Late last year, as my wife’s pregnant belly grew, I knew, surely, my kid would be unique. She would be born with an inherent sense of style and learn quickly how to conduct herself. We had just moved to Park Slope, and if Alexandra Delila (as she’d be called) wanted to be the principal violinist of the New York Philharmonic or an Olympic gymnast, let’s get to it, because the sky’s the limit! Unlike every other child to ever have been born to any other set of parents throughout history, there would be nothing normal about Alexandra. She would be ours, and she will be exceptional in every way.
Fittingly, as Alexandra would be born into a country that has long considered itself exemplary. The history of American exceptionalism, as it has been known since the nation’s revolutionary break from British rule, has guided its rise to power, helped forge its foreign policy and renewed its sense of mission in periods of distress. When Alexandra at an unusually early age is well ahead of her peers and reviewing American history to ensure her success on an advanced placement exam three years ahead of the standard curriculum, she will notice that during the year in which she was born American exceptionalism was actually under heavy fire.
The concept comes from Alexis de Tocqueville, the French observer who spent nine months in 1831 traveling around the country, describing the nature of the American project. He found a nation, unlike his own, that “pretty nearly reached that degree of greatness and knowledge which our imperfect nature admits of.” A century and a half later, the American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote an eponymous book on the topic, claiming that exceptionalism was a double-edged sword. “We are,” he wrote, “the worst as well as the best.” Over time, American exceptionalism has come to mean not necessarily superiority, but instead an exemplary nature that set the country apart from all others. At its root was individualism, unique geography, independent virtue, and democratic principles. Put another way, my daughter isn’t better than your son. She is just more self-aware, fit, principled, and fair.
Exceptionalism has underpinned American history. The Declaration of Independence laid the foundation by pronouncing the legendary unalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Fifty years later, when then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams offered his landmark speech against setting off in search of “monsters to destroy,” he told the House of Representatives in 1821 that, “America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature and the only lawful foundations of government.” President Bill Clinton said in 1996, “The fact is America remains the indispensable nation. America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression, between hope and fear.”
This year again American exceptionalism is all the rage. A spate of new books takes three tacks on the topic: it is a fact, it was always a myth, it was exhausted. The New York Times has been running a series, entitled “American Exception,” which holds the country’s legal system up against international norms, demonstrating that the world is looking less and less at the rulings of the Supreme Court, the U.S. defends offensive speech far more than others, and it stands alone in sentencing adolescents life terms in prison. Harvard scholar Samantha Power recently wrote that American exceptionalism has left the country thinking it is exempt from international norms. And Clive Cook in The Atlantic suggested that the exception has come to an end, and the U.S. may actually soon be even more European than Europe. (Of all the arguments, a decade from now Alexandra will surely laugh loudest at this last one.)
Why now? Simply put, the U.S.’s role in the world is shifting. Re-evaluating exceptionalism comes at a moment of huge uncertainty. Traumatic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have undercut the assumption of the country’s military might. Financially, Wall Street has proved to be a house of cards. China is rising, poised as the next global power center. The battered economy has set off an inward turn—from here on out, leadership could very well mean keeping the helm, minus much of the leverage.
It would be flat wrong to say this is a moment of the U.S.’s mirror stage (psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s explanation of the first time a child recognizes her existence in the world). That happened long ago. Instead, what’s happening is that the U.S., gazing into the mirror, is realizing for the first time what it feels like to grow old.
Some still take exceptionalism as a matter of fact. Peter Schuck and James Q. Wilson—Yale and UCLA professors, respectively—have assembled a gigantic tome on the topic: Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation. (Wilson, of course, is most famous for his “Broken Windows” thesis, which provided the theoretical underpinning of the “Quality of Life” policing approach that has helped fuel the expansion of the criminal justice system.) More than 700 pages of essays by experts evaluate the legal system, marriage practices, the media, the military, religion, education, healthcare, and the war on drugs (the list keeps going for quite a while). It is an attempt to draw a comprehensive schema of U.S. policies and institutions. Setting aside the unachievable task of encompassing the wildly varying intricacies of the American project, the authors’ goal is to both educate Americans as citizens and enlighten the rest of the world to the country’s exceptional ways. Hauntingly anachronistic, one has to wonder how many education ministers or judges in foreign lands are scrambling to get their hands on a copy.
Meanwhile, in the The Myth of American Exceptionalism, British journalist and commentator Godfrey Hodgson examines the long arc of American history to conclude that exceptionalism has long been exaggerated and, of late, corrupted. Actually, he argues that it never existed in the first place. The nation’s habit of seeing itself as destined to spread its ideals of democracy and capitalism is dangerous, and in the end, “America is not as exceptional as it would like to think.” The result has been the flagging stature of the U.S. in the global order; isolation is a large price to pay.
And there is the work of international relations professor Andrew Bacevich, whose book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism was reviewed in the Dec./Jan. issue of the Rail. Bacevich argues that exceptionalism has been exhausted. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he says, have given way to profligacy. “If one were to choose a single word to characterize [what it means to be an American in the 21st century],” he writes, “it would have to be more.” This “penchant for consumption and self-indulgence” has mired the country in a disastrous foreign policy (Bacevich’s son was killed in Iraq last year). What may have been exceptionalism at the country’s founding has gone horribly awry.
I wondered how I would explain all this to Alexandra, especially considering that her mother is Ecuadorean. Is the U.S. exceptional, and the other two hundred or so countries around the globe, well, not? “America likes to think of itself as exceptionally exceptional,” The Economist magazine recently wrote. Ecuador, a small and relatively poor South American country that over the last century has been politically unstable, hardly makes a habit of exporting values and ideas throughout the hemisphere.
At the same time, the land lays claim to some of the most biologically diverse settings on the planet. Its history—part of the Incan empire, colonized by the Spanish and then liberated by Antonio José de Sucre in 1822—is indisputably distinct. The glorious colonial downtown of the City was one of the first World Heritage Sites designated by UNESCO. Is Ecuador then, too, exceptional?
Exceptional nation or preciously beautiful baby, time reveals a reality. Like babies, most countries show themselves to be ugly. Great powers—the Dutch in the 16th century, the French in the 17th, the British in the 19th, and the U.S. in the 20th—rise and fall. Some colonize, some pioneer the rights of man, some torture. Some last longer, some inflict more wounds, some face down history’s tyrants. The U.S.—for both better and for worse—has lived up to almost all of these.
I could raise a brilliant and wildly successful daughter by instilling in her a sense that she’s exceptional. She will get the highest grades in the class, earn the biggest paychecks and ultimately consider herself better than everyone else. She would be truly exceptional. But what she would not do is make this world a better place. In fact, she could very well make it worse.
President Obama faces the same decision. (About the country, that is. How he and Michelle raise Malia and Sasha is their own business.) With the waning power this country still holds, how much will his administration endeavor solitary pursuits, narrow-mindedly bucking the world order? His wisdom ought to push him to make new use of the exception. American power may be waning, but it stands heretofore unrivaled.
Blast writes the "Under the Influence" column for World Politics Review.