American Exceptionalism

It seems to me….

People say America is exceptional. I agree, but it’s not the complexion of our skin or the twists in our DNA that make us unique. America is exceptional because we were founded upon the notion that everyone should be free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.” ~ Rand Paul[1].

The term “American Exceptionalism” is being heard with increasing frequency in what appears to be an all-too-obvious backlash to compassionate progressive government – Trump neofascist populism attempts to exploit the concept of American exceptionalism on the presumption that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. There also is an attempt to imply that the U.S. is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage. The claim deserves consideration.

The theory of U.S. exceptionalism has developed over time and can be traced to many sources. French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville was the first writer to describe the country as “exceptional” in 1831 and 1840. The actual phrase “American exceptionalism” was originally coined by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin as a critique of a revisionist faction of U.S. Communists who argued that the American political climate was unique, making it an “exception” to certain elements of Marxist theory.

But what constitutes exceptionalism? Given the perspective of history, Athens was such an exceptional nation, or city-state, as Pericles described it in his celebrated oration for the first fallen soldiers in the Peloponnesian War. He said it was the greatest of Greek cities and this quality was shown by its works, shining deeds, the structure of its government, and the character of its citizens, who were themselves creations of the city. To believe that our nation has also been exceptional, as Pericles claimed Athens to be, or that it will soon justifying such a claim as Lincoln suggested in his Gettysburg Address, requires a suppression of normal skepticism. The belief itself calls for extraordinary arrogance or hope in the believer. While the term is employed in the aggregate, we are a nation of individuals, some better, some worse, than others.

While proud of my nation and to be an American, I will not take a side in the discussion of exceptionalism as, while a worthwhile aspiration, the claim is basically a form of egotism and best judged by future historians rather than at this time. The underlining basis for any claim to being exceptional differs for each nation. The most deserving of the mantle is obviously Athens but many other countries can equally extol their accomplishments and claim of exceptionalism: Great Britain, France, China…. This is consistent with the human predilection to consider ourselves as the current epitome of evolutionary development. Humans have attained our planetary dominance based on our ability to reason but, in an obvious stretch of the imagination, nonhuman species could equally consider themselves exceptional; e.g., deer based on their grace and how well they can run, fish for their ability to swim, or birds for how well they can fly. Intelligence has yet to prove itself advantageous to long-term species survival. The U.S. remains too young a nation to yet judge its enduring contributions to ensuing civilizations.

U.S. exceptionalism in many areas admittedly remains an unchallenged reality. It was founded not on race, ethnicity, or religion but on ideas[2]. Though founded on that diversity, it always in the past has been open to all who arrived at our shores. It never has been a “nation” in any traditional meaning of the term. Regardless of culture or religion, it resulted in the creation of a unique individual. Not having a distinct nationality, it always has been able to more easily absorb immigrants than other nations.

American exceptionalism has been historically referred to as the belief that the U.S. differs qualitatively from other developed nations because of its national credo, historical evolution, or distinctive political or religious institutions. It is the idea that the U.S. is unique among the nations of the world in that it was founded on the principles of individual liberty, private property rights, and equal justice for all. That because it is unique, the U.S. has a special role in the world and in human history. American exceptionalism is an ideology holding the U.S. as unique among nations in positive or negative connotations with respect to its ideals of democracy and personal freedom.

The basis most commonly cited for American exceptionalism is the idea that the U.S. and its people hold a special place in the world by offering opportunity and hope for humanity derived from a unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals focused on personal and economic freedom. Proponents of American exceptionalism argue the U.S. is exceptional in that it was founded on a set of republican ideals, rather than on a common heritage, national origin, or ruling elite. That the “American spirit” or the “American identity” was created at the frontier where rugged and untamed conditions gave birth to American national vitality. The belief that the U.S. represented a new beginning, a new experiment in republicanism, of government by, for, and of the people has had an inspirational value in reminding Americans to live up to their highest principles and ideals, those on which the nation was founded.

In the post-1945 age, when academics first posed American exceptionalism as a coherent doctrine, the idea also became linked to global U.S. military and political hegemony. In the past two generations, since the Reagan era, Americans have not prospered to the same extent and any American exceptionalism has increasingly been ever more closely associated with martial predominance. This is unlikely to change within the near future as the U.S. remains able to wield power through influence, persuasion, and leadership on the international stage to an extent of which no other state is yet capable. Still, dominance through threat of military force remains a regrettable method of maintaining that authority and eventually will lead to resentment. We need to reflect that while Macedon under Alexander the Great and the Mongols under Genghis Khan were able to militarily conquer much of the then known world, they are not considered exceptional analogous to Athens.

