“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”
— Russian President Vladimir Putin, writing in the New York Times on Sept. 11
The most interesting fact to surface in the ensuing debate over “American exceptionalism” is that the phrase was first coined by Putin’s long-ago predecessor, Joseph Stalin. Its origins stretch back to 1927, when a prominent American communist, Jay Lovestone, suggested that capitalism was so advanced in the United States that it would preclude a communist revolution here. Stalin would have none of it, attacking “the heresy of American exceptionalism” and affirming the historical inevitability of Marx’s triumph of the proletariat.
Time hasn’t been kind to Marxism. Still, the underlying question remains: Is American exceptionalism just a self-congratulatory phrase or a demonstrable reality? The evidence is mixed.
If you examine opinion polls, you cannot miss the distinctiveness of some American attitudes. One standard question asks respondents to judge which is more important — “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference” or “state guarantees [that] nobody is in need.” By a 58 percent to 35 percent margin, Americans favored freedom over security, reported a 2011 Pew survey. In Europe, opinion was the opposite. Germans valued protections over freedom 62 percent to 36 percent. The results were similar for France, Britain and Spain.
Or take free will. Americans think they have it; many other nationalities dismiss it as a delusion. Another poll question asked respondents to agree or disagree that “success in life is determined by forces outside our control.” In the Pew survey, 72 percent agreed in Germany, 57 percent in France and 50 percent in Spain. By contrast, only 36 percent of Americans agreed in 2011, even though the country was still suffering from the Great Recession, which harmed millions and was beyond their control.
Historically, the American experiment was exceptional, as historian and conservative commentator Charles Murray shows in an elegant essay published by the American Enterprise Institute. The United States, writes Murray, was the “first nation in the world [to] translate an ideology of individual liberty into a governing creed.” Democracies were thought to be “impracticable and unstable.” Only monarchies, often claiming divine authority, could impose social order. Even Britain, whose citizens enjoyed limited political rights, adhered to this central precept.
By contrast, Americans believed that the power to govern derived from the governed. Lincoln’s celebration in the Gettysburg Address of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” strikes us as a rhetorical flourish. But for early Americans, the survival of such a government was an obsession. It made the United States special.
What also made America special was its core beliefs, starting with “all men are created equal.” In other countries, rigid economic hierarchies reigned. Birth was often fate. Citizenship depended on ethnicity, heritage, religion. In the United States, success and citizenship were open-ended. The equality was not one of outcomes, writes Murray, but “of human dignity.” It rejected the notion that “meaningful happiness could be achieved only by the superior few.” Individuals — and individual effort — mattered.
With good reason, most Americans have considered their beliefs superior. What rankles Putin (and many Americans, too) is that the United States has used this sense of moral superiority as a pretext to throw its weight around the world. The truth is more complicated. U.S. foreign interventions have also reflected perceived self-interest, while moral reservations have often justified isolationism: Don’t get entangled with crazy foreigners. The public’s hostile reaction to a proposed use of military power in Syria suggests isolationism may be on the rise.
Murray thinks American exceptionalism is eroding. In part, American values — equality, democracy — have spread abroad. In part, foreign ideas have spread here. Americans distrust government, but the Founders’ preference for limited government is gone. For the nation’s first 140 years, federal spending never, except in wartime, exceeded 4 percent of the economy, says Murray. Now, it regularly tops 20 percent. The U.S. welfare state resembles the European.
There’s also a widespread understanding that national ideals have often been violated (slavery and racial discrimination being the most glaring examples). Indeed, Americans themselves seem increasingly skeptical of exceptionalism. The 2011 Pew survey asked respondents to react to this statement: “Our people are not perfect but our culture is superior.” Only about half of Americans agreed, roughly the same as Germans and Spaniards. Significantly, 60 percent of Americans 50 and over agreed, while only 37 percent of those aged 18 to 29 did.
Still, these portents can be overdone. Compared to many, Americans are more optimistic, more individualistic, more confident of progress. What the late historian Richard Hofstadter once said remains true: “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.”