's a medieval doctrine. Nothing exceptional there.
Come on, you can do much better than this, says one dog to another.

Surely you don't think that I implied by the stroke of a quill pen all inequality was to disappear in short order . This fight goes on today. Current and future laws and Supreme Court rulings all have their bases in the Declaration .
To your point about illegals coming into the country , that is quite different from Hitler and Napoleon sweeping across the European Plain to invade Russia . Mexico with it's desert and Canada to the north do not provide an opportunity for an invading army . Just ask the Japanese how an invasion would have worked out for them.
And to your last point about where our freedoms come from and as one dog to another the idea the our liberties come from government provides all that is necessary for the rise of another Mao , Hitler , Stalin or anyone else who is comfortable with the notion they are going to change the world.

The legitimate form of American exceptionalism affirms both our exceptional values and our exceptional circumstances. Some of our exceptional circumstances are much less so today: our two oceans would not protect us from ICBMs without a deterrent military capability; we are no longer the ONLY representative democracy; our "frontier" closed a hundred years ago; and we are no longer the home of ALL the world's smartest business people (quite a few, but not all). And, regrettably, the rhetoric ABOUT our exceptionalism has been misdirected into an arrogant boast about our superiority in every way to every other nation, while in the actual execution of our exceptional values (such as humanitarian values) we are falling behind.

Many of us love the "unofficial" national anthem America the Beautiful, but frequently only sing (or hear performed in public or on the media) the first stanza. One of the most inspiring lines is the following:
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.
Is today's America, are the people who influence our businesses, churches, statehouses and Congress REALLY trying to fulfill that line? Or are they gloating over, and planning to expand, the power that comes from making MORE human tears? Do our "alabaster" cities still gleam? All of us need to ask ourselves, are we moving America forward to the ideals we profess, or are we "looking out for number one" only? Or worse, are we looking out for someone else's idea of "number one" and giving up our families' future?

As every chemist knows, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the precipitate.

Do we as a country act in our own self-interest? Of course we do. Do our leaders make mistakes? Of course they do. Are there events in our history that are not bright and shiny? Of course there are. Is there something inherently different or better about a person born in the US? Of course not. However, when taken as a whole, there is an incredible biography that demonstrates our constitutional republic and the psyche that supports it is both unique and quite moral. The US in a uniquely diverse and populous country. With population nearing 350 million and drastically different life experiences among geographies, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds, this country is held together tightly, not by a dictatorial regime or all powerful oligarchy, but by a set of principles that allows open debate, and a freedom of the press that holds our leaders to a level of honesty not found through history or anywhere outside of a few western democracies in countries much more homogenous than ours. These same principles have allowed us as a society to continue to fix failures of our past. Is the value of our system only based upon the presence of slavery at its beginning and the fact than many of its founding fathers had slaves, or is it that the principles put forth allowed for the abolishment of slavery. While we may be dissatisfied with the speed of some of the social change or even if some of it is good or bad, our system has not only survived but along with an inherent sense of fair play present in our psyche, guided us through these changes.

These same principles impact our military involvement in foreign countries. The notion that we are an imperialist power is not even close to holding up under scrutiny. Compare our relationship with our cold war allies versus the Soviet Union's. Look at how we behaved once Japan was defeated versus real historic norms of post conquest behavior. After their utter destruction, and with our efforts to help rebuild them, they did not become a client state of the US. They became an independent country whose economy grew to the second largest in the world. Compare our invasion of Afghanistan vs. that of the Soviet Union, both in why and what was desired. Have we demanded reparations, or favorable client state contracts?

Our military is the most disciplined capable military in the history of the world. So much is made of things like abu graib, water boarding, collateral damage from drone strikes and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. But the reality that these are either overblown or exceptions to a code of conduct within our armed forces that goes to such lengths not only to diminish civilian casualties but attempt to eliminate them. The active purpose of a military is to wage ware. That means to seek out enemy personnel and infrastructure and destroy them. So our instructions from the civilian command is to go kill and destroy, but do it in the most civilized humane way possible. This is not always easy when our enemy does not play by the same rules. But having seen it first-hand, our military takes this task seriously and conducts themselves in a manor unseen in the history of warfare. Don't believe me, and want to continue to focus on supposed atrocities? Please remember that our constitution puts the military under civilian control, and then imagine asking young men and women to go and kill and do so with the restraints that we have put upon them. Then go spend six months with them in a war zone. You may dislike the decisions of the civilian leadership in control of our military, but I promise you will walk away with a tremendous respect of the armed forces. For they are us. They carry the same compassion and desire for justice, and distaste of war that the rest of us do.

Finally, if you don't believe my statement about an inherent sense of fair play? Both liberals and conservatives absolutely recoil when a system is revealed to be fixed so as to favor someone who is well connected. We all love the underdog story and strive to create a level playing field. The vast majority of the world not only expects the graft and corruption, but believes it is part of the normal process. It doesn't take a lot of travel to see this. I have traveled extensively, and have seen it most places.

Again, our exceptionalism lies not in our perfection or infallibility, but in a framework that ensures we move toward a more just society and that ultimately demands our leaders are held accountable. If you challenge these notions, then don't offer as an argument an example where we have fallen short, but an example of a country either now or through history that is or was more moral and honorable in its dealings. I know this is anathema to the ideology of most of you who read this, being so invested in the evils done by our imperialist society. But take a few minutes and with some intellectual honesty weigh our society on the scales of justice against other large countries. We are, warts and all an example to aspire to.

"Both liberals and conservatives absolutely recoil when a system is revealed to be fixed so as to favor someone who is well connected."

