The Myths of American Exceptionalism

american-exceptionalism

“To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.”—Mike Huckabee

I spent most of last week in Mexico as part of a municipal delegation from Wichita to our sister city of Tlalnepantla. While there, I had the good fortune to meet several truly exceptional people. One of them was our group’s facilitator, Ji Yeon, a South Korean native who, along with speaking both English and Spanish with complete native fluency (I originally accused her of being from California), holds degrees in Engineering, Art History, and Business, and is a trained classical pianist. Though our group included mayors, city councilpersons, municipal officials, and university professors, Ji—by far the youngest among us—was clearly the boss.

I only saw Ji Yeon flustered once—during a conversation about American perceptions that we had while touring the pyramids at Teotihuacan. I casually mentioned that a sizable majority of Americans believed in something called “American exceptionalism,” which asserts that the United States is qualitatively different (and better) than any other country on the earth. When I told her this, she looked at me like I had just volunteered to fly to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and sing “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” like one of the Bee Gees. She was not offended; she just couldn’t believe that educated people could believe something so dumb.

And yet we do. In great numbers we do. When President Obama, early in his first term, suggested that he believed in American exceptionalism “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he was crucified by his opponents, who accused him of being an America-hater. And just in the past few weeks, American talk radio has been on a rampage against Russian President Vladimir Putin for denying, in a New York Times op-Ed, that there was anything particularly special about the United States of America.

Truth be told, most countries do stuff like this. Humans are tribal creatures, and we are hard-wired to believe that our tribe is special. This is true of cities, high school football teams, college fraternities, and nations. And, as this is an essentially religious belief, it is spectacularly resistant to evidence of any kind. No amount of data on economic security, health, education, environmental quality, or political freedom will ever convince the majority of Americans that they are not the best country in the world.

But the current definitions of American exceptionalism are much more pernicious. During his vice-presidential tenure, Dick Cheney made it very clear that American exceptionalism means that America is an exception to the rules—that we do not have to hold ourselves to the same standards that we held other nations to because, well, we are exceptional, that’s why. For all the criticism that he has taken on this issue, Obama does not appear to have changed anything substantial about Bush-Cheney foreign or military policy.

Again, no real surprises here. This basic “might-makes-right” philosophy has always guided the world’s greatest powers: Ancient Egypt, Imperial Rome, T’ang Dynasty China, the Ottoman Turks, and the Spanish, French, and British at various points in post-Medieval Europe. Very powerful countries generally do what they want to do and create whatever ideological justifications they need to help them sleep at night. That is one of their most important similarities.

Here is another one: no country or empire stays on top forever. America has been the word’s undisputed economic superpower since the end of World War II, and its sole military superpower since the end of the Cold War. It’s been a good ride, but it will not last indefinitely. We can only base our foreign policy on a mythical idea of American exceptionalism for as long as we have the non-mythical military and economic power to back it up. And one day we won’t.

Empires have a shelf life, and the world’s dynamics are constantly shifting. Perhaps the most important question that we can ask ourselves is, what are we doing today to make this the kind of world that we will want to live in tomorrow, when we are no longer the biggest kid on the block?