General Question

janbb's avatar

Is it time to get rid of the concept of "American exceptionalism"?

Asked by janbb (59603points) December 15th, 2020

By that I mean, the idea that America is the “leader of the free world” or that we are a “shining city on the hill.”

I don’t see this as particularly a Democratic versus Republican issue as both parties have espoused the concept at times so I would like the discussion not to descend to partisan bickering if possible.

Should the United States act as if it is somehow first among nations in the world? Is being a Superpower really important or should we act in concert with other nations to solve the problems of the world?

In General, off-topic rants will be flagged.

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38 Answers

kritiper's avatar

No. Americans lead the way in everything everybody cares about so relegate ourselves to being less than the best?

elbanditoroso's avatar

My take is that there is a very close connection between American exceptionalism and religion – particularly conservative religious sects and groups. And more particularly, religious groups that make it their business to proselytize and convert others.

The linkage is psychological – identity politics at its worst. It goes like this:
– my country is my identity
– because of that, my country must be best, because I am good, and I reflect my country
– criticism of my country is personal criticism of me
– therefore I am exceptional and right, and that cannot be question or else it is an attack on my identity.

Now compare that to some religions and their creeds:
– my religion is my identity and I follow it and accept it completely.
– therefore I am better than others because of my religious faith
– questioning my religion or criticizing its tenets is a personal criticism of me
– therefore my religion must be right because if you question it, is an attack on my personal beliefs, and that I cannot stand.

Having said that, because so much is tied in with self-perception, it will be enormously difficult to change impressions of many Americans, because it is so personal.

canidmajor's avatar

I think it is definitely time to let go of that concept. America has fallen behind in so many ways in the last few decades that I strongly believe we should understand that learning from our global neighbors needs to be primary.

ragingloli's avatar

The only areas that has ever been true of, are military power (post WW2), and Hollywood.
You know. Killing people, and make-belief. That is what you excel at.
Heck, even the civil rights movement only really got traction, after black soldiers experienced equal treatment by the Brits in WW2.

Hamb's avatar

Yes. Thy myth of American exceptionalism exists to justify US imperialism and actions taken on behalf of global capital. We’ve never been acting to solve any problems – our actions have created them.

elbanditoroso's avatar

@Hamb – not sure I agree with your term ‘Never’ – what about WW2 and the Marshall Plan?

Hamb's avatar

^ Out of the countless military actions, you can arguably count one – WW2, which is a war that the US was hesitant to enter and there was arguably an existential threat. I’m not talking about the rare exception. I was referring to the overwhelming majority of US foreign policy and the connection to “American Exceptionalism”, which is what this question is about.

mazingerz88's avatar

American exceptionalism as being imperfect yet continuously striving to better itself in the face of real hard challenges facing any attempt in the practice of Democratic principles? No that sort of exceptionalism should be kept for all time.

ragingloli's avatar

More like “being imperfect, denying the problems, and resisting any attempt for improvement, because you believe that you are already perfect”.

mazingerz88's avatar

That sort of dumb thinking being perfect led to even dumber slogans like Make America Great again imo.

janbb's avatar

@kritiper We certainly don’t “lead the way in everything everybody cares about.” We don’t lead the way in public health care, we don’t lead the way in preventing gun violence and we don’t lead the way in climate mitigation programs. We don’t lead the way in acknowledging and rectifying past genocides and systemic racism. We apparently don’t even lead the way in running acknowledged free and fair elections so what do you think we lead the way in?

I really dislike jingoism whether it’s from the left or the right.

janbb's avatar

@mazingerz88 To your first point, don’t you think many other countries are also striving to better their practices re: democracy or democratic socialism? I can think of half a dozen at least.

Demosthenes's avatar

Yes. For all the reasons stated above. It’s used as a justification for imperialism and a means to gloss over the areas in which we trail other countries. It’s because I like this country and believe in it that I think we should change for the better. It’s complete BS to suggest that anyone calling for change hates this country and should leave.

