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American Exceptionalism: A Pernicious Doctrine

Ideology is the self-serving goad to and representation of power. It is an integral function of political domination. The political as the more familiar expression of statecraft and class rule, it provides the core of meaning for underlying other expressions of power and domination: economic, cultural, whatever is the means for asserting, developing, and stabilizing hegemonic purposes—preponderance, influence—over others, be they nations, classes, individuals. When exceptionalism is claimed and maintained, that is a sure-fire invocation of an antidemocratic mindset, structural framework, and political economy.

Exceptionalism is not a matter of moral virtue (it never is, or it would not be claimed), but of raw, unmitigated force, real, implied, or waiting in the wings. American exceptionalism is no exception; indeed, it is confirmatory, seldom have other nations advanced such claims. In recent history (we might go back to the Roman Empire and even further, to Sparta in Ancient Greece), the clearest most obvious example is Nazi Germany: the Third Reich of a Thousand Years. Hitlerian ideology depended on the theme of exceptionalism to manifest its superiority, which took in the murder of millions. Exceptionalism, as a claim on humanity, is inherently evil; it cannot subsist without accompaniment of militarism, genocide, internal manipulation and social control.

Exceptionalism is an open proclamation of superiority. It is no wonder it forms the inner heart of American ideology, a continuing motif since John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill,” although then stated in perhaps more innocent theological terms, summoning the 17th century vision of Commonwealth and the possibility of a society knit together around the principle of equity. Not so, later; for by the late 18th century, commonwealth, applied to America, had already lost its meaning, and the American Revolution merely restated the Lockean societal and propertied framework legitimating class and racial dependence on the—you guessed it—superior. From there to the mid- and latter-19th century ideology of Manifest Destiny was a hop, skip, and a jump, so well had the ground been prepared as corporate and industrial capitalism became ascendant forces.

In sum, exceptionalism, once more given pride of place, from rationales for intervention, to buttressing a flagging national spirit, is a defining trait of American political thought. Its influence is everywhere, as in the self-righteous vaporization of individuals in targeted drone assassination, in mounting and carrying to completion regime change, in demanding outsized rights to shape and benefit from the world financial system, in establishing the foundation for its own version of the unilateral Capitalist Millennium, and binding together these and related traits and policies, a nonpareil military strength to compel observance/obedience to American wishes, dictates, decisions, even whims.

Exceptionalism poses a grave danger to the world community. But why, in a seemingly abstract piece on US intellectual history, raise this concern now, and why focus on exceptionalism? The reason should be clear: both major-party candidates, and behind them, the political parties that they represent, behind them, the nation as a whole, and finally, the very substance of American ideology, have made of exceptionalism the motive force for and reason behind this country’s existence—with all of the consequences that follow in its wake. Democracy is, and perhaps always has been, a sham, when superiority is claimed as part of its self-identity. America has issued itself a get-out-of-jail card from near its inception, certifying it can do no wrong. Today, Trump and Clinton speak as one on the maximization of America’s global power. They speak as one on the existence of the drastic maldistribution of wealth. They speak as one on gargantuan expenditures for the US war machine. They speak as one on the denial of, and exemption from, war crimes committed in the past and continuing into the present, with no sign of a turnaround in the future. Iraq, Libya, Syria, marching back in time to Vietnam, as the incubator of merely the most recent round of hostile acts.

Exceptionalism, right at this moment, is more germane to the state of America’s perpetual motion toward aggrandizement and legitimated violence than perhaps ever, because more out of keeping with the aspirations of humankind. Woodrow Wilson would make the world safe for democracy; Trump, Clinton, Obama, would cram it (more suitably defined to suit the national interest) down the throats, in the name of world order, of the global peoples. Trade, markets, investment, the nuts-and-bolts of imperialism, while still vitally important, take a backseat to the military imperatives of maintaining an overlordship of the international system—a goal consistent with the belief in exceptionalism.

The naked thirst for power, even if for no other reason than the morbid fear of falling behind other nations, may play well in Peoria, but it holds the potential for unimaginable destruction, as though Dulles’s rollback theory and planning are again operant, not only vis-à-vis Russia and China, but a multipolar world of awakened energies. America resolutely faces what it considers the encirclement of strangers, aliens, darkened forces, whose sole purpose is to question and ultimately demolish the one incarnation of exceptionalism (because there can only be one) in world politics, the repository of enlightenment shined on by God’s grace. No better formula for exploitation has yet been devised, with gradually increasing consequences at home as well as abroad.

More articles by:

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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