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American exceptionalism is the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. In this view, U.S. exceptionalism stems from its emergence from the American Revolution, thereby becoming what political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called "the first new nation" and developing a uniquely American ideology, "Americanism", based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy and laissez-faire. This ideology itself is often referred to as "American exceptionalism."
Although the term does not necessarily imply superiority, many neoconservative and other American conservative writers have promoted its use in that sense. To them, the U.S. is like the biblical "City upon a Hill"—a phrase evoked by British colonists to North America as early as 1630—and exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.
The theory of the exceptionalism of the U.S. can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the country as "exceptional" in 1831 and 1840. The exact term "American exceptionalism" has been in use since at least the 1920s and saw more common use after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin chastised members of the Jay Lovestone-led faction of the American Communist Party for their belief that America was independent of the Marxist laws of history "thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions". American Communists started using the English term "American exceptionalism" in factional fights. It then moved into general use among intellectuals. In 1989, Scottish political scientist Richard Rose noted that most American historians endorse exceptionalism. He suggests that these historians reason as follows:
America marches to a different drummer. Its uniqueness is explained by any or all of a variety of reasons: history, size, geography, political institutions, and culture. Explanations of the growth of government in Europe are not expected to fit American experience, and vice versa.
However, postnationalist scholars have rejected American exceptionalism, arguing that the U.S. had not broken from European history, and accordingly, the U.S. has retained class-based and race-based inequalities, as well as imperialism and willingness to wage war.
Although the concept of American exceptionalism dates to the 1830s the term was first used in the 1920s. The phrase "American exceptionalism" originates from the American Communist Party. The term comes from an English translation of a condemnation made in 1929 by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin criticizing Communist supporters of Jay Lovestone for the heretical belief that America was independent of the Marxist laws of history "thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions". Early examples of the term's usage include a declaration made at the 1930 American Communist convention proclaiming that "the storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism".
The phrase fell into obscurity for half a century, until it was popularized by American newspapers in the 1980s to describe America's cultural and political uniqueness. The phrase became an issue of contention between presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign, with Republicans attacking Obama for allegedly not believing in it.
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.
American exceptionalism was tied to the idea of Manifest Destiny, a term used by Jacksonian Democrats in the 1840s to promote the acquisition of much of what is now the Western United States (the Oregon Territory, the Texas Annexation, and the Mexican Cession of California and New Mexico and adjacent areas).
After de Tocqueville's usage the theme became common, especially in textbooks. From the 1840s to the late 19th century, the McGuffey Readers sold 120 million copies and were studied by most American students. Skrabec (2009) argues that the Readers "hailed American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and America as God's country... Furthermore, McGuffey saw America as having a future mission to bring liberty and democracy to the world."
Historian Dorothy Ross discussed three currents in American exceptionalism:
In June 1927 Jay Lovestone, a leader of the Communist Party in America and soon to be named General Secretary, described America's economic and social uniqueness. He noted the increasing strength of American capitalism, and the country's "tremendous reserve power"; a strength and power which he said prevented Communist revolution. In 1929, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, disagreeing that America was so resistant to revolution, called Lovestone's ideas "the heresy of American exceptionalism"—the first time that the specific term "American exceptionalism" was used. The Great Depression seemingly underscored Stalin's argument that American capitalism falls under the general laws of Marxism. In June 1930, during the national convention of the Communist Party USA in New York, it was declared that, "The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism and the whole system of opportunistic theories and illusions that had been built upon American capitalist 'prosperity'".
Riding with the rest of the nation on the wave of post-depression prosperity, academics in the U.S. redefined American exceptionalism as befitting a nation that was to lead the world, with the newer United States ready to serve the older European societies as an example of a liberated and free from Marxism and socialism future. More recently, socialists and other writers have tried to discover or describe this exceptionalism of the U.S. within and outside its borders.
Scholars have explored possible justifications for the notion of American exceptionalism.
Many scholars use a model of American exceptionalism developed by Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz. In The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), Hartz argued that the American political tradition lacked the left-wing/socialist and right-wing/aristocratic elements that dominated in most other lands because colonial America lacked any feudal traditions, such as established churches, landed estates and a hereditary nobility. The "liberal consensus" school, typified by David Potter, Daniel Boorstin and Richard Hofstadter followed Hartz in emphasizing that political conflicts in American history remained within the tight boundaries of a liberal consensus regarding private property, individual rights, and representative government. The national government that emerged was far less centralized or nationalized than its European counterparts.
