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American exceptionalism is the theory that the United States is different from other countries in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy. In this view, America's exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming "the first new nation," and developing a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. This observation can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the United States as "exceptional" in 1831 and 1840. Historian Gordon Wood has argued, "Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy."
The specific term "American exceptionalism" was first used in 1929 by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin chastising members of the Lovestone-led faction of the American Communist Party for the heretical belief that America was independent of the Marxist laws of history "thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions."
Although the term does not necessarily imply superiority, many neoconservative and American conservative writers have promoted its use in that sense. To them, the United States is like the biblical "shining city on a hill," and exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.
Since the 1960s, postnationalist scholars have rejected American exceptionalism, arguing that the United States had not broken from European history, and has retained class inequities, imperialism and war. Furthermore, they see most nations as subscribing to some form of exceptionalism.
Historian Dorothy Ross discussed three currents in American exceptionalism:
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.
American exceptionalism is closely tied to the idea of Manifest Destiny, a term used by Jacksonian Democrats in the 1840s to promote the acquisition of much of what is now the Western United States (the Oregon Territory, the Texas Annexation, the Gadsden Purchase, and the Mexican Cession).
Some scholars argue that other nations have also demonstrated exceptionalism in terms of systematically engaging in what they considered benevolent enterprises, such as Britain at the height of the British Empire, as well as the Communist state in Russia, and France in the wake of the French Revolution.
Scholars have explored possible justifications for the notion of American exceptionalism.
Many scholars use a model of American exceptionalism developed by Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz. In The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), Hartz argued that the American political tradition lacked the left-wing/socialist and right-wing/aristocratic elements that dominated in most other lands because colonial America lacked any feudal traditions, such as established churches, landed estates and a hereditary nobility. The "liberal consensus" school, typified by David Potter, Daniel Boorstin and Richard Hofstadter followed Hartz in emphasizing that political conflicts in American history remained within the tight boundaries of a liberal consensus regarding private property, individual rights, and representative government. The national government that emerged was far less centralized or nationalized as European counterparts.
Parts of American exceptionalism can be traced to American Puritan roots. 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. The Puritans' deep moralistic values remained part of the national identity of the United States for centuries, remaining influential to the present day.
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 were closely tied to republicanism, the belief that sovereignty belonged to the people, not to a hereditary ruling class.
Religious freedom characterized the American Revolution in unique ways—at a time when major nations had state religions. Republicanism (led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) created modern constitutional republicanism, with a limit on ecclesiastical powers. Historian Thomas Kidd (2010) argues, "With the onset of the revolutionary crisis, a major conceptual shift convinced Americans across the theological spectrum that God was raising up America for some special purpose." Kidd further argues that "a new blend of Christian and republican ideology led religious traditionalists to embrace wholesale the concept of republican virtue."
According to Tucker and Hendrickson (1992) Jefferson believed America "was the bearer of a new diplomacy, founded on the confidence of a free and virtuous people, that would secure ends based on the natural and universal rights of man, by means that escaped war and its corruptions." Jefferson sought a radical break from the traditional European emphasis on "reason of state" (which could justify any action) and the traditional priority of foreign policy and the needs of the ruling family over the needs of the people.
Jefferson envisaged America becoming the world's great "empire of liberty"--that is, the model for democracy and republicanism. He identified his nation as a beacon to the world, for, he said on departing the presidency in 1809, America was:
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.
One of Alexis de Toqueville's original arguments for American exceptionalism still stands; America remains particularly attractive to immigrants because of its perceived economic and political opportunities. Since its founding, many immigrants, such as Alexander Hamilton, Albert Gallatin, James J Hill, John Jacob Astor, Andrew Carnegie, Charlie Chaplin, Samuel Goldwyn, Bob Hope, Saul Bellow, Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and Arnold Schwarzenegger have risen to the top in business, media and politics, not to mention the success of the children of immigrants, such as Colin Powell and Barack Obama. The "American Dream" describes the perceived abundance of opportunities in the American system.
