The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The limits of Biden’s American exceptionalism

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A few days after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Today’s WorldView proclaimed the “end of the road for American exceptionalism.” On one hand, we saw the limits of the political imagination of the Washington establishment. Journalists and lawmakers, struggling to come to terms with the stark domestic realities that stoked a violent assault on the heart of American democracy, cast the events as something alien and unfathomable — something that should only happen elsewhere. On the other hand, the insurrection led to an outpouring of either mockery or pity from other parts of the world. U.S. adversaries pointed to the failings of the American political system; allies saw the United States shift from being a global exemplar to a cautionary tale.

President Biden, though, refuses to give up the ghost of American exceptionalism. Throughout his election campaign and his early weeks in office, he has invoked the country’s supposedly peerless can-do spirit. “It’s never, ever a good bet to bet against the American people,” Biden said during a prime-time address Thursday where he announced his administration’s plans to make vaccines available to all Americans by May.

“America is coming back,” Biden continued. “The development, manufacture and distribution of vaccines in record time is a true miracle of science. It’s one of the most extraordinary achievements any country has ever accomplished.”

The president omitted the vital role played by multinational companies and scientists outside the United States in helping develop and produce coronavirus vaccines. And a grander rhetorical flourish then followed: “And we also just saw the Perseverance Rover land on Mars — stunning images of our dreams that are now a reality, another example of the extraordinary American ingenuity, commitment and belief in science and one another,” Biden said.

This is not shallow triumphalism. Unlike some of his Republican counterparts, Biden uses rhetoric tinged with sorrow for the toll of the pandemic and a sober recognition of the work to be done. His administration, unlike that of former president Donald Trump, won’t launch discredited commissions that try to mandate teaching American exceptionalism in schools or deem, as Trump’s commission did, course materials on the sins of the country’s past as a threat to “the civic bonds that unite all Americans.”

Biden appears to believe in the virtuous power of the American example. He and his allies subscribe to the vision of the country as that “city on a hill,” that Puritan beacon to the rest of the world that gained currency in American politics as Cold War tensions rose. They see the Trump administration’s ultranationalist “America First” agenda as a betrayal of that legacy and hope to redeem it with efforts like the mooted “summit of democracies” later this year, bolstered by an implicit belief in the righteousness of American values and liberal ideals. (Unsurprisingly, the summit already has a legion of skeptics.)

But even within the United States, the narrative of American exceptionalism is starting to ring hollow. In a piece published this weekend, my colleagues examined the yawning inequities that have come to define the country and that desperately need to be addressed.

“Rarely have the disparities been rendered as vividly as in recent weeks and months,” they wrote, pointing, in one instance, to the lack of reliable clean running water in Texan neighborhoods not far from the NASA control room that guided that space-age vehicle that Biden celebrated to Mars. “Historic breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology coexist intimately — and uneasily — alongside monumental failures of infrastructure, public health and equitable access to basic human needs.”

On so many levels, Biden’s America is not particularly exceptional. Compared to numerous other societies in the developed world, its citizens are less healthy, less secure, and less educated. Its political system is seen increasingly for its anachronistic flaws.

“While there is much to appreciate about a government that has survived civil wars and world wars alike, and has inched forward, albeit slowly, to provide expanded rights for many of its citizens, including immigrants, it is time to end the myth of American exceptionalism,” wrote Scott Warren, founder of Generation Citizen, a national civics organization, in a column that cited the sweeping lack of American public trust in federal government and the often superior outcomes achieved by voting systems in certain other countries. “Not only is the concept not true, but perhaps more importantly, there is much that we can, and should, learn from democracies throughout the rest of the world.”

Then there’s the country’s physical infrastructure — from electricity grids, utility lines and broadband networks to ports, roads and train tracks, all of which are in need of generational repairs and upgrades. “The Eisenhower administration is really the time we really had a goal or a vision for our infrastructure,” Joseph Kane, an associate fellow at the Brookings Institution, told my colleagues. “Now we’re in a fundamentally different era with a more unpredictable and extreme climate, more inequality, a lack of accessibility. And we’re still operating as if it’s the 1950s.”

American exceptionalism is a theological principle, “an assertion not of fact but of faith,” wrote commentator Peter Beinart. It’s a kind of “magical thinking” that clouds wise strategy. Consider, Beinart suggests, the current impasse with Iran: Tehran wants to see at least a degree of sanctions relief if it’s going to venture back into the nuclear deal whose terms were first abrogated by the Trump administration. But Biden and his allies have so far indicated the ball is in Iran’s court to make the first move.

“No matter what America has done, Iran’s leaders are supposed to take America’s good-faith as self-evident,” Beinart observed. Yet why should they?

“This magical thinking is a serious problem for U.S. foreign policy,” he wrote. “It’s a problem because it blinds American policymakers to how the United States looks to non-Americans who, quite naturally, judge the U.S. not on its self-conception but on its actions.”

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