Parts of American exceptionalism can be traced to American Puritan roots. Many Puritans with Arminian leanings embraced a middle ground between strict Calvinist predestination and a less restricting theology of Divine Providence. They believed God had made a covenant with their people and had chosen them to provide a model for the other nations of the Earth. One Puritan leader, John Winthrop, metaphorically expressed this idea as a "City upon a Hill"—that the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model community for the rest of the world. This metaphor is often used by proponents of exceptionalism. The Puritans' deep moralistic values remained part of the national identity of the United States for centuries, remaining influential to the present day.
The ideas that created the American Revolution were derived from a tradition of republicanism that had been repudiated by the British mainstream. Historian Gordon Wood has argued, "Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy." Wood notes that the term is "presently much-maligned", although it is vigorously supported by others such as Jon Butler.
Thomas Paine's Common Sense for the first time expressed the belief that America was not just an extension of Europe but a new land, a country of nearly unlimited potential and opportunity that had outgrown the British mother country. These sentiments laid the intellectual foundations for the Revolutionary concept of American exceptionalism and were closely tied to republicanism, the belief that sovereignty belonged to the people, not to a hereditary ruling class.
Religious freedom characterized the American Revolution in unique ways—at a time when major nations had state religions. Republicanism (led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) created modern constitutional republicanism, with a limit on ecclesiastical powers. Historian Thomas Kidd (2010) argues, "With the onset of the revolutionary crisis, a major conceptual shift convinced Americans across the theological spectrum that God was raising up America for some special purpose." Kidd further argues that "a new blend of Christian and republican ideology led religious traditionalists to embrace wholesale the concept of republican virtue".
According to Tucker and Hendrickson (1992) Jefferson believed America "was the bearer of a new diplomacy, founded on the confidence of a free and virtuous people, that would secure ends based on the natural and universal rights of man, by means that escaped war and its corruptions". Jefferson sought a radical break from the traditional European emphasis on "reason of state" (which could justify any action) and the traditional priority of foreign policy and the needs of the ruling family over the needs of the people.
Jefferson envisaged America becoming the world's great "Empire of Liberty"—that is, the model for democracy and republicanism. He identified his nation as a beacon to the world, for, he said on departing the presidency in 1809, America was: "Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence."
Marilyn B. Young argues that after the end of the Cold War in 1991, neoconservative intellectuals and policymakers embraced the idea of an "American empire", a national mission to establish freedom and democracy in other nations, particularly underdeveloped ones. She argues that after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration reoriented foreign policy to an insistence on maintaining the supreme military and economic power of America, an attitude that harmonized with this new vision of American empire. Young says the Iraq War (2003–2011) exemplified American exceptionalism.
Proponents of American exceptionalism argue that the United States is exceptional in that it was founded on a set of republican ideals, rather than on a common heritage, ethnicity, or ruling elite. In the formulation of President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, America is a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". In Lincoln's interpretation, America is inextricably connected with liberty and equality, and in world perspective the American mission is to ensure, "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Historian T. Harry Williams argues that Lincoln believed:
American policies have been characterized since their inception by a system of federalism (between the states and the federal government) and checks and balances (among the legislative, executive and judicial branches), which were designed to prevent any faction, region, or government organ from becoming too powerful. Some proponents of the theory of American exceptionalism argue that this system and the accompanying distrust of concentrated power prevent the United States from suffering a "tyranny of the majority", are preservative of a free republican democracy, and also that it allows citizens to live in a locality whose laws reflect that citizen's values. A consequence of this political system is that laws can vary greatly across the country. Critics of American exceptionalism maintain that this system merely replaces the power of the national majority over states with power by the states over local entities. On balance, the American political system arguably allows for more local dominance but prevents more national dominance than does a more unitary system.
Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh has identified what he says is "the most important respect in which the United States has been genuinely exceptional, with regard to international affairs, international law, and promotion of human rights: namely, in its exceptional global leadership and activism." He argues:
To this day, the United States remains the only superpower capable, and at times willing, to commit real resources and make real sacrifices to build, sustain, and drive an international system committed to international law, democracy, and the promotion of human rights. Experience teaches that when the United States leads on human rights, from Nuremberg to Kosovo, other countries follow.
Peggy Noonan, an American political pundit, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world, it attempts to be a force for good because it is exceptional".
