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American Exceptionalism

The term “American exceptionalism” has been bandied about by politicians, pundits, historians, and others with increasing frequency. Attempting to catch up on the latest atrocities against democracy and the rule of law, I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the term: how it was used throughout history and how it has become weaponized in our divided political culture.

The phrase may have originated in the 1830s with the first great observer of American life, the French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, but the meaning has changed over time.

Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam makes a stop at the Takoma Park July 4th parade

Some people simply see America as “better” than other countries; that our experiences, products, and lifestyle choices are all “the best.”  Those who take this simplistic approach in claiming American exceptionalism clearly have not seen:

America as “the best” in everything we do is a naïve belief that is easy to debunk. But the concept of American exceptionalism that does require serious consideration is constructed on the idea that we created something new in 1776 out of whole cloth; a “new history” if you will. And moral superiority is a key part of the argument that this new nation, with its unique commitment to freedom and democracy, is exceptional.

Writing about the recent controversy over the use of the term “concentration camps,” journalism professor Peter Beinart touches on the reasoning behind the moral superiority argument.

“Embedded in exceptionalist discourse is the belief that, because America has a special devotion to democracy and freedom, its sins are mostly incidental. The greatest evils humankind has witnessed, in places such as the Nazi death camps, are far removed from anything Americans would ever do. America’s adversaries commit crimes; America merely stumbles on its way to doing the right thing. This distinction means that, in mainstream political discourse, the ugliest terms — fascism, dictatorship, tyranny, terrorism, imperialism, genocide — are generally reserved for phenomena beyond America’s shores.”

But what happens when the same people who push this mantra of American exceptionalism and moral superiority turn away from the fundamental tenants of democracy, decency, and freedom? When they willingly take steps that mirror some of the worst atrocities seen abroad, such as the purposeful destruction of thousands of families? How should we respond when the president’s racist attacks against four U.S. citizens and elected members of Congress are met with silence or — worse yet — support by a significant majority of one of our major political parties? Can the same argument for our unique approach to democracy be made when U.S. law prohibits the intervention of foreign nationals in our elections, yet we see  a presidential campaign accepting such help in the past and indicating it would do so again in the future? That last attack on our democratic framework has an answer from none other than James Madison, the Father of the Constitution. Madison warned against a president who might “pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers.”

Moral superiority is a hard bar to reach when you have the best of leaders and intentions. It takes someone blinded by ideology to believe the current policies and intentions of our government are a result of our devotion to democracy and freedom or, at worst, a simple stumble along a long arc toward justice.

Much of the weaponizing of the term American exceptionalism comes from those who want a country that is Christian, white, and led by men. This turn from democracy by parts of the religious right and their political supporters is the focus of a sobering Atlantic article. Writer Adam Serwer notes that, 

“Trump is the symptom of the Republican Party’s turn toward illiberalism, not its cause; even before Trump ran for president, some Republican elites were plotting to diminish the political power of minorities and enhance those of white voters. Whatever their disagreements, the leaders of both the populist and establishment wings of the Republican Party have concluded that they cannot be allowed to lose power simply because a majority of American voters do not wish them to wield it.”

If you believe that this is a Trump-only problem, consider the fact that a vacancy on the Supreme Court was held open — in open defiance of the Constitution and the oath that members of the Senate swore upon taking office — for more than a year prior to Trump’s election. Or consider that four members of the Supreme Court, in the recent census question case, were ready to add the question that would limit the count of people of color even knowing that the administration lied about the rationale for its inclusion to the court. But Trump has surely taken us to a level unknown in recent history. 

“The president speaks of imprisoning his political rivals, and his voters cheer. He valorizes political violence, and his followers take note. His attorneys argue both that Congress cannot investigate criminality in the executive branch and that the president has the authority to end criminal investigations into himself or his allies, while ordering them against his opponents. Trump’s supporters exult in the head of state attacking private citizens who demand equal rights, then wave the banner of free speech exclusively in defense of expressions of bigotry.”

It becomes much more difficult to stake a claim to the moral superiority of American exceptionalism based on our love of freedom when a not-insignificant minority of the country, and perhaps even one of its two main political parties, has given up on the basics of freedom and democracy. Rather than make their case with others who disagree under a set of rules that includes public discussion, nonpartisan courts, and — most importantly — a fair ballot box, these groups would cut off free public discourse, stack the courts in their favor, and gerrymander themselves to a permanent majority. It is interesting which groups feel that the ideals of liberal democracy are aligned against them:

“What is notable is that crisis of faith in liberalism for this faction of the religious right comes only now. . . . The state of emergency occurred when, and only when, liberal democracy ceased to guarantee victory in the culture war. The indignity of fighting for one’s rights within a democratic framework is fine for others, but it is beneath them. . . .

Black Americans did not abandon liberal democracy because of slavery, Jim Crow, and the systematic destruction of whatever wealth they managed to accumulate; instead they took up arms in two world wars to defend it. Japanese Americans did not reject liberal democracy because of internment or the racist humiliation of Asian exclusion; they risked life and limb to preserve it. Latinos did not abandon liberal democracy because of “Operation Wetback,” or Proposition 187, or because of a man who won a presidential election on the strength of his hostility toward Latino immigrants. Gay, lesbian, and trans Americans did not abandon liberal democracy over decades of discrimination and abandonment in the face of an epidemic. This is, in part, because doing so would be tantamount to giving the state permission to destroy them, a thought so foreign to these defenders of the supposedly endangered religious right that the possibility has not even occurred to them. But it is also because of a peculiar irony of American history: The American creed has no more devoted adherents than those who have been historically denied its promises, and no more fair-weather friends than those who have taken them for granted.” (emphasis added)

Those who demand that only their worldview be enshrined in the ruling culture are like libertarians who have politicized the protests of children who scream through tears, “You’re not the boss of me.” Serwer notes, “What they describe as a crisis of liberal democracy is really just them not getting exactly what they want when they want it.”

What the religious right and their enablers would prefer, Serwer asserts, is something that looks like democracy but is actually closer to Hungary’s sectarian ethno-nationalism. Rather than battle over the moral exceptionalism of America, I believe those who care about the future of democracy in this country should spend time on things much more constructive and important — such as pushing back against the loss of our democratic norms as seen through rigged electoral systems that ensure that political competition is minimal, a press that is tightly controlled by an alliance between corporations and the state on behalf of the ruling party, rampant racism that seeks to limit who can participate in government, the definition of national identity in religious and ethnic terms, and policing by the state of cultural expressions to ensure compliance with that identity.

Contrary to what the religious right asserts, America was not established based on ethnicity or a religious belief or a common language, but on a set of ideas and ideals that were exceptional for their time and remain so today.  While we struggle to reach those ideals, a significant majority of Americans continues to reject the turn away from democracy and the beliefs of sectarian ethno-nationalism and, instead, want to engage in the “shared work of the imagination” required in our democratic system to build a more perfect union. That work, my friends, is truly exceptional.

More to come…


*I followed the advice of our tour guide in Japan and tried out all the buttons on the modern Japanese toilets.  Oh my!  In one stall, when I opened the door, relaxing music began, complete with sounds of waterfalls. Just incredible.

** Not to mention the good systems in the U.K., Italy, and so many other countries.

***I guess this does prove that we are exceptional in some things.

This entry was posted in: The Times We Live In


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

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