Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
November 18, 2008

Abandoning Exceptionalism as National Identity

Anna missed muses about the demise of american exceptionalism:

[S]ince the Nixonian era of red-baiting, [..] the republicans have become the standard bearers of American exceptionalism - in that they have consolidated under them methods that have eventually led to the demise of said exceptionalism, while at the same time still appearing to idealize it.

American exceptionalism, as anna missed sees it, is build on a few certain specific conditions:

The three main pillars of which would be 1) a laissez-fare economy, 2) an equitable and apolitical judicary & legal system, and 3) a system that favors individualism over state power structures [..] which as an end result produces a meritocratic but egalitarian society that highly values individual initiative over statism.

Take those away, as the Republicans did, exceptionalism is a hollow shell and will die.

But exceptionalism as a common identity is a necessity for such a diverse country as the U.S. is. Without exceptionalism it might fall apart in ethnic and  social sectarianism.

In a second piece anna missed looks at political implications:

In the present climate of economic jeopardy its hard to say what happens when such an arrangement, is faced with the prospects of failing to deliver the promised goods, and the all expectations that go with achieving a better material life.
If the democrats fail to heed the Republican example, and proceed in undermining the social and economic arrangements of exceptionalism and neglect shoring up [a]nd maintaining those foundations with FDR type programs, choosing instead to proceed feeding the corporatist giant - American exceptionalism will finally be dead enough to ferment its own, but very unexceptional in the world of such things, popular leftist revolution.

I don't think that a popular leftist revolution would be the inevitable outcome. Some form of authoritarian rule  seems more likely to me. Authoritarian rule combined with corporatism is the classic definition of fascism ...

I also wonder if reinstalling American exceptionalism by reviving the egalitarian individualism on which it is based is the way to go and if the democrats should really pursue such an aim at all.

Why not end exceptionalism once and for all?

In a recent book-club event at firedogleg, Andrew Bacevich argued for that:

I’ve come to believe that American Exceptionalism is the root of all evils. Once you decide that you’re God’s new Chosen People, self-awareness becomes very difficult.

We need to shed our sense of uniqueness and our sense of entitlement. We need to become a normal nation.

Of course, that’s akin to saying that we should abandon our identity — which isn’t likely to happen.

Hence, my pessimism.

 If the basic agreements that underlie 'the root of all evil' have been eroded, is it really a good idea to, if possible at all, revive them?

Probably not.

But if exceptionalism is a necessity to define and keep the U.S. together as one nation, unless some other common theme can be found, abandoning the 'root of all evil' might well dissolve that nation.

As the USSR has shown such dissolving because of inner contradictions is possible under extreme economic pressure. Ethnographic trends in the south-western U.S. may already point into such a direction.

Posted by b on November 18, 2008 at 13:20 UTC | Permalink


Contemporarily, the only thing that is abnormal about the U.S. is its large military, propensity to war & overly-aggressive corporate posture.

I don't believe U.S. 'exceptionalism' ever existed - it's a nurtured myth based on superstition derived from America's religious roots, in combination with the strange obsession / fascination / admiration which many U.S. citizens within elite-circles, throughout U.S. history, have had – and continue to have, in some cases – for the English. Read what, for example, Prime Minister Gladstone wrote about England and its role in the world at the turn of the 19th century; right there. There's your exceptionalism. Not.

It's a false reality, manufactured.

Posted by: Al | Nov 18 2008 14:03 utc | 1

For anyone keen to do some thinking about this style of opinion, among heaps of another literature which is obviously book I'd really like to recommend is: 'Faustian Foreign Policy from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush: Dreams of Perfectibility’, written by Joaan Hoff and published in Leiden by Cambridge University Press, 2007. Really quite an interesting book.

Posted by: Al | Nov 18 2008 14:13 utc | 2

Dad to me, many years ago.

Son, you are unique, just like everyone else.

Posted by: IntelVet | Nov 18 2008 14:14 utc | 3

American Exceptionalism is alive and well, and increasing.

The 2008 Democratic platform: RENEWING AMERICA'S PROMISE: The Democratic Party believes that there is no more important priority than renewing American leadership on the world stage.

And to be sure that other countries get the message, the US military ground forces are being increased by 92,000.

Go USA! And when you’re running down my country, hoss, you’re walking on the fightin' side of me.

Posted by: Don Bacon | Nov 18 2008 15:41 utc | 4

What Don said.

Popular leftist revolution? In some rather distant parallel universe, maybe.

Posted by: Cloud | Nov 18 2008 16:36 utc | 5

Hard not to see as Divine Providence when the leading countries of Europe and the World self-destructed in the first half of the XX century, leaving a once higly isolationist United States the single major military, economic and cultural power in the world.

They have managed to hang onto that position for half a century now. It is just America's turn at bat right now, it enjoys a pre-eminent position once held by countries like France in the XVII century, Spain in the XVI, etc. back through the ages.

I hope they take advantage of their chance to make the best of it and not run it aground like all the other leading nations that found themselves to be special and exceptional...