Proponents of American exceptionalism often claim that the "American spirit" or the "American identity" was created by the frontier process (following Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis). They argue the American frontier allowed individualism to flourish as pioneers adopted democracy and equality and shed centuries-old European institutions such as royalty, standing armies, established churches and a landed aristocracy that owned most of the land. However, this frontier experience was not unique to the United States. Other nations such as South Africa, Russia, Brazil, Argentina and Australia – even ancient Rome – had long frontiers that were also settled by pioneers. The political and cultural environments were much different—the other frontiers did not involve widespread ownership of free land nor allow the settlers to control the local and provincial governments as in America. The question is whether their frontier shaped their national psyches. Each nation had quite different frontier experiences. For example the Dutch Boers in South Africa were defeated in war by Britain. In Australia, "mateship" and working together was valued more than individualism was in the United States.
For most of its history, especially from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, the United States has been known as the "land of opportunity", and in this sense, it prided and promoted itself on providing individuals with the opportunity to escape from the contexts of their class and family background. Examples of this social mobility include:
However, social mobility in the US is lower than in a number of European Union countries if defined in terms of income movements. American men born into the lowest income quintile are much more likely to stay there compared to similar men in the Nordic countries or the United Kingdom. Many economists, such as Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, however, state that the discrepancy has little to do with class rigidity; rather, it is a reflection of income disparity: "Moving up and down a short ladder is a lot easier than moving up and down a tall one."
Regarding public welfare, Rose asked whether the evidence shows whether the U.S. "is becoming more like other mixed-economy welfare states, or increasingly exceptional." He concludes, "By comparison with other advanced industrial nations America is today exceptional in total public expenditure, in major program priorities, and in the value of public benefits."
The theory of American exceptionalism has been criticized, particularly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, on a variety of grounds from charges of moral defectiveness and the existence of double standards to American declination of power. In his introduction to the book American Exceptionalism and Human Rights (2005), editor Michael Ignatieff couches his discussion of the topic in entirely pejorative terms. He identifies three main sub-types: "exemptionalism" (supporting treaties as long as U.S. citizens are exempt from them); "double standards" (criticizing "others for not heeding the findings of international human rights bodies, but ignoring what these bodies say of the United States"); and "legal isolationism" (the tendency of U.S. judges to ignore other jurisdictions).
During the George W. Bush administration, the term was somewhat abstracted from its historical context. Proponents and opponents alike began using it to describe a phenomenon wherein certain political interests view the United States as being "above" or an "exception" to the law, specifically the Law of Nations. (This phenomenon is less concerned with justifying American uniqueness than with asserting its immunity to international law.) This new use of the term has served to confuse the topic and muddy the waters, since its unilateralist emphasis and historical orientation diverge somewhat from older uses of the term. A certain number of those who subscribe to "old-style" or "traditional American exceptionalism" the idea that America is a more nearly exceptional nation than are others, that it differs qualitatively from the rest of the world and has a special role to play in world history—also agree that the United States is and ought to be fully subject to and bound by the public international law. Indeed, recent research shows that "there is some indication for American exceptionalism among the [U.S.] public, but very little evidence of unilateral attitudes".
On September 12, 2013, in the context on U.S. President Barack Obama's comment about American exceptionalism during his September 10, 2013, talk to the American people while considering military action on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized Obama saying that "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
In his interview with RT on October 4, 2013, President of Ecuador Rafael Correa criticized Obama's policies and compared America's exceptionalism with Nazi Germany, saying: "Does not this remind you of the Nazis' rhetoric before and during World War II? They considered themselves the chosen race, the superior race, etc. Such words and ideas pose extreme danger."
Critics on the left such as Marilyn Young and Howard Zinn have argued that American history is so morally flawed, citing slavery, civil rights and social welfare issues, that it cannot be an exemplar of virtue. Zinn argues that American exceptionalism cannot be of divine origin because it was not benign, especially when dealing with Native Americans.
Donald E. Pease mocks American exceptionalism as a "state fantasy" and a "myth" in his 2009 book The New American Exceptionalism. Pease notes that "state fantasies cannot altogether conceal the inconsistencies they mask", showing how such events as the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the exposure of government incompetence after Hurricane Katrina "opened fissures in the myth of exceptionalism".
American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued that the automatic assumption, that America acts for the good, will bring about moral corruption. However Niebuhr did support the nation's Cold War policies. His position (called "Christian Realism") advocated a liberal notion of responsibility that justified interference in other nations.
