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Faith in Diminishing Returns
The Mythology of American Exceptionalism
by JOSEPH GROSSO

It is always tediously amusing the extent that politicians, pundits, and intellectuals go to reinforce the semi-intellectual concept of American Exceptionalism. Even in critical mode the instinct deliberately shows itself. Fareed Zakaria, writing part of Time magazine’s cover story debate about America’s decline begins his piece with ‘I am an American, not by accident of birth but by choice. I voted with my feet and became American because I love this country and think it is exceptional.’ A little further on, just before criticizing a political system he (correctly, if meakly) describes as creaky, he writes as if covering up before an avalanche ‘now, as an immigrant, I love the special, and, yes, exceptional nature of American democracy.’

Not to be outdone by a Time colleague, the following week Joe Klein, in a column bashing Republican misinformation about Obama notes as an example of such ‘ There is, for example, the subtly venomous notion that Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism.’ Klein went on to list (apparently echoing several Obama speeches) ‘our Constitution, our democratic institutions, citizenship that is based in core beliefs rather than in ethnicity’ to buttress his credentials.

From Obama, to Newt Gringich, who that same issue of Time was reported to call for an ‘American Exceptionalism that protects the role of God in society at a visit to the Point of Grace Church in Iowa to Sarah Palin the idea of American Exceptionalism can seem to be the only declared agreement that cuts across the isle. However in these times agreement across the isle means establishment liberals striving to prove just how conservative they can be, the better to soak up Wall Street money and display the appropriate hawkish mettle. Palin may perhaps have ended up embodying a telos in American politics when it comes to speaking to and for “the folks” against snobbish New England elites and their allies in the liberal press; yet however much conservative populism in the U.S. claims the mantle of the common masses and folksy traditions, its real backbone and rallying cry as of late is American Exceptionalism. A long enough listen to conservatives of any stripe, from the Senate to the street corner, will eventually yield the phrase. Single payer health care? No, American Exceptionalism. The Employee Free Choice Act? No, American Exceptionalism. The real matter of mainstream debate is just how much of the true faith does one possess. A National Review cover story from March 8th 2010 by Richard Lowry and Ramesh Pannuru claims: 

If our politics seems heated right now, that is because the central question before us is whether to abandon our traditional sense of ourselves as an exceptional nation…But Americans are right not to want to become exceptional only in the 230-year path we took to reach the same lackluster destination as everyone else.

Attributed to Tocqueville in Democracy in America published back in 1835, the concept serves as the justification and fortification for American conservative politics. On one hand the concept is so broad as to practically lose meaning. It has ranged from geographical attributes to resource abundance to immigration numbers to economic systems. In The Myth of American Exceptionalism Godfrey Hodgson writes:

Observing the sheer density of the claims made for the uniqueness of the American experience and the exceptional qualities of American society, however, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that they are motivated at least in part by a wish to believe in them

On one level it’s not difficult to render the idea of American Exceptionalism to the realm of mythology. After all despite America being established in the so called New World its philosophical foundation came from the philosophy of Europe’s Enlightenment and religion. Even the great western frontier expansion was powered by European investment, European markets, and not to mention European immigration. Plus if immigration and diversity are so much a part of the exceptionalism imagery would that not limit the idea of American as one exceptional, unified culture, or would its multiculturalism paradoxically be a big part of its exceptional nature? 

Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset in American Exceptionalism: a Double-Edged Sword broke its meaning down to five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire. Assuming for a moment that there is, or even can be, a wide-ranging consensus about what each of these terms entails, there are still potentially large paradoxes. Can citizens living in poverty truly be free? What is the relationship between individualism and populism? How much liberty is acceptable given the greater needs of society? What are the real manifestations of liberty when government and poverty exist? Can liberty and egalitarianism, even regarding opportunity, exist for all when the wealth gap between the rich and poor created by laissez-faire economics allows the few richest citizens to influence the law and politics of everyone? Indeed one of Tocqueville’s other observations back then was ‘Today it is fair to say that the wealthy classes in the United States are almost entirely out of power, and that wealth, far from being a privilege there, is a real cause of disfavor and an obstacle to attaining power.’ It’s tragically amusing to speculate on what Tocqueville would say about the current state of affairs.

Plus as Lipset’s full title indicates there is nothing inherently positive in the word ‘exceptional’. A literal definition reads something like ‘forming an exception or rare instance; unusual; extraordinary’. Certainly exceptional is often used to express superiority but to say ‘exceptionally bad’ is as grammatically acceptable as saying ‘exceptionally good’.

That being the case it’s plenty easy to recognize ways the U.S. compares negatively with the rest of the Western world like with its astronomical incarceration rates, higher poverty rates, and historically much higher crime rates. There is the shabby two party system that is so easily locked up by corporations and consultants, the bloated military budget, the rotting infrastructure (ranked 23rd in the world and falling fast, already behind every other advanced economy), a health care system that continues to suck in endless amounts of money while producing only the 50th best life expectancy in the world (according the CIA’s website 2011 estimate) along with the highest rate of obesity. The U.S. ranks 12th among developed countries in college graduation (for decades it was ranked first) and only 79th in elementary-school enrollment.

It’s worth noting that much of this decline can be traced to the takeover decades ago by the very conservative forces who continue to shout ‘American Exceptionalism’ off every available media rooftop, a takeover that happened to also coincide with the stagnation of wages for practically everyone except the wealthy. Unless a serious movement can expose this phony faith for what it is, who’s to say where it will bottom out.

JOSEPH GROSSO is a writer and librarian in New York City.