American Exceptionalism A Debate Essay

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The Myth of American Exceptionalism

The myth of American exceptionalism is a familiar one to Americans and non-Americans alike. It suggest that America, as the home of the free and the brave, is unique in its allowance of freedom and social mobility, in contrast to Europe, Asia, and other, much older civilizations. Yet as noted by Stephen M. Walt in his essay, “The Myth of American Exceptionalism,” perhaps one of the most ordinary aspects of America is its view of itself as exceptional. A more critical approach to America’s history, ideology, and identity is needed for America to move forward and to make needed political and social evolution into the future. Of course, it is fine to take pride in one’s nation. But to view one nation as exceptional and the only nation worthy of defending and defining liberty will inevitably lead to strife with the rest of the world.

Walt notes that whenever America’s leaders make a claim about the need to take military action abroad, they often speak of America’s unique responsibility as a great power. Of course, Great Britain viewed itself as carrying the white man’s burden during its age of empire and the Soviet Union claimed that spreading of the communist ideology was rooted in altruism. Linked to this notion is the idea that America is more moral than other nations. This encourages an uncritical attitude to American action in the world, Walt states. In fact, America has often used religious justification, as was the case with Manifest Destiny and westward expansion, to justify policies with a strong self-interested basis.

The American expatriate Suzy Hansen stated when she was living abroad in Turkey, it was a bracing introduction to the ways in which the rest of the world viewed America and the extent to which the American media provided a xenophobic and jingoistic view of the rest of the world: “I could see how alienating they were to foreigners, the way articles spoke always from a position of American power, treating foreign countries as if they were America’s misbehaving children.” In other words, if America is the defender of liberty in the world and the world’s policeman, the logical conclusion is that all nations which oppose America are evil. Americans, even American policy-makers, are often surprised to learn that the rest of the world thinks otherwise. This can make it difficult to establish dialogue with its enemies and alliances with sympathetic allies.

It could also be argued excessive exceptionalism encourages an uncritical attitude to some of America’s domestic policies, including its citizen’s lack of healthcare. In a study of industrialized nations by the nonpartisan Commonwealth Fund, the United States ranked the worst of eleven nations of similar resources and income levels, particularly on measures of “affordability, access, health outcomes, and equality” (Khazan). The gap between richer and poorer extremes in America has likewise been growing, both in terms of real income and also in terms of access to education, social mobility, and quality of life outcomes.
The idea that someone can pull him or herself up by sheer force of will and hard work has perhaps been the dearest and most cherished of all American ideals yet the statistical facts suggest this is a lie.

Furthermore, other nations have been able to achieve more satisfactory outcomes in ensuring that basic social services such as healthcare are enjoyed by the majority of the population (Khazan). Although Obamacare and other initiatives have expanded the social welfare net to a slightly greater degree, America does not have the level of protection that other nations do and American exceptionalism does not call this into question as problematic or view it as a deficit of the American system. Criticisms of America are often projected onto the individual and attributed to a personal failure, rather than a failure of a nation which is assumed to be perfect.

Some scholars have taken a more benign view of American exceptionalism. James Caesar, for example, views American exceptionalism as having a slightly different character than previous eras’ manifestation of such ideology and says that the Puritan and religious character of American exceptionalism has been overstated. Rather, he contends, it is rooted in the need for a relatively new nation to define a sense of purpose for itself. Exceptionalism could be rooted in a sense of collective anxiety about a diverse nation made up of many peoples, religious groups, and ideologies that spans over a relatively wide territory and simply because other visions of exceptionalism have been tainted with racism and jingoism does not mean that American exceptionalism is equally bad.

But Hilde Eliassen Restad would argue that exceptionalism of any kind is tainted. “Americans have always assumed that people everywhere share American political and moral ideas…. This underlies the idea that in every foreigner there is an American waiting to get out.” This has resulted in a number of notable misreadings of geopolitical situations, including Vietnam, in which what was seen by the Vietnamese as a nationalist, internal conflict was viewed by America as a personal affront to capitalism and as a war with communism.

Patriotism may be a natural impulse. But exceptionalism and jingoism are dangerous. Unfortunately, the idea of America as exceptional and a shining city on a hill has existed since the birth of America. Replacing it with a more inclusive ideology will be difficult. But if America does not, it risks being left behind in a world where geopolitical cooperation is vital and America must learn from and work with its neighbors.


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Work Cited

Cease, James W. “The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism.” American Political
Thought 1. 1 (Spring 2012): 3-28.

Hansen, Suzy. “Unlearning the Myth of American Innocence.” The Guardian. 8 Aug 2017. Web. 5 Apr 2018. myth-of-american-innocence

Khazan, Olga. “What’s Actually Wrong With the U.S. Health System.” The Atlantic. 14 Jul
2015. Web. 5 Apr 2018. commonwealth-2017-report/533634/

Restad, Hilde Eliassen. “Old Paradigms in History Die Hard in Political Science: U.S. Foreign
Policy and American Exceptionalism.” American Political Thought, 1.1 (2012) 53–76.

Walt, Stephen M. “The Myth of American Exceptionalism.” Foreign Policy, (2011), 72-75.

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