Is America still exceptional?


Considering Five Misconceptions about American Exceptionalism

MISCONCEPTION:
REALITY:

The idea of American exceptionalism was first fostered by Americans.

American exceptionalism is a concept that was shared by observers throughout the Western world — not just Americans. The founders certainly believed they were creating something of extraordinary significance, but it was foreigners who took the lead in describing the United States as being unlike all other countries, and her people unlike those they encountered in other lands.

MISCONCEPTION:
REALITY:

American exceptionalism implies American superiority.

The concept of American exceptionalism has become associated with emotions and value judgments — a kind of jingoism for those who disapprove, or patriotism for those who approve. But American exceptionalism does not imply that America is excellent. Even those who see American traits as positive must also acknowledge shameful aspects of our history, including slavery; the extermination of Native Americans; and the current American obsession with money, possessions, and power.

MISCONCEPTION

 

REALITY:

American exceptionalism is permanent.

American exceptionalism refers to qualities first observed in our early history. There is no reason that these same qualities necessarily still apply today, and the extent to which they do is an empirical question. Though America still has exceptional aspects today, it is no longer the unique outlier that amused, amazed, and bemused the rest of the world from its founding through the first half of the 20th century.

MISCONCEPTION

 

REALITY:

American exceptionalism is subjective.

American exceptionalism is a fact of America’s past, not something that one can choose to “believe in” any more than one can choose whether to believe in the Battle of Gettysburg. Understanding its meaning is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand what it has historically meant to be an American.

MISCONCEPTION

 

REALITY:

American exceptionalism is an outdated idea that is no longer relevant.
Even if we are not as exceptional today as we once were, this does not mean that the idea of American exceptionalism is irrelevant. Quite the contrary: it is one of our most important duties as American citizens to consider whether the changes in American exceptionalism are for better or worse. Only after we more clearly understand our beginnings can we know what we want for America’s future.


Based on American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History by Charles Murray (AEI Press, 2013)

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