The U.S. is considered by many throughout the world as more than just a nation; it is an idea. An idea worth emulating, a standard of freedom and opportunity against which people everywhere measure their own governments. That idea is not solely based on military strength or wealth. It encompasses the equality we seek more than offer. The readily available assistance when need arises following disasters. Our origin as a nation of immigrants from every nation on the planet. U.S. exceptionalism originates from its universities, Peace Corps volunteers, its openness….

History suggests that pinnacle nations that temper power with morality, with the aim of maintaining peace, of spreading justice, or of defending human rights may have a crucial role to play in securing a sustainable future for the planet and human race. Citizenship in such a multifarious democracy has to be active and aggressive. It requires working together, getting to better know one another, demystifying our differences, and gaining a far more precise sense of what government can and cannot do.

Now that vision of exceptionalism is increasingly endangered. Within a single generation our culture has been transformed from one of shared experiences to a radical democracy of personal choice – we read and watch what we want, when we want it, and increasingly where we want it. We isolate ourselves in virtual communities reflecting our personal beliefs reinforcing our existing opinions and antagonisms. The possible influence of the single individual has seemingly diminished in comparison to the tsunami-like forces of globalization, disintermediation, and radicalization threatening to inundate us. We remain fortunate to have a relatively more open exchange of information, freedom of movement, and financial access than in many other countries but that too has now come under attack.

Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. One of the primary problems of the 21st century is a culture of smugness; the motif of this culture is American exceptionalism. Exceptionalists do not deny that the U.S. has many faults and that Americans have made many mistakes in the past and are likely to do so in the future, however the less exceptional circumstances in the U.S. appear, the louder defenders of exceptionalism insist on orthodoxy. When the nation was indisputably powerful and its people prosperous, Americans did not collectively require an “ism” to serve as their lodestar. In these more polarized times, when the fates of Americans become based more on their class and less on their shared nationality, the ideological orthodoxy of American exceptionalism has emerged on a political level. A previously obscure academic term has become a rallying cry for a political agenda.

Much of this is now in jeopardy as conservative politicians increasingly attempt to look inward rather than on the rest of the world. How long can we continue to overlook our crumbling infrastructure, the escalating economic inequality, the shortening lifespans among the less wealthy, the limitations for educational attainment, the reduction in research investment, the resentment of immigrants and minorities, the environment…?

This is not how the rest of the world views the U.S. and neither do I. I sincerely want to be proud of my country but there also is an increasing quantity of what is just simply wrong and needs to be corrected. We can do better – but only if we have the will to do so.

No one wishes to attribute less than noble ideals to their own country but along with much that is good, we must overcome natural reluctance and accept that the U.S. has always struggled beneath its darker side including the multitudinous wars in which we have engaged beginning with those of genocide waged against the original indigenous nations occupying this land upon which our nation now exists followed by the suffering resulting from slavery, segregation, and sexism.

No one needs to “Make America Great Again!” as it in many aspects already is and remains great – the challenge is how to become exceptional. While this necessitates increasing support for the arts and education in general, it also entails programs similar to the Marshal Plan following World War II, the Peace Corps, increased immigration, and support for developing nations. We do not need to become a nation of scholars where everyone has a degree in liberal arts but it does entail rising above that which is only average or the norm.

Regrettably, Trump’s election and the conditions that accompanied it; a growing rejection of science and evidentiary fact, extreme political tribalism, the rise of conservative nationalist movements around the world, a populist reaction to immigration and free trade; may offer final and conclusive proof that there is nothing at all exceptional about the U.S. If so, there is much we have lost.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Randal Howard “Rand” Paul is an American physician and politician who has served as junior U.S. Senator representing Kentucky.

[2] Zakaria, Fareed. America Is Being Changed – But By Whom?, Washington Post,, 11 February 2016.

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Abraham Lincoln, Alexander the Great, Athens, China, Education, Education, Environment, Fact Checker, France, France, Genghis Khan, Genocide, Globalization, Great Britain, Great Britain, Greece, Greece, Immigration, Infrastructure, Internet, Joseph Stalin, Liberal Arts, Lincoln, Macedon, Marshal Plan, Mongols, Peace Corps, Peloponnesian War, Pericles, Reagan, Segregation, Sexism, Slavery, Slavery, Soviet Union, Soviet Union, Trump, World War II and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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