U.S. historians like Thomas Bender "try and put an end to the recent revival of American exceptionalism, a defect he esteems to be inherited from the Cold War". Gary W. Reichard and Ted Dickson argue "how the development of the United States has always depended on its transactions with other nations for commodities, cultural values and populations". Roger Cohen asks, "How exceptional can you be when every major problem you face, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to gas prices, requires joint action?" Harold Koh distinguishes "distinctive rights, different labels, the 'flying buttress' mentality, and double standards. (...) [T]he fourth face—double standards—presents the most dangerous and destructive form of American exceptionalism." Godfrey Hodgson also concludes that "the US national myth is dangerous". Samantha Power asserts that "we're neither the shining example, nor even competent meddlers. It's going to take a generation or so to reclaim American exceptionalism."
In 1898 Pope Leo XIII denounced what he deemed to be the heresy of americanism in the encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae,. He targeted American exceptionalism in the ecclesiastical domain, arguing that it stood in opposition to Papal denunciations of modernism. At the end of the 19th century, there was a tendency among Catholic clergy in the United States to view American society as inherently different from other Christian nations, and to argue that the understanding of Church doctrine had to be enlarged in order to encompass the 'American Experience', which included greater individualism, tolerance of other religions, and Church-State separation.
Herbert London has defined pre-emptive declinism as a postmodern belief "that the United States is not an exceptional nation and is not entitled by virtue of history to play a role on the world stage different from other nations". London ascribed the view to Paul Krugman, among others. Krugman had written in The New York Times that "We've always known that America's reign as the world's greatest nation would eventually end. But most of us imagined that our downfall, when it came, would be something grand and tragic."
According to RealClearPolitics, declarations of America's declining power have been common in the English-language media. In 1988, Flora Lewis said that "Talk of U.S. decline is real in the sense that the U.S. can no longer pull all the levers of command or pay all the bills." According to Anthony Lewis in 1990, Europeans and Asians are already finding confirmation of their suspicion that the United States is in decline. Citing America's dependence on foreign sources for energy and "crucial weaknesses" in the military, Tom Wicker concluded "that maintaining superpower status is becoming more difficult—nearly impossible—for the United States". In 2004, Pat Buchanan lamented "the decline and fall of the greatest industrial republic the world had ever seen". In 2007, Matthew Parris of The Sunday Times in London wrote that the United States is "overstretched", romantically recalling the Kennedy presidency, when "America had the best arguments" and could use moral persuasion rather than force to have its way in the world. From his vantage point in Shanghai, the International Herald Tribune's Howard French worries about "the declining moral influence of the United States" over an emergent China.
In his book, The Post-American World, Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria refers to a "Post-American world" that he says "is not about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else".
In 2012, conservative historians Larry Schweikart and Dave Dougherty argued that American Exceptionalism was based upon four pillars: (1) Common Law; (2) Virtue and morality based in Protestant Christianity; (3) Free-market capitalism; and (4) the sanctity of private property.
In December 2009, historian Peter Baldwin published a book arguing that, despite widespread attempts to contrast the 'American way of life' and the 'European social model', America and Europe are actually very similar on a number of social and economic indices. Baldwin claimed that the black underclass accounts for many of those few areas where a stark difference exists between the US and Europe, such as homicide and child poverty.
The historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto argues that it is common thought that all people consider themselves exceptional. In most cases in which this subject is broached the similarities between the conflicting parties outweigh the differences. Things such as the "dynamic wealth creation, the democracy, the accessibility of opportunity, the cult of civil liberty, the tradition of tolerance," and what Fernández-Armesto considers evils such as the materialistic economy, the excessive privileges of wealth, and the selective illiberality are common features in many modern societies. However, he adds, America is made exceptional by the intensity with which these characteristics are concentrated there.
In April 2009, Barack Obama responded to a journalist's question in Strasbourg with the statement, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." In the same response, Obama noted that "I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone." Mitt Romney attacked Obama's statement, arguing it showed Obama did not believe in American exceptionalism. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said that Obama's "worldview is dramatically different from any president, Republican or Democrat, we've had...He grew up more as a globalist than an American. To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation."
In a speech on the Syria crisis on Sept. 10, 2013, Barack Obama said: "But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act....That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional." In a direct response, the next day, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an op-ed for the New York Times on Sept. 11, 2013, articulated that "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation." He went on to say: "We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."
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