Editor’s note: to read a response to this post, check here.
Fourth of July is just around the corner. The entire country starting to preoccupy itself with reminders of why America is awesome—on beer cans, in serious articles, and in self deprecating slideshows.
In a world which likes to see itself as tolerant, multicultural, and cosmopolitan, the concept of American exceptionalism has to be a tad strange. After all the idea isn’t just rooted in the belief that America is different, but rather a belief that America is better than everyone else. In a liberal 21st century worldview it is perfectly acceptable for a nation to be different, but is it really okay to say that America is better?
There might have been a time during which America could point to objective indices to prove exceptionalism—in many indices that may still prove as much—but American exceptionalism isn’t just about that. American exceptionalism argues that America is the best simply because it is America. The theory is quite circular: X is good because it is X. In practice it defies reason: a Ford is a good car because it is American; Shawn Johnson is likeable and good at gymnastics because she is American; democracy, liberty, and capitalism are nice concepts because they are American.
It would be great to say that there is something more to it, but is there? After all American exceptionalism is not defined by a defined set of characteristics. America is cannot just be exceptional because it embraces liberty, or an entrepreneurial spirit, or innovation. The French like liberty—well at least they like liberté. You might say that the Chinese are quite entrepreneurial these days. Take a look at the history of commercializing the Fischer-Tropsch process and you might even come to the conclusion that even Apartheid loving South Africans were innovative.
It is even a stretch to say that America embraces a particular combination of characteristics. Similar combinations can be found in many English speaking nations—Australia, Canada, New Zealand are examples. To make a claim about American exceptionalism being a specific set of identifiable characteristics is then unsubstantiable with fact—unless you introduce the circular idea of Americanness into the equation.
Then yes. America is exceptional because it is America. Because America is America it is better than every other nation. How does that make sense?
It doesn’t. The concept is flawed by virtue of its many inherent contradictions. Proponents of American exceptionalism have trouble putting a finger on what exactly defines it. They have such a hard time because it isn’t really defined by anything but an empty ideological claim that isn’t grounded in any sort of reality. They also have a tough time because any plausible explanation goes along the lines of the one above—ie. that America is exceptional because it is America—and that is tough to reconcile with tolerance and cosmopolitanism.
Instead proponents point to evidence of American exceptionalism in increasingly meaningless superlatives. America has the best constitution. America has the best basketball players. America trains the best naval aviators. America makes the best pornos.
Maybe all of these superlatives are true, but none of them have anything to do with the fact that they are American. Surely, most American are not so exceptionally loud, dumb, or obnoxious as to believe that being American makes them exceptional.
Then why is it that presidential hopefuls have to constantly proclaim their faith in the idea?