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American exceptionalism (cf. “exceptionalism”) has been historically referred to as the perception that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations, because of its unique origins, national credo, historical evolution, or distinctive political and religious institutions. The difference is typically expressed as some categorical superiority, to which is usually attached some rationalization or explanation that may vary greatly depending on the historical period and the political context.
As Ross (1991) has argued, there are three generic varieties of American exceptionalism:
- supernaturalist explanations which emphasize the causal potency of God in selecting America as a “city on a hill” to serve as an example for the rest of the world
- genetic interpretations which emphasize racial traits, ethnicity, or gender
- environmental explanations such as geography, climate, availability of natural resources, social structure, and type of political economy
The term was first used in respect of the United States by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831. American exceptionalism is close to the idea of Manifest Destiny, a term used by Jacksonian Democrats in the 1840s to promote the annexation of much of what is now the Western United States (the Oregon Territory, the Texas Annexation, and the Mexican Cession). The term was later used in the 1890s by Republicans as a theoretical justification for U.S. expansion outside of North America.
The term has also come to describe the belief that the United States has an exceptional position among countries, and should not be bound by international law except where it serves American interests. This position is driven by a (usually implicit) premise that the United States cannot violate international law (and in particular international human rights norms) because of the view that America itself was largely responsible for instigating those norms in the first place. This view has come under stress due to international condemnation of US human rights practices under the doctrine of War on Terror. (Also see: Human rights and the United States.)
The basis most commonly cited for American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States and its people hold a special place in the world, by offering opportunity and hope for humanity, derived from a unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom. It is therefore used by United States citizens to indicate a moral superiority of America or Americans. Others use it to refer to the American concept as itself an exceptional ideal which gives the country a privileged position, and which may or may not always be upheld by the actual people and government of the nation. Researchers and academics, however, generally use the term to strictly mean sharp and measurable differences in public opinion and political behavior between Americans and their counterparts in other developed democracies.
Opponents of the concept of American exceptionalism believe it to be little more than ethnocentrism and crude propaganda.  They argue that justifications for an America-centered view of the world are inherently similar to those of many other nations, both ancient and modern, that have claimed an exceptional nature or a destiny different from all other countries.  There is therefore a sharp divide between the views of those who believe in American exceptionalism, and those who disagree with it.
Causes in their historical context
In essence it claims that a “deliberate choice” of “freedom over tyranny” was properly made, and this was the central reason for why American society developed “successfully”. With this in mind, American exceptionalism is just one of many national exceptionalist movements.
The earliest ideologies of English colonists in the country were embodied by the Protestantism of Puritan settlers of New England. Many Puritans with Arminian leanings embraced a middle ground between strict Calvinist predestination and a less restricting theology of Divine Providence. They believed God had made a covenant with their people and had chosen them to lead the other nations of the Earth. One Puritan leader, John Winthrop, metaphorically expressed this idea as a “City upon a Hill” — that the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model community for the rest of the world. This metaphor is often used by proponents of exceptionalism.
Although the world-view of New England Puritans changed dramatically, and the strong influence of other Protestant traditions in the Middle Colonies and the South, the Puritans’ deep moralistic values have remained part of the national identity of the United States for centuries, remaining influential to the present day. Parts of American exceptionalism can be traced to American Puritan roots.
The American Revolution and Republicanism
A milestone in the history of American Exceptionalism is the American Revolution. The ideas that created the American revolution were derived from a tradition of republicanism that had been repudiated by the British mainstream. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense for the first time expressed the belief that America was not just an extension of Europe but a new land, a country of nearly unlimited potential and opportunity that had outgrown the British mother country. These sentiments laid the intellectual foundations for the Revolutionary concept of American exceptionalism and was closely tied to republicanism, the belief that sovereignty belonged to the people, not to a hereditary ruling class.
Alexis de Tocqueville stressed the advanced nature of democracy in America, arguing that it infused every aspect of society and culture, at a time (1830s) when democracy was not in fashion anywhere else.
A core argument of exceptionalism is that America is unusually attractive to immigrants from all parts of the world for two reasons. First, advocates of American exceptionalism say that economic and political opportunities are unlimited, that the United States possesses an unusually high degree of social mobility. Since the late-19th century days of Andrew Carnegie and Carl Schurz, immigrants have risen to the top of the economy and the political system. The “American Dream” describes the perceived abundance of opportunities in the American system. Secondly, immigrants can become Americans by accepting American values (with the corollary that those who do not accept the values can and do leave).