You're kidding, right?

If you forget about the demonization that both liberal and conservative philosophies so vehemently spew forth about the other side, and think about actual individuals that you know. I believe that, what you will find is, people are people. Most I know both conservative and liberal tend to be relatively compassionate, would literally give someone the shirt off of their back. They all have respect for the poor would like to do more to help the underprivileged, but most do at least a little in the way of time or donations. NONE of them like the notion of a fixed or rigged system. The bigotry displayed by both sides of the political spectrum is intense. However, bigotry usually only survives when the target is somewhat nameless and faceless. It is difficult to be bigoted against gays when they are your sister, brother or child, and your love for them and desire for them to be happy is overwhelming. Just as it is easier to paint faceless liberals as "socialist/communists that want to destroy our country or our way of life". Or easier to paint conservatives as bible toting lunatics who are unsophisticated to the point that they want to help large corporations of all things. My point is if you look past those dogmas to the individuals you know, we tend to have a lot more values in common than not. I guarantee that there is nobody in the occupy wall street crowds that want the big banks broken up more than the tea party does. and if the republican party is so tied into big business, where do all the republicans go once they leave work on wall street? Last time I checked, you couldn't find a republican precinct within 60 miles of Manhattan. The converse to that is the Democratic party is much more tied into that crowd than anybody wants to admit. The financial reform act, passed when democrats controlled all the elected branches of government, did not break up the big banks, did not reinstate the glass-steagall act. Most conservatives that I know that hate that legislation, hate it not because it came from democrats, but because it didn't fix the big underlying problems.

Why is it that Progressives hate America so much?
Repeatedly you encounter this snide derision regarding American exceptionalism. It requires an ignorance, or more likely, an extremely skewed view of history to consider it as anything but.
Our founding was exceptional and exceptionally fortuitous, in that we were independent people who had grown up almost without government altogether, or at least only that which we ourselves as citizens had brought about and committed to. When it came time to give King George the heave ho - we held the land. If the very same people had tried to take England from the King, I doubt they'd have been successful.
All of our citizens come from hardy, risk-taker stock. From the the first colonists, to the pioneers who literally walked across a continent barefoot, to the immigrants who arrived at the turn of the century - these were people willing to risk all, even their lives, not for a guarantee but merely for an opportunity to create a better life for themselves.
We have been, and continue to be exceptionally generous with our wealth, and our military. Can you imagine another nation throughout history who would conquer only to return to the people a nation better than they had found it? I defy you to name one.
And as for the present, I would ask those like this author, who seem to be so eager to see the age of America's greatness pass - what do you think is going to replace it? Do you think China, Russia, and Iran are going to act with the same benevolence if their power were to overtake ours?
This disdain that you hold for our country is not just disappointing in light of the opportunities it has afforded all of you, it is foolish in the extreme, as the loss of American power can only be harmful to America's citizens as well as the rest of the world.

Progressives hate american exceptional-ism, because their most fervent desire is to compel us to follow the path of other social democracies. If american is exceptional, then we should be more skeptical of their demands. \

America is exceptional, not for our resources, nor our people - though our successful diversity is incomparable, but because of the very non-progressive ideas that are our heritage. We are the first and still most unique nation of our form. We are the scottish enlightenment come to fruition, There are other representative governments, and other nations born in revolution, but none such as the US. The governments of other western democracies are similar but not the same, not is structure, not in core values.

Exceptionalism is dangerous - history is rife with nations that have ruined their people or the world through a misguided sense of national pride. But american exceptionalism does not seek subjugation. We are not perfect and have frequently acted egregiously, but no other powerful nation in world history has demonstrated so modest a desire to rule others.
Our national culture is rooted in concepts of mutual advantage. That we can pursue our own self interests AND improve that of our partners. The concept that both sides can come out ahead is foreign to every other culture on earth.

We absorb immigrants from all over the world. They transform us, our culture is enhanced by theirs, but our essence is unchanged. At the same time we take muslims, indians, irish, chinese, mexicans and without losing their own identity transform them into us.
We beleive ferverently and mostly correctly, that you can come here intent on destroying us, and if you stay long enough you will become us.

"Why is it that Progressives hate America so much?"

We don't. We love our country, and we want to make it better. We merely see a different path to improvement than people who aren't Progressives (I guess they're called Regressives?).

Next to Kim Jong Un or the leader of Communist China, Putin is probably the least qualified source to be commenting on our Republic or what a truly democratic society looks like. Considering his past as a member of the KGB and a member of the Communist Party in addition to his rampantly corrupt government and his Hitler-style power grabs and efforts to dismantle Russia's democracy from within, it should come as no surprise that he would fear a nation such as ours. He rules through corruption, nepotism and tyranny while, in America, we the people are sovereign and freely choose our leaders. Putin crushes political opposition through imprisonment and fear. In America, we have freedom of speech and accept political dissent without fear of repercussions. In comparison to Russia and Putin's government, we could not be more exceptional. And to a thug like Putin, that is something to truly fear and to consider to be truly dangerous....

Great article!

The exceptional things about America are real but could not ever have been without accidents of history and geography. They give us some security some benefits but only if we both main them and are wise in their use.

No a thing wise about getting concerned let alone involved not to speak of going to war, because of anything - no matter what - that could happen in or to Syria.

If Putin wants to say what I just said, and in an equally or more brassy or insulting way, more power to him

That anyone in America should give a damn what Putin thinks or says, that's a shame. But it would be wise to watch what if anything he does about it, and to counter it.

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