The United States has the largest population of immigrants in the world—over 38.5 million people living in the United States are first-generation immigrants, although on a percentage basis the immigrant population ranks 48th in the world. On an annual basis, the United States naturalizes approximately 898,000 immigrants as new citizens, first in the world in absolute terms, and 8th in the world in per capita terms. From 1960 to 2005, the United States was ranked first in the world for every five year period but one for the total number of immigrants admitted—overall, since 1995, the United States has admitted over 1 million immigrants per year. Of the top ten countries accepting resettled refugees in 2006, the United States accepted more than twice as many as the next nine countries combined, approximately 50,000 refugees; in addition, on average, over 100,000 refugees per year were resettled annually between 1990 and 2000; further, over 85,000 asylum seekers annually come to the United States in search of sanctuary, of which approximately 45% are successful in obtaining.
In June 1927 Jay Lovestone, a leader of the Communist Party in America and soon to be named General Secretary, described America's economic and social uniqueness. He noted the increasing strength of American capitalism, and the country's "tremendous reserve power"; a strength and power which he said prevented Communist revolution. In 1929, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, disagreeing that America was so resistant to revolution, called Lovestone's ideas "the heresy of American exceptionalism"—the first time that the specific term "American exceptionalism" was used. In the 1930s, academicians in the U.S. redefined American exceptionalism as befitting a nation that was to lead the world, with the newer United States ready to serve the older European societies as an example of a liberated future free from Marxism and socialism. More recently, socialists and other writers have tried to discover or describe this exceptionalism of the U.S. within and outside its borders.
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, America is inextricably connected with liberty and equality. This interpretation of American exceptionalism has been championed by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. In a 2011 film, A City Upon a Hill and book, A Nation Like No Other, Gingrich argues the claim to "exceptionalism" is "built on the unique belief that our rights do not come from the government, but from God, giving honor and responsibility to the individual – not the state."
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 proponents of the theory of American exceptionalism argue that this system and the accompanying distrust of concentrated power prevent the United States from suffering a "tyranny of the majority," are preservative a free republican democrat, 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 New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina 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 was 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.
For most of its history, especially from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, the United States has been 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 class and family background. Examples of this social mobility include:
However, social mobility in the US is lower than in a number of European Union countries if defined in terms of income movements. American men born into the lowest income quintile are much more likely to stay there compared to similar men in the Nordic countries or the United Kingdom. Many economists, such as Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, however, state that the discrepancy has little to do with class rigidity; rather, it is a reflection of income disparity: "Moving up and down a short ladder is a lot easier than moving up and down a tall one."
During the George W. Bush administration, the term was somewhat abstracted from its historical context. Proponents and opponents alike began using it to describe a phenomenon wherein certain political interests view the United States as being "above" or an "exception" to the law, specifically the Law of Nations. (This phenomenon is less concerned with justifying American uniqueness than with asserting its immunity to international law.) This new use of the term has served to confuse the topic and muddy the waters, since its unilateralist emphasis and historical orientation diverge somewhat from older uses of the term. A certain number of those who subscribe to "old-style" or "traditional American exceptionalism" the idea that America is a more nearly exceptional nation than are others, that it differs qualitatively from the rest of the world and has a special role to play in world history—also agree that the United States is and ought to be fully subject to and bound by the public international law. Indeed, recent research shows that "there is some indication for American exceptionalism among the [U.S.] public, but very little evidence of unilateral attitudes."
Marilyn B. Young argues that after the end of the Cold War in 1991, neoconservative intellectuals and policymakers embraced the idea of an "American empire," a national mission to establish freedom and democracy in other nations, particularly underdeveloped ones. She argues that after 9-11 the George W. Bush administration reoriented foreign policy to an insistence on maintaining the supreme military and economic power of America, an attitude that harmonized with this new vision of American empire. Young says the Iraq War (2003–2011) exemplified American exceptionalism.
In April 2009, Barack Obama responded to a journalist's question in Strasbourg with the statement, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." In the same response, Obama noted that "I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."
Critics on the left such as Marilyn Young and Howard Zinn have argued that American history is so morally flawed, citing slavery, civil rights and social welfare issues, that it cannot be an exemplar of virtue. Zinn argues that American exceptionalism cannot be of divine origin because it was not benign, especially when dealing with Native Americans.
