American Exceptionalism in the New Gilded Age

At one point last year, United States President Barack Obama declared that he “believe[d] in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” It was hardly a surprising or remarkable thing to hear. In US political culture, faith in “American exceptionalism” has long been doctrinally mandatory for top politicians, policymakers, and other elites. For those persons and others, stating one’s allegiance to “American exceptionalism” is hardly more controversial than standing up for the National Anthem or a US “commander in chief” saying “God Bless America” at the end of a major national speech.

(Just to be clear, the more accurate term would be “United States exceptionalism,” for “American exceptionalism” really refers to the US, not “America,” which technically includes Canada, Central America, the Caribbean islands and nations, and South America.)

“The United States is Good”

But what, exactly, does the term denote? Its meaning depends, I suppose, on the identity and values of its user and the context in which it is used, among other factors. For me, observing the term’s habitual use by US political and media personalities and some intellectuals, the phrase has two basic and interrelated meanings when it is employed by those “leaders.” The first such connotation holds that the United States is unique among world history’s great powers in the fundamentally benevolent, democratic, humanitarian, and non- and even anti-imperial intention and nature of its foreign policies – of its actions abroad.

“The United States is good,” Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright explained in 1999. “We try to do our best everywhere.” Three years before, Clinton explained that the U.S. was “the world’s greatest force for peace and freedom, for democracy and security and prosperity.” These were curious reflections on (among other things) the U.S.-led economic sanctions that killed – as Albright acknowledged on national television in 1996 – more than half a million Iraqi children in the 1990s (Albright added that she “felt the price” of those deaths was “worth paying” for the advance of inherently noble U.S. foreign policy goals).

“More than any other nation,” Obama announced at West Point in December of 2009, “the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades. Unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We are still heirs to a moral struggle for freedom.” The Progressive’s Matthew Rothschild gave a historically informed response:

“Well, let’s see: The United States led the world to the cliffs of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. The United States invaded one Latin American country after another, and subverted other governments there covertly. The United States helped overthrow governments in Ghana and the Congo, and supported racist forces in southern Africa. The United States plunged into the Korean War, and then supported one dictator after another in South Korea. The United States killed between two and three million people in Indochina. And the United States supported Suharto in Indonesia, who killed nearly a million people, some at the behest of the CIA, after taking power in 1965. The U.S. also supported Suharto’s invasion of East Timor ten years later, which took another 200,000 lives…. Obama can call that ‘global security,’ if he wants to, but it’s dripping red…. What does having almost 1,000 military bases in more than 100 countries mean, then? The United States has invaded or overthrown dozens of countries in the last six decades, and it doesn’t need to occupy them if it can install a puppet regime instead” (The Progressive, December 2, 2009).

“The Beacon to the World of the Way Life Should Be”

The second meaning of “American exceptionalism” holds that the domestic United States “homeland” is a uniquely excellent and unmatched global role model of political and societal democracy, freedom, and opportunity. This is what US politicians mean when they customarily refer to the US as “the envy of the world” (a phrase Obama has used more than once), the “greatest nation on Earth,” the “leader of the free world,” and the like. It’s what Republican US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) meant when she called the US “the beacon to the world of the way life should be” – this during a speech given on the floor of the US Senate in support of Congress authorizing George W. Bush to invade Iraq if he wanted to.

So what if the current “New Gilded Age” United States is now the most savagely unequal society is the industrialized world, an ever more openly plutocratic nation where the top 1% owns more than 90% of the wealth and a probably comparable share of the nation’s paulstreet“democratically elected” officials? So what if 6 Walmart heirs possess as much wealth between them as the bottom 42% of US citizens (or ex-citizens) while16 million US children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level and 1 in 7 US citizens rely on food banks for basic nutrition (half of those people are employed, incidentally). And who cares if these and numerous other terrible facts reflect more than three decades of deliberately engineered upward wealth and income distribution: a ruthless state-capitalist concentration of riches and power that has brought the “homeland” to a New Gilded Age of abject oligarchy and (along the way) to the brink of environmental catastrophe? Or that white median household wealth is 22 times that of Black median household wealth while Blacks make up more than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners in the US, the world’s leading prison state (a curious achievement for the self-declared Land of Liberty!) and 1 in 3 Black adults males carry the crippling mark of a felony record?

City on a Hill

The two basic meanings of “American exceptionalism” complement and reinforce each other, of course. The US is so good and excellent abroad because it is so good and excellent at home. Its wonderfulness around the world only furthers its wonderfulness at home. The planet has everything to learn from the shining exemplar that is “America” (the US). The exemplar has nothing to learn from the rest of humanity: what could other nations and people possibly have to teach the “beacon to the world of the way life should be”? And who would seriously think that such a grand model of brilliance superiority, and benevolence could commit base and imperial crimes abroad?

This grandiose national self-image goes back a long way. It has roots in religious zealots’ settlement of New England, described by one of its Puritan founders as a God-ordained “City on a Hill.” Including a fair portion of wealthy slave-owners, the architects of US national independence boasted of their determination to “make the world over again.” They constructed an “Empire of Liberty” blazing an ever expanding, Indian-clearing frontier of forced labor camps for their tortured Black chattel. They gazed awestruck at themselves as they wrote a new blueprint for Freedom in rich “virgin” soils beyond the stultifying reach of old feudal, aristocratic, monarchical, and peasant-saturated Europe. They took the mass dying-off of Native people infected by European germs as a divine message signifying their unparalleled splendor.