AYKM's avatar

When another country lands people on the moon safely I will reconsider this.

janbb's avatar

@AYKM Is that the best milestone (pun intended)? Plus that was 50 years ago.

Demosthenes's avatar

I think the U.S. does have some bests: geographically it’s the most beautiful nation in the world (in my opinion), we have some of the greatest universities that people from all over the world come to attend, and as far as technology and entertainment go, we are the most innovative. That can all be true and I can still think “exceptionalism” is a bad idea.

KNOWITALL's avatar

I feel much the same as @Demosthenes. Recognizing the successes and failures based on facts is important.

My religious beliefs have nothing to do with taking pride in my country’s successes. Excepting the fact we are ‘free’ to practice our religion without fear of govt intervention, normally. Which to me and others is a great benefit here.

Jeruba's avatar

I can’t imagine that that attitude is anything but annoying to the rest of the world, whose admiration and deference we apparently crave—maybe as much as (although I hope in a less vulgar and embarrassing fashion than) our current president. If nothing else, this year now ending ought to have taught us a few lessons in humility.

Perhaps we could work on a little shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration rather than insisting on posing über alles.

stanleybmanly's avatar

Trump has pretty much eliminated any such illusions, and “American Exceptionalism” nowadays is decidedly about the pariah aspects marking us “exceptional.”

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I lived many years of my adult life overseas. I have seen the US from inside being born here and from outside. There are many things about the nation to be happy about. It’s resilience is perhaps an important point to remember. There are many things to abhor. We are grotesquely racist in many ways. We have a very troubled history. I still believe that we can better ourselves and move forward in a good way toward a more brotherly view of cooperating in a hopefully more collaborative world.

Call_Me_Jay's avatar

Anyone who takes the idea of “American exceptionalism” seriously today isn’t going to be reasoned into giving it up.

It’s tribal ignorance and an inability to understand there’s a world outside one’s immediate view.

Of course there are great things in America. A normal understands that other people feel the same way about their homes.

RocketGuy's avatar

American exceptionalism? I see it as a mixed bag:
– most of the top 10 colleges are in the US
– most of the top high tech innovations originated in the US
– most of the top military and aerospace technologies originated in the US

Not so exceptional:
– K-12 education, esp. math and science. We are near the bottom among developed countries.
– health care, esp. for average Americans. Not close to the top among developed countries.

janbb's avatar

@Call_Me_Jay I’m not talking only about average people; I’m talking about it as a political axiom. Obama used it; Biden uses it, the person in between might have used it too.

kritiper's avatar

@janbb OK, so that’s your opinion…
It isn’t what we might be as much as what we stand for, and what we stand for is best.

RocketGuy's avatar

@kritiper – what we say (stand for) has to be the same as what we are, otherwise we’re just BS’ing. And much of the world sees this.

rockfan's avatar


Yet the U.S is the only modern country that doesn’t have a form of single payer healthcare

RocketGuy's avatar

If healthcare for the average American was better than that of the average other country’s single payer healthcare, that would be something to boast about. But it’s not. We pay more and get less.

Jeruba's avatar

@janbb, if I recall correctly, Hillary used it too. I remember her talking about why we had certain obligations in the world and couldn’t just look after ourselves and leave others to their own devices. She was arguing against isolationism and nationalism. I took that to be another aspect of the concept, even though as I hear about it, it’s usually voiced in terms that I consider distasteful.

give_seek's avatar

Yes. It’s past time.

janbb's avatar

@Jeruba To your point, I do think we should be involved and engaged with the rest of the world, we have to be, but as a partner among equals – not as “the leader of the free world.”

RocketGuy's avatar

Well, we are exceptional in some things, so we ought to take advantage of that but we have to give on other things. No one will agree to a deal where they come out behind in all areas (at least not more than once).

