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The Concept of American Exceptionalism: Wonderfully Explained

Rujuta Patil Jun 9, 2019
The concept of American exceptionalism considers the USA as an exceptional and unique nation, as compared to others. This is reasoned in the historically established democratic ideals and the principle of personal liberty. Does this theory really make the U.S. so exceptional?

Manifest Destiny

It was the common belief that American settlers were destined to expand throughout the continent. This belief was bound with the idea of exceptionalism and was used to promote Westward Expansion.
The word America is enough, you need not even say the entire name of the country, the United States of America. People from all the countries are acquainted with the concept of 'America', with the culture of the nation, with the lifestyle of the people living there; so much so that, many wish to be a part of this society. They admire and emulate it.
Is America really a special country? Well, that is what is claimed by the notion of American exceptionalism. Whether it can apply to the United States, or for that matter, to any country, and honor it with a crown of being the unique one, is a question never really correctly answered.
Known only to the think tanks and academia, this concept has been used by the media with much ease lately. We shall try to understand what this term is all about, and get to know some of its criticisms too.

What is American Exceptionalism?

It refers to the uniqueness of the United States pertaining to its various democratic and liberal ideals.
The idea of American exceptionalism makes the U.S. distinct from other countries, especially when the history of formation of the nation is considered.
Since the American Revolution, these foundational ideals are reflected through the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. It collectively combines all the political and intellectual goals laid down since the formation of the confederation.
There is no sense of superiority or hierarchy intended through the use of the word 'exceptional'. Neither is this concept classified under nationalism of any kind.
The term 'exceptionalism' was first used during the 1920s, by the Communists. It was directed at the non-emergence of socialism or Marxism in the United States. Prior to that, long back in the 1830s, even Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker, in his "Democracy in America", had referred to the position of Americans as quite exceptional.
More recently in 1991, Seymour Martin Lipset, an American political sociologist, has authored a book called "American Exceptionalism: A Double-edged Sword".
According to him, the basic ideals of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy, populism, and laissez-faire (non-interference principle) formed "the first new nation" or the States. This creates the conception of 'Americanism' or the unique American ideology.

Quotes from the U.S. President

American exceptionalism has been in focus occasionally. It became news when the United States President was allegedly understood to be a non-believer of this exceptionalism. Here are some actual quotes from President Barack Obama.
When asked whether he supported the idea of American Exceptionalism on his first trip overseas in 2009, he had replied,
"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
Besides saying that the country had the largest economy and military in the world, he went on to add,
"We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional... ...
... I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."
Later in 2013, in the nationally televised speech on Syria, Obama said,
"America is not the world's policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong, but when, with modest effort and risk, ...
... we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional."

The Myth of American Exceptionalism

Many thinkers and politicians disagree with the existence of such concept. The nation does suffer form class conflict and inequalities based on race. The triumph of the United States as the leader of the world is objected. History of the nation being put forth ignores the inhuman of slavery and segregation, involving the history of the founding fathers.
Acts of invasions in foreign countries like Vietnam or Iraq is known to have taken a heavy toll of innocent civilians. In such cases, the belief of fighting for or upholding the principles of freedom and liberty, do not prove worth the losses incurred.
Attributing American success to the special genius, considering the U.S. as a unique world power, believing that the country is the reason for most of the good things happening to the world, or thinking God is on 'our' side, are few common myths about exceptionalism.
Godfrey Hodgson' book 'The Myth of American Exceptionalism' argues that spreading of liberal ideals across the world has followed since the age of Enlightenment, and due to the work of European philosophers and political leaders.
With strong arguments for and against the concept, it is difficult to conclude in any manner. It seems illogical to accept one particular country as exceptional for some values it promotes. However, the theory of exceptionalism does highlight the rise of a free democracy, especially after the end of cold war.