U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American exceptionalism

This month finds the Atlantic (formerly the Atlantic Monthly) celebrating its 150th anniversary. To mark this august occasion, the editors asked a large number of notable figures to comment on “the future of the American idea.” I admit to being disappointed upon discovering that what they referred to was the idea of America, rather than the state of ideas in the U.S., but it still caught my eye.

What it turned out to be was essentially an exercise in hobbyhorse riding, with people tending to express a few ideas about whatever is their area of interest (Edward O. Wilson wrote on science, Sam Harris on how much he truly scoffs at religious faith, etc.), before moving on, in many cases, to say whether or not they think the “American idea” will come to represent (or continue to represent) something “good” or something “bad.” (In fairness to the participants, it must be pointed out that all of them, with the exception of Tom Wolfe (!), were allowed only 300 words.)

I found George Will’s piece to be more provocative than many. It should come as no surprise that he registered as one who generally finds good things to say about the American idea. But what captured my attention came near the end:

[T]he greatest challenge to [the American idea] is the false idea that American patriotism is inextricably bound up with the notion that being a normal nation is somehow beneath America’s dignity. Belief in American exceptionalism is compatible with the idea of American normality: Our nation is exceptionally well-founded and exceptionally faithful to an exceptionally nuaced system of prudential political axioms.

Though I recognize that Mr. Will was making a different point, what is interesting to me is his definition of American exeptionalism. I, at least initially, found his claims to be appropriately circumspect and, for the most part, unobjectionable. Knowing full well, however, that no self-respecting liberal academic should be sympathetic to the dual intellectual sins of engaging with American exceptionalism and agreeing with George Will, I assessed my options and found them to be three. Either a) people should be more accepting of the idea of American exceptionalism, b) George Will’s definition of the term is wrong, or, c) while his definition may be acceptable, it is not true that the U.S. consistently lives up to the terms that the definition sets.

The one I find most nagging is the third. Reminded of the pointless argument about whether the U.S. was “founded on” the principles of theism or secularism, I am troubled by–read “ambivalent about”–Will’s use of the phrase “exceptionally faithful.” The fact that I am sympathetic to the claim that the U.S. embodies its own ideals only shows, in my opinion, the effects of acculturation; those who grow up in the U.S. are told this so often that it eventually seems like common sense. But one need not adopt a Zinnian framework (in which the U.S. is exceptional in its disrespect for the principles of autonomy, equality and freedom) in order to be puzzled by Will’s claim.

Putting aside the question of whether the principles are themselves noble ones (which I, personally, would be willing to accept), the nation’s early embrace of democracy and decentralized power doesn’t seem obviously any more central to its nascent identity than does slavery and military conquest. Only a tiny fraction of the early American citizenry could vote, and the franchise was not fully secured for all adults until nearly two hundred years later. Why are those facts the deviations from, rather than the core of, “the American idea”? (I believe that this line of thinking is pretty similar to the one articulated by Rogers Smith in Civic Ideals, but I have not yet actually read that book. No claims of originality are intended here.) Is it possible to construct a narrative that incorporates both the truly inspiring ideals of American democracy and the often ugly behaviors that have also characterized life in the United States? For whatever reason, speaking only for myself personally, it does seem difficult to think that way.

Professional historians seem to have largely reached a consensus that the debate over American exceptionalism is stale and meaningless. Perhaps that is why I was taken aback upon seeing George Will, by most accounts a reasonably intelligent guy, taking it up again. Even more surprising, perhaps, was how easy it was for me to fall into rethinking the issue myself.

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3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Mike,

    Timely reflection. I was itching to comment on a piece by Alonzo Hamby, at POTUS (an HNN weblog), on the same topic. Your bringing it up here gives me a chance to wrestle with the subject at one of my “homes” (if you will).

    Aside from being a provocative thinker and good writer, Will’s love of baseball gives him some cachet with me.

    In this case, however, he is uttering a paradox: “Belief in American exceptionalism is compatible with the idea of American normality.” [Tim scratches head.] Huh? … Perhaps I need to see more of the piece?

    Taking the statement at face value, Will’s calling our founding exceptional, and by default labeling the rest of U.S. history a struggle with “normality,” doesn’t cut it. The struggle to maintain ideals, such as “freedom of speech” and the right to “bear arms” (I’m purposely making an awkward pairing), is just as exceptional as the founding acts and documents that embody those ideals.

    Anyway, if the U.S. is exceptional in a good way, that uniqueness is based on a struggle to maintain, or build upon, an array of sometimes contradictory rights. [Aside: All countries are exceptional, yes? The question is how and to what degree. Is the country in question exceptional in “right” ways?]

    The problem with American exceptionalism, at least in its popular form, is the belief that it rests on things our country has collectively accomplished. It is a sacralized, concretized exceptionalism to those folks.

    Sure, the U.S. has accomplished some exceptional things, but any exceptionalism—claimed by any country—should rest alone on that country’s current adherence to human rights broadly conceived.

    A country’s “exceptionalist cachet” can be depleted by moves in the other direction. It is those moves, indicative of a lack of engagement in what I see as the exceptional struggle to maintain, that generate questioning of exceptionalism.

    – TL

  2. I do not think it worth discussing American exceptionalism as an empirical thing. The development of the US nation seems more a study in frontier-settler capitalism than national uniqueness. I do think, however, historians should study American exceptionalism as an idea that evinces material results, particularly in the “human rights” phase of international history (post-WW2), as Tim seems to suggest. In other words, how does a nation believing itself unique think itself not subject to the laws that govern other nations. Or, is this study in ideology unnecessary? Is it rather more fruitful to examine how the rules need not apply to a superpower, by sheer fact of its overwhelming power. You know, the golden rule–those who own the gold make the rules.

    Andrew Hartman

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