Posted by: ralphieboy | Nov 18 2008 16:46 utc | 6

Excusing perhaps maybe a bit of quivelling around the edges, I entirely agree w/AM's outline of repubs conditions/actions she (and many others) calls: American Exceptionalism.

Personally I think the term is non-illuminating... in and of itself it does not indicate how all this has divided the US against itself, nor does it take into account the majority of US citizens who, unknowingly, have been it's victims.

In short, it does not suggest all this stuff is criminal.

Be that as it may, there has been much in last week (mostly comments) trying to tie BO to this term: this, I object to. It could turn out that way, but alternative opportunities are huge... particularly given acute crisis we now face. And as others have said, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

It seems US public is starting to get conscious about it. Only starting to, however...

Watching BushCo's attempts to suck as much vitality out of US on his way out the door, for me anyway, a huge reminder of these guy's dedication to their methods. In addition to recent drilling/mining leases in Co. & Grand Canyon, from ThinkProgress' morning summary today:

* Bush administration is pushing a last-minute proposal to “grant sweeping new protections to health care providers who oppose abortion and other procedures on religious or moral grounds.”

* Just weeks before leaving office, the Interior Department’s top lawyer has shifted half a dozen key deputies — including two former political appointees who have been involved in controversial environmental decisions — into senior civil service posts.” The move will “deprive the incoming Obama administration of the chance to install its preferred appointees in some key jobs.”

Why not end exceptionalism once and for all?


Posted by: jdmckay | Nov 18 2008 16:50 utc | 7

Culturally, the US is held together by ‘exceptionalism’, the false perception and/or adherence to ‘equality’ and the Constitution.

(To make it horrifically short.)

The last has bitten the dust though many seem not to notice.

The second, equality, is being questioned - Wall St. bail out, etc. The bail-outs are stigmatized under the label socialism - taxpayer money going to greedy bankers or incompetent auto makers, thus undermining one of the very reasons for ‘exceptionalism’, the sacrosanct yet lunatic ‘free market.’

The partial collapse or negation of the fundamental values will lead to re-affirming them, and exceptionalism, as an abstract, ethereal value, can be reinforced - at present it is so hourly by the MSM. (Valiant, hard hitting, most creative, most productive, technologically savvy, etc. workers, with the ‘best system’, etc. etc.)

The demeaning label ‘socialism’ is a misnomer for corporatism and some brand of nationalism - the same as that espoused by Fascism in the past. Very telling that the criticism is BS and misses its mark - so is useless. A rough comparison, to be sure, as in the 30’s national economies were more nation-bound.

One guesses that the bail-outs while wrapped in in different generes - alarmist, progressive, caring, whatever- , are a mask for conserving dollar hegemony, not only saving ‘buddies’, who contributed to campaigns and have their hand out with a gun behind their back, or to the constituents who are to march to the voting booth after they get their own little bail out ...pork for security or water-can dribbles for new ‘education’ or the huge agri subsidies for green ‘energy’...but a fight for survival...

Obama may close Gitmo, let’s hope he does. That was coming up anyway. Will he repeal the Patriot Act?

Posted by: Tangerine | Nov 18 2008 18:12 utc | 8

I see US exceptionalism as analogous to Oakland Raider fans- Nursing the image of a bad-ass bunch of tough guys, living on long-dead past glories, not caring that the whole franchise was destroyed by greedy, selfish owners who screwed everyone they could. Losing just re-enforces the mystique. Let's put a pirate on the US flag while we're at it.

Posted by: biklett | Nov 18 2008 18:17 utc | 9

Hmm - my main point has not yet been picked up (I should write more explicitly).

I agree with anna missed that the basis of exceptionalism is undermined.
I agree with anna missed (and Bachevich) that exceptionalism is what keeps the U.S. together.

I do not agree with anna missed that the democrats should repair the damage done and revive the fabric.

A consequence could be that the U.S. falls apart. So what ...

Posted by: b | Nov 18 2008 18:36 utc | 10

the republicans have become the standard bearers of American exceptionalism - in that they have consolidated under them methods that have eventually led to the demise of said exceptionalism

let's hope! that said i am not sure this republican version of american exceptionalism best defines my concept of current AC which is more aligned w/Mohammed Ibn Laith's comment [post 167 linked from anna missed]

Americans have set themselves up as a sort of master race. By this I mean that they are convinced that merely by virtue of being American that they are the “good guys”.

From the very earliest times you have said that you were a “shining city on a hill” that God has chosen and set you apart to bring the world to your ways and your values. From this it follows that all who oppose you must by definition be evil. Any method is justified to force us to forsake evil and become good little imitation Americans who will gladly give you what you want.

wiki describes the traditional:

The basis most commonly cited for American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States and its people differ from (note: "differ from", not "are superior to") most other nations as an association of people who came from numerous places throughout the world but who hold a common bond in belief in certain values, like democracy, the rule of law, civil liberty, the common good, fair play, human rights, private property, and Constitutional government; and that through these values America diverged from the rest of the world during its early years.

while wiki's description best describes the 'rational' for exceptionalism, Ibn Laith describes how it translates, or is currently morphed and incorporated into (some)american minds. using this morphed version the republicans then sort of reinvented the meaning to come up w/the pretext of what americanism means (in theory) which AM asserts: "which as an end result produces a meritocratic but egalitarian society that highly values individual initiative over statism...

but this is just a ruse! because as everyone knows both parties partake in statism and generally squashes individual initiative unless it 'conforms' to the agenda!

b, But if exceptionalism is a necessity to define and keep the U.S. together as one nation, unless some other common theme can be found, abandoning the 'root of all evil' might well dissolve that nation.

this 'root of all evil' exceptionalism has not been what has kept this nation together, only what has made it powerful in the world. i do not think necessarily we would dissolve as a nation if we abandon the 'root of all evil'.

We need to become a normal nation.

i completely agree. i think it can be done however i don't think it is too likely in the near future. but i do think we are changing so fast demographically and those demographics are unlikely to divide and separate into sectarian factions imho. i think we are more likely to homogenize into a more multi faceted coalition. i like to think there is a will to be not a 'force' of good, but part of a global avenue of opportunity (like finding solutions for free global energy).

there is likely some form of 'agreement' w/the rest of the world america is exceptional, or we wouldn't get away w/the plunder. if the rest of the world doesn't treat us as such (better) and enough of our own citizens don't think we are 'better' than other humans, there is a possibility we can use our belief in uniqueness, or diversity to still feel exceptional, but without an exceptionality that implies or grants any kind of superiority. similiar to wikis description and IntelVet's dads.

one more thing, i believe at some point humans are going to have to abandon this fixation on money to survive, this will happen unless extinction gets us first. what better time than w/a generation born into massive debt and the prospects of total energy depletion. our minds are so programed to think in terms of blocks of time that move in conventional preconceived notions. if anything we should have learned over the course of the last few decades is that things happen faster, changes occur more dramatically. do i think i will witness and significant change in the way we perceive american exceptionalism and our place in the global community in my lifetime? yes. most definitely.

Posted by: annie | Nov 18 2008 18:37 utc | 11

A consequence could be that the U.S. falls apart. So what ... don't think you need to be any more explicit than that, b.

Posted by: Lizard | Nov 18 2008 19:25 utc | 12

Thanks b, for linking this.

First, I think the U.S. in many respects, is actually un-exceptional compared to its social(ist) democracratic counterparts in Europe. It is, like them a large welfare state with most of its budget spent on government programs and entitlements. But there are important differences as well, and the rubric of American exceptionalism is the engine that pushes these differences on the people, as a means to its ends. It makes promises and demands to the people, and in exchange is expected to cough up tangible results.

It's basically the American dream deal, where people don't rely on the government for basic services such as housing, health care, educational opportunities, etc. And the people being relieved of a large tax burden, can use their own initiative to take up the slack. In this respect the system does differ from from the European models, and has allowed the U.S. government to evade the more typical nationalizations and to develop privatization as a significant alternative mode.

(more later, gotta go to work)

Posted by: anna missed | Nov 18 2008 19:59 utc | 13

Al #1--

I would agree that exceptionalism is a false reality, but is the one reality, true or false, that gets the most American belief. Right here in blogland, we see that the right blogosphere and the left blogosphere disagree on many things, but the American ones agree on belief in exceptionalism with a unanimity is just stunning.

The naysayers, no matter how thoughtful they are, are plainly "kooks" who don't "get it." There aren't many of them.

anna missed--

Where the left exists as a political force they will have their hands full adapting their ideology of fairness and sharing to a resource-scarce environment.

In the US the left is not a political force, and the only questions are what form Fascism will take, and how long it will last before reality does in its material basis of existence. Oh, yes, and how will the public be fooled and managed. Obama is key to the answer of the last question right now.

What will arise from the wreckage of the US? There are many possibilities, but socialism is not one of them.

When you see that theft, greed, and fascism can only be denounced by calling them socialist, you see that the left is truly finished. Time to start over with a new ideology. Be creative.

Posted by: Gaianne | Nov 18 2008 21:55 utc | 14

I'm not sure that rebellion against the system as it now exists is possible (e.g.: How would rebels coordinate? All communications are subject to surveillance of one sort or another.). I think there are at least two more likely scenarios: 1) Obama turns out to be a second FDR and saves capitalism from itself for another fifty years. 2) Obama turns out to be the helpless, hapless pawn of Capital and continues down the road laid out by Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and the neocons. It all ends when the rest of the world comes to America and does for the American people what America did for the Germans and the Japanese in 1945.

In accordance with the principle that fascists never willingly cede power, my personal bet is on option number two: Those (like the neocons and their Neanderthal adherents) who think the United States cannot be militarily defeated are deluded. America cannot prevail militarily against the rest of the world. We no longer have the money and the resources to squander on such a war. We never had the manpower. Nuclear weapons are not