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American Exceptionalism

American ExceptionalismThe Washington Post recently touched on the fascinating topic of American Exceptionalism, since it appears to be increasingly used as a distinction in American politics as to who is a patriot and who isn’t (which of course is hardly a new battle). It certainly is comical to see some people drape themselves in it as if it were a good thing. To wit, the WaPo article starts off with:

Is this a great country or what?

“American exceptionalism” is a phrase that, until recently, was rarely heard outside the confines of think tanks, opinion journals and university history departments.

But with Republicans and tea party activists accusing President Obama and the Democrats of turning the country toward socialism, the idea that the United States is inherently superior to the world’s other nations has become the battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars. Lately, it seems to be on the lips of just about every Republican who is giving any thought to running for president in 2012. (…)

That the average American thinks their country is the greatest country in the world shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has encountered one either in cyberspace or in real life. It’s greatness (or superiority) is extolled remarkably often even in casual conversation, even though, as is claimed in the introduction to the concept in Wikipedia, some would argue that is not meant to express superiority:

American exceptionalism refers to the opinion that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. Its exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming “the first new nation”, and developing a unique American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire”. This observation can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the United States as “exceptional”. Although the term does not imply superiority, some writers have used it in that sense. To them, the United States is a “shining city on a hill”, and exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.

In the 1960s “postnationalist” scholars rejected American exceptionalism, arguing that the United States had not broken from European history, and had retained class inequities, imperialism and war. Furthermore, they saw every nation as subscribing to some form of exceptionalism. (…)

Certainly some rather notorious examples of other nations with very similar thinking (i.e. that their particular god was on their side and/or had a special purpose for their nation) aren’t very difficult to find in history.

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