Yes, the title is as over-the-top as American Exceptionalism itself. I hope you got the joke.
In the final weeks and days of the 2012 presidential race we can expect the Romney campaign and their allies to repeatedly bring up the concept of American Exceptionalism in an attempt to (again) paint President Obama as an other, as someone who doesn’t love this country as much as Willard himself does.
The time has come to finally debunk American Exceptionalism and reaffirm the real meaning of patriotism. Confusing the two has helped lead many to vote against their own interests and helped sow disdain against America across the globe. Those pushing American Exceptionalism are asking you to embrace the myth so you can disown any responsibility for reality. It is a handy excuse for misadventure abroad and inaction at home. American Exceptionalism is a warped version of patriotism needs to be discarded promptly.
American Exceptionalism is the belief that America is the greatest country in the history of the planet and our unique position and values are literally a gift from God that should be spread worldwide through our shining example and/or direct “leadership.”
Many people are lured into believing American Exceptionalism in part because of its religious overtones. It really is a sneaky attempt to get you on board with their vision for America by rubbing up against your strongly-held religious beliefs. They want to tie your faith in God to your belief in the greatness of America, to equate doubting America to doubting God. The purpose is to put that strong of a link in the hearts and minds of the faithful. Taking advantage of peoples’ faith in this way is quite disgusting.
American Exceptionalism: if countries are people, then we’re the Jesus. We’re the chosen one, the messiah of countries — and since God chose you to be born in America, that makes you super-duper special, too. Say, doesn’t that American Exceptionalism make you feel all warm and fuzzy?
Since we’re so God-anointed awesome, we are above learning from the experiences of other countries. American Exceptionalism means it is unpatriotic to accept the fact that other countries might have better ideas about how to do things such as health care, education, and even democracy itself. Since we’re the best ever, America has the God-given duty to lead the world (and do whatever Israel tells us to do).
American Exceptionalism also misleads with its fourth-dimensional mindset. Add up the achievements of each nation across the totality of history and, yes, America is the greatest of all time. But riddle me this: Is today’s America the greatest America that ever existed at any point in time? Is it greater than any America that could exist in the future?
I believe American Exceptionalism is so appealing because it has a kernel of truth: The United States is the greatest country in the history of the world. Right there is the key word that could make it true: history. America has been consistently great. On average across the country’s brief 236-year history we’ve been the greatest. But it is more like the esteem of a great pro sports franchise.
Arguably, the Boston Celtics are the greatest NBA team. Over the history of the league, they have the most championships (17). But they are not great every year. For instance, in the 1996-1997 season they suh-diddly-ucked at 15-67. They have had some down years where they crashed and had to undertake a rebuilding process, getting stronger again to win the title in 2008. They didn’t become great again by keeping the same coach and roster of players from 1997 and chanting “We’re Number 1!” No, they made changes and even took some players and tactics from, gasp, other teams. They didn’t reject positive changes simply because they were not the Celtic way.
Here is where the strongest adherents of American Exceptionalism completely lose it. Their take seems to be not that America is the greatest and most perfect nation ever, but America is the greatest and most perfect always. To them there is no need for improvement and it is impossible for other countries to invent better ways of doing things. (We’ve also held on to our Model-T version of democracy too long, but that’s worthy of its own post.)
Another part of the appeal of American Exceptionalism is it gets into individuals’ heads through their personal identity. Like it or not, your nationality is part of who you are. It’s part of your personal self esteem. American Exceptionalism appeals to many because it makes them feel good about themselves. People like being told they are special because they are an American. It is easy to see how many people are especially susceptible to believing so strongly in American Exceptionalism: they may not have much else in their individual lives to be proud of aside from their nationality. Or as Julian Sanchez puts it:
You can think of patriotism as a kind of status socialism — a collectivization of the means of self-esteem production. You don’t have to graduate from an Ivy or make a lot of money to feel proud or special about being an American; you don’t have to do a damn thing but be born here. Cultural valorization of “American-ness” relative to other status markers, then, is a kind of redistribution of psychological capital to those who lack other sources of it.
To those on the right, you need to be aware that it is OK to make a distinction between healthy patriotism and American Exceptionalism. As one conservative wrote:
Republicans have sought refuge in a form of American exceptionalism that has remarkably little to do with the real America. Republicans have made a defense of “American exceptionalism” the thing that is supposed to distinguish them from Obama, and in order to make that claim they have defined American exceptionalism to mean an absurd overconfidence in the political and economic uniqueness and supremacy of America. To take pride in economic opportunity available here, they feel that they must deny that it exists elsewhere.
The sort of American exceptionalism that has become the defining feature of Republican rhetoric over at least the last two years seems to require “boasting of the largeness” of America at every turn. This is not healthy admiration for one’s country, but an idolatry that prevents its devotees from seeing things as they are.
American Exceptionalism is a stalking horse for small-c conservatism, for those seeking to maintain the status quo, those that are doing really great right now. American Exceptionalism fools you into thinking we’re the greatest, so there is no need to change anything, no need to address any problems because either they don’t exist or are too minor to bother with because we’re still the greatest country in the world.
A true patriot wants their country to truly be its best. It is patriotic to identify where your country is falling behind and then seek ways to improve things.
Now here is the difference between American Exceptionalism and a healthy “real” patriotism.
Liberals, justly or not, are known to have a complex relationship with patriotism. In contrasting American Exceptionalism and real patriotism I hope it will make it safe for liberals to own their patriotism (born-again patriots, maybe? Probably too cute by half.).
So hear me now and believe me later: Patriotism can be good. Here’s how you get there. (Whether you think this is a rebranding of the concept is a different question.)
Most of us carry the feeling that we want to make the country (and the world) a better place. That feeling, like it or not, is patriotic. Patriotism is OK. It is natural to care about your country because that is your home, the place you and your friends and family live. Of course you want it to be great. We all want our country (our home) to be safe, clean, prosperous, and be fertile ground for the further advancement of modern civilization.
If you truly love your country you must want it to be the best that it can be. That is the love central to true patriotism. In contrast, the core of American Exceptionalism is an unearned extreme pride, or narcissism, that serves as tempting bait to capture the loyalty of those with low self-esteem. It’s purpose is to protect the status quo by artificially inflating people’s egos.
It is time for the left and right to rediscover true patriotism and denounce the cult of American Exceptionalism.