Strauss's avatar

I think it’s a good thing to strive for, but not a good thing to assume.

stanleybmanly's avatar

We were “exceptional” today!

RocketGuy's avatar

@stanleybmanly – referring to the Mad Max yahoos busting into The Capitol?

ragingloli's avatar

I believe the correct term is Y’all Qaeda Vanilla ISIS Yee Hawdists Talibundi Yokel Haram Meal Team 6

Call_Me_Jay's avatar


janbb's avatar

This is long but worth reading and it speaks to the concept of American exceptionalism and where we are at this moment. It was posted on FB by a former Jelly as having been written by a foreign service agent.

“This morning, as America tries to make sense of what happened yesterday, we as diplomats are trying to make sense of what we say to the world about yesterday’s events, and America generally.
I am reminded of the most remarkable speech I’ve heard in my foreign service career. I was in my second tour, serving as a political officer in Cambodia. It was July 4, 2006 and it was the first Independence Day reception we were holding in our brand-new embassy, a symbol of our enduring commitment to the Cambodian people. Cambodia then – as now – had amazing and resilient people who had survived genocide and were working to rebuild their society. Cambodia then – as now – faced grave challenges to its democracy – an authoritarian ruler who had been in power for decades, restrictions on press freedom, harassment and arrests of political opponents and civil society leaders. We wanted to encourage the Cambodian people to believe in and work for democracy. We wanted to challenge Cambodian leaders to respect human rights and uphold rule of law. But America was in the midst of its own crisis. The Abu Ghraib scandal had shown American servicemembers humiliating and torturing Iraqi prisoners. It demonstrated that we did not consistently uphold the very values that we espoused. What could we say?
That day, Amb. Joe Mussomeli spoke about the fragility of democracy. He highlighted the strength and resilience of the Cambodian people, and outlined the challenges that the country faced and the steps needed to overcome them. Then, in a tone of humility and solidarity, he described the challenges that the U.S. had faced over its history in preserving democracy and respecting the human rights of its citizens. He spoke about the Alien and Sedition Acts and the shameful internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. He spoke about McCarthyism and how so many fine American leaders and government officials were unfairly vilified in a witch hunt that mesmerized the country. He described the long and uncompleted road to civil rights for Black Americans. He talked about how important it was for Cambodians to continue to work for democracy, speaking not because the U.S. had an unblemished record in preserving our own democracy, but precisely because we had battled against challenges of our own so many times. This is hard, he said. We know, we are with you.
The day after the President inspired an armed mob to storm the Capitol and attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, this must be our message too. In case there was any lingering doubt, yesterday was the final, dramatic ending to the notion of American exceptionalism. We can no longer imply that other countries should listen to us because of our untarnished record of defending democracy and civil rights. We can no longer pretend that police treat black and white protesters the same. We are not the City on the Hill that we have wanted to be.
And yet, even after yesterday’s events, we are still a country that strives to live up to those ideals. We are a country where members of Congress – just hours after being threatened by violent protesters – returned to the Capitol and stayed until 3:45am to certify the results of the presidential election. We are the country where the Georgia Secretary of State patiently and respectfully rejected presidential pressure to falsify the election results, even though it meant that his own party would lose power. We are the country where voters danced in the street while standing in hours-long lines to vote, and black sororities strolled to the polls. We are the country that just elected a Jewish American and a Black American to Congress in a state that was once the heart of the confederacy. We are the country where a Catholic President and a Black and Indian female vice president will be sworn into office on January 20.
We are not a country that has figured everything out and can speak to others from a position of supreme moral authority. We are a country that has been and continues to be engaged in the struggle of trying to become what we imagine ourselves to be. When we speak to foreign audiences around the globe, we can’t offer them the assurance of a tried-and-true path to perfect democracy. But we can offer them what we have learned along our own journey, and our commitment to get up every morning and continue the fight no matter the obstacles. It is hard, we can tell them. We know, we are with you.”

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