The Cold War
American exceptionalism during the Cold War was often cast by the mass media as the American Way of Life personifying liberty engaged in a battle with tyranny as represented by communism. These attributions made use of the residual sentiment that had originally formed to differentiate the United States from the 19th century European powers and had been applied multiple times in multiple contexts before it was used to differentiate capitalist democracies (with the United States as a leader) from communist nations. American exceptionalism during this period also manifested itself in a virulently anti-internationalist streak as part of which the United States rejected participation in international institutions which it could not control. The Bricker Amendment movement, for instance, rejected the adoption of international human rights conventions by the United States.
Aspects of arguments for American exceptionalism
It is important to note that the term does not in any way imply superiority. For example, some of America’s most distinctive characteristics include the legacy of slavery and segregation in the South. V.O. Key’s Southern Politics in State and Nation (1951) argues that Southern politics is “exceptional” even within the American system. By this, he simply meant distinctly marked by the legacy of slavery, not praiseworthy.
Republican ethos and ideas about nationhood
Proponents of American exceptionalism argue that the United States is exceptional in that it was founded on a set of republican ideals, rather than on a common heritage, ethnicity, or ruling elite. In the formulation of President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, America is a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. In this view, American is inextricably connected with liberty and equality. It is claimed that America has often acted to promote these ideals abroad, most notably in the First and Second World Wars, in the Cold War and today in the Iraq War. Critics argue that American policy in these conflicts was more motivated by economic or military self-interest than an actual desire to spread these ideals, and point to an extensive history of using South American nations as slave economies, suppressing democratic revolutions against US-backed dictators when necessary.
The United States’ policies have been characterized since their inception by a system of federalism and checks and balances, which were designed to prevent any person, faction, region, or government organ from becoming too powerful. Some American exceptionalists argue that this system and the accompanying distrust of concentrated power prevent the United States from suffering a “tyranny of the majority”, and also that it allows citizens to live in a locality whose laws reflect that citizen’s values. A consequence of this political system is that laws can vary greatly across the country. Critics of American exceptionalism maintain that this system merely replaces the power of the national majority over states with power by the states over local entities. On balance, the American political system arguably allows more local dominance but prevents more national dominance than does a more unitary system.
Proponents of American exceptionalism often claim that the “American spirit” or the “American identity” was created at the frontier (following Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis), where rugged and untamed conditions gave birth to American national vitality. However, this ‘frontier spirit’ was not unique to the United States – other nations such as Canada, South Africa and Australia had long frontiers that were similarly settled by pioneers, shaping their national psyches. In fact, all of the British Imperial domains involved pioneering work. Although each nation had slightly different frontier experiences (for example, in Australia “mateship” and working together was valued more than individualism as in the United States), the characteristics arising from British attempting to ‘tame’ a wild and often hostile landscape against the will of the original population remained common to many such nations. Of course, at the limit, all of mankind has been involved, at one time or another, in extending the boundaries of their territory.
The United States is exceptional in its occupational and physical mobility especially during the 1850s to early 1900s. America is known as the “land of opportunity” and in this sense, it prided and promoted itself on providing individuals with the opportunity to escape from the contexts of their family background. Examples of this social mobility have included:
- Occupational – children could easily choose careers which were not based upon their parents’ choices.
- Physical – that geographical location was not seen as static, and citizens often relocated freely over long distances without barrier.
- Status – As in most countries, family standing and riches were often a means to remain in a higher social circle.
America was notably unusual due to an accepted wisdom that anyone – from impoverished immigrants upwards – who worked hard, could aspire to similar standing, regardless of circumstances of birth. Birth circumstances were not taken as a social barrier to the upper echelons or to high political status in American culture. This stood in contrast to other countries where many higher offices were socially determined, and usually hard to enter without being born into the suitable social group.
The American Revolution
The American Revolutionary War is the claimed ideological territory of “exceptionalists”. The intellectuals of the Revolution, such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, arguably shaped America into a nation fundamentally different from its European ancestry, creating modern constitutional republicanism as we know it. Others counter that there is nothing unique about the revolution — the English revolution (English civil war) was a century prior to the American revolution and led to constitutional monarchy as a consequence. The French revolution also arguably led to a form of modern democracy.
- ^ Foreword: on American Exceptionalism; Symposium on Treaties, Enforcement, and U.S. Sovereignty, Stanford Law Review, 1 May 2003, Pg. 1479
- ^ Jacobs, Ron. “American Exceptionalism: A Disease of Conceit“, Counterpunch, 2004-07-21. Retrieved on 2007-06-13. .
- ^ Countries of all kinds, including Great Britain at the height of the British Empire, Israel, the USSR and Nazi Germany have claimed manifest exceptionality, as have many historic empires such as Ancient Rome and China, and a wide range of minor kingdoms and tribes in history. In each case a basis has been presented as to why the country is exceptional compared to all other countries, drawing upon circumstance, cultural background and mythos, and self-perceived national aims.