American exceptionalism is the view or theory that the United States is unique or inherently different from other nations. It is marked by a distinct set of values such as equality, self-rule, limited government, and freedom.
Underneath this expression is a belief that America is superior to other nations and therefore has the right to assume a leadership role and impose its own worldview on the rest of the world. According to the historian T. Harry Williams, Lincoln believed that the United States was the supreme demonstration of democracy and that the Union did not exist just to make men free in America. It had an even greater mission—to make them free everywhere. By the mere force of its example, America would democratize an undemocratic world.
Last week democracy itself, along with its democratic institutions, and democratically elected representatives, came under attack from Trumpian mobs within America. As days have gone by, we have heard increasingly incredible news about the insurgents’ plans to assassinate some congressional leaders including Pence, which sound like stories coming out of a Banana Republic. If this insurrection had succeeded, it would have sounded not only the death knell of democracy in America but also the end of American exceptionalism. It’s because American exceptionalism sprouted from, and owes its flowering to, American democracy. The myth of American exceptionalism would have broken because there is nothing exceptional about a country where you can overturn the results of a perfectly legitimate election with mob violence.
American exceptionalism has also been dented by other events in the last few decades. As mentioned earlier, exceptionalism implies ‘superiority’, and therefore the idea that America can do no wrong. Another implication is that America can and must shape the future of this planet. But history does not support this. To give but a few examples, the American support to its ally, the Shah of Iran, was unable to prevent his overthrow and deportation in 1978 and the coming into power of a regime which is still a top adversary to the American government forty years later. The American involvement in the 2nd Gulf War did not have the desired effect; it rather gave birth to ISIS which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Finally, the lengthy American support to Pakistan including membership in CENTO, and the grant of billions of dollars in aid and armaments to help America fight a proxy war against Soviets in Afghanistan only resulted in the creation of Al Qaeda and its hordes of terrorists that ultimately attacked America itself, and resulted in the start of the global war on terror. The hiding of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan itself not only speaks volumes about the treachery of the Pakistani regime, but also calls into question the validity of American exceptionalism.
The proponents of American exceptionalism would argue that nothing has changed, and that America remains great because American institutions including the Congress, the Judiciary, the military, the media – both new and old – managed to remain on terra firma. On that difficult day on January 6, the people’s representatives, by and large, managed to demonstrate to the world that they represented a government of the people, for the people, and by the people. But the support of ten Republican Congressmen to impeach Trump for the insurrection hides the fact that 197 Republican members of the House did not support the impeachment, thereby showing some solidarity with the insurrectionists.
America is not the only country to proclaim American exceptionalism. Before America it was Japan claiming uniqueness. Japan was preceded by Great Britain by virtue of its being the largest colonial power, with its ‘divine’ mission to civilize humanity. And now in about five years’ time, it would be the turn of China to claim exceptionalism due to its seeming success in lifting tens of millions of Chinese people out of poverty within a time span of fifty years. And then in 1935 or thereabouts, it would be India, by then the third largest economy claiming exceptionalism based on its ancient culture and civilization. America would have a hard time holding on to its American exceptionalism with the arrival of new claimants and also partly due to domestic mishaps. Four hundred thousand dead Americans or exactly twenty percent of the world total at the time of this writing, does not speak flatteringly of American exceptionalism.
Eventually, a country’s exceptionalism does not depend on how forcefully it is proclaimed by its citizens or government, it depends on how lovingly it is expressed by others. I have lived in various countries during the last fifty years, and I also travel quite a bit. When somebody asks me where I come from, and I say “Japan”, I can clearly notice an immediate upgrade of my profile in the eyes of the questioner. “Wow, Japan is a great country”, is usually what they say. I have not noticed similar reactions when my reply was America, Australia, or England. This, I believe, is the real “Exceptionalism”.