Donald E. Pease defined American exceptionalism as a "state fantasy" and a "myth" in his 2009 book The New American Exceptionalism. Pease notes that "state fantasies cannot altogether conceal the inconsistencies they mask," showing how such events as the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the exposure of government incompetence after Hurricane Katrina "opened fissures in the myth of exceptionalism."
American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued that the automatic assumption, that America acts for the good, will bring about moral corruption. However Niebuhr did support the nation's Cold War policies. His position (called "Christian Realism") advocated a liberal notion of responsibility that justified interference in other nations.
U.S. historians like Thomas Bender "try and put an end to the recent revival of American exceptionalism, a defect he esteems to be inherited from the Cold War." Gary W. Reichard and Ted Dickson argue "how the development of the United States has always depended on its transactions with other nations for commodities, cultural values and populations." Roger Cohen asks, "How exceptional can you be when every major problem you face, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to gas prices, requires joint action?" Harold Koh distinguishes "distinctive rights, different labels, the 'flying buttress' mentality, and double standards. (...) [T]he fourth face—double standards—presents the most dangerous and destructive form of American exceptionalism." Godfrey Hodgson also concludes that "the US national myth is dangerous." Samantha Power asserts that "we're neither the shining example, nor even competent meddlers. It's going to take a generation or so to reclaim American exceptionalism." David F. Gordon argues that "we no longer have the power, we no longer have the resources. We are trying to make understand the fact that America is no longer a superpower."
Pope Leo XIII, who denounced what he deemed to be the heresy of americanism in the encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, was arguably referring to American exceptionalism in the ecclesiastical domain, when it is specifically applied to the teachings of Christianity and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. At the end of the 19th century, there was definitely a tendency among the Roman Catholic clergy in the United States to view American society as inherently different from other Christian nations and societies, and to argue that the entire understanding of Church doctrine had to be redrawn in order to meet the requirements of what is known as the American Experience, which supposedly included greater individualism, civil rights, the inheritance of the American revolution, Anglo-Saxon cultural traditions, economic liberalism, political reformism and egalitarianism, and Church-State separation.
Herbert London has defined pre-emptive declinism as a postmodern belief "that the United States is not an exceptional nation and is not entitled by virtue of history to play a role on the world stage different from other nations." London ascribed the view to Paul Krugman, among others. Krugman had written in The New York Times that "We’ve always known that America’s reign as the world’s greatest nation would eventually end. But most of us imagined that our downfall, when it came, would be something grand and tragic."
According to RealClearPolitics, declarations of America's declining power have been common in the English-language media. In 1988, Flora Lewis sighed that "Talk of U.S. decline is real in the sense that the U.S. can no longer pull all the levers of command or pay all the bills." According to Anthony Lewis in 1990, Europeans and Asians are already finding confirmation of their suspicion that the United States is in decline." Citing America's dependence on foreign sources for energy and "crucial weaknesses" in the military, Tom Wicker concluded "that maintaining superpower status is becoming more difficult—nearly impossible—for the United States." In 2004, Pat Buchanan lamented "the decline and fall of the greatest industrial republic the world had ever seen." In 2007, Matthew Parris of The Sunday Times in London wrote that the United States is "overstretched," romantically recalling the Kennedy presidency, when "America had the best arguments" and could use moral persuasion rather than force to have its way in the world. From his vantage point in Shanghai, the International Herald Tribune's Howard French worries about "the declining moral influence of the United States" over an emergent China.
In his book, The Post-American World, Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria refers to a "Post-American world" that he says, "is not about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else." A 2011 poll by Generation Opportunity found that 56% of Millennials supported the notion that the U.S. is qualitatively different from other nations.
In December 2009, historian Peter Baldwin published a book arguing that, despite widespread attempts to contrast the 'American way of life' and the 'European social model', America and Europe are actually very similar on a number of social and economic indices. Baldwin claimed that the black underclass accounts for many of those few areas where a stark difference exists between the US and Europe, such as homicide and child poverty. However, critic Andrew Moravcsik alleged that some of Baldwin's evidence actually supports the stereotype of a distinctive American model: a free-market system with little labor protection, an adversarial legal system, high murder rates, high rates of gun ownership, a large prison population, inequitable and expensive health care, and relatively widespread poverty.
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