“To Cover Up Crimes Which Would Disgrace a Nation of Savages”

US elites boasted of their great success in carrying out their magnificent mission from the War for Independence on. One who was not impressed was the escaped slave and leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass reflected as follows in the summer of 1852:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? …a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour…”

“…Americans!…You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties), is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen.! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a three-penny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country …You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you ‘hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;’ and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, ‘is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,’ a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.”

Strange Liberators and the Triple Evils

The inflated, self-congratulatory rhetoric of American exceptionalism rides roughshod over the ugly and interwoven realities of US “foreign policy” (imperialism) and domestic order to this day. It has long been reinforced by the United States’ status – first definitively established in the wake of the suicide of Europe and Japan during World Wars I and II – as the most powerful nation on Earth, something that it is itself commonly taken to somehow prove US marvelousness.

Another great Black American who rejected and even flipped the exceptionalist narrative was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for whom the United States’ murderous empire abroad was intimately related to the nation’s savage inequalities and injustice at home. In the last years of his life, King referred repeatedly to what he called the nation’s “triple evils that are interrelated”: racism, economic exploitation (capitalism), and militarism/imperialism. King stepped out of the imperial (“foreign relations”) version of the exceptionalist story line when, after studying US actions in Vietnam, he (on April 4, 1967) described the United States as “the leading purveyor of violence in the world today” and mentioned some of the horrible things he had learned about US actions in Southeast Asia:

“[The Vietnamese] must see Americans as strange liberators…the people read our leaflets and receive regular promises of peace and democracy – and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs….as we he herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps. They know they must move or be destroyed by bombs. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops [with chemical weapons]. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one ‘Vietcong’-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them – mostly children… What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicines and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?”

King challenged the domestic version of American exceptionalism with a career dedicated to trying to make the US live up its false promises of equality and democracy, all betrayed, he knew, by “the triple evils that are interrelated” – evils at the dark heart of “western civilization” through the ages. A democratic socialist, King challenged homeland exceptionalism explicitly in the summer of 1966, when he noted the greater poverty that existed in the United States compared to other First World states in Europe. “Maybe something is wrong with our [capitalist] economic system,” King told an interviewer, observing that there was no or little poverty, slums, and unemployment in “democratic socialist” countries like Sweden. The “beacon to the world” and “city on a hill” had something to learn from other nations, King was suggesting. Imagine.

Obama’s Revealing Comparison

Barack Obama, who has long claimed King as a leading inspiration, took a very different, militantly American-exceptionalist approach in his nauseating 2006 campaign book and memoir The Audacity of Hope. There Obama mused rhapsodically on “just how good” even “our [the United States’] poor…have it” compared to more truly miserable counterparts in Africa and Latin America. Obama took this comparison to be evidence for his argument in Audacity that US capitalism (“the logic of the marketplace” and “private property at the very heart of our system of liberty” and “our system of social organization”) had brought its fortunate American citizens “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history.” Obama naturally omitted considerably less American-friendly US contrasts with Western Europe, Japan, and, for that matter even Cuba, where social and public policies create far more social equality and security than can be found in more militantly hierarchical nations (all with high “Gini coefficient” measure of inequality) like Haiti, Brazil. Botswana, Chile, Nigeria, Peru, South Africa, and, by the way, the United States.

Reverend Wright and the Golden Rule

The title of Obama’s campaign book was stolen from the name of a sermon given by the Black South Side of Chicago preacher Jeremiah Wright, a pulpit master in in the truth-telling tradition of Black prophetic Christianity – a tradition shared by Douglass and King and Cornell West today. Wright, the reader may recall, had once been Obama’s preacher and personal religious counselor, part of Obama’s effort to achieve an electable Black American political identity in Chicago. He was also a harsh critic and questioner of the United States’ nationally narcissistic American exceptionalist doctrine in both its domestic and its global dimensions, one who denounced the nation’s interrelated structures and practices of empire and inequality at home and abroad. In a sermon that included the phrase “God Bless America? No, God Damn America!” Wright had the gall to note that the US government was no special exception to the rule that “governments fail.” After recounting previous failures by the Roman imperial government, the British imperial government, the Russian government, the German government, the Japanese government, Wright had the audacity to note that the US government, too, had failed when it came to giving fair and decent treatment to people of Indian, Japanese, and African ancestry. In a different sermon, Wright had the related audacity to note that the US had helped prepare the ground for the 9/11 terror attacks by engaging in imperial terror across the Middle East prior to the al Qaeda assault. He had the officially unforgivable insolence to note that “America” (the US) held no special exemption from the universal law that what goes around comes around or from the Golden Rule instructing people to treat others as we are ourselves would like to be treated.

The doctrinal rules of American exceptionalism required Obama to shed all connections with his former minister if he wanted a shot at the nation’s top job. He dutifully complied in March of 2008, with a shallow but instantly heralded “race speech” in Philadelphia. The speech helped pave the way for his ascendancy to an office whose occupants always function as advance agents for the triple evils – and a few others (including patriarchy, police-statism, and environmental destruction) along the way – that are interrelated. From the very beginning of the Obama phenomenon, in the career-making speech he delivered to the Democratic National Convention in July of 2004, Obama has indeed advertised himself as a shiny embodiment and epitome of the American exceptionalism that provides deceptive cover for those evils, whose execution he has eager conducted while a bust of Dr. King sits behind him in the Oval Office in unfathomable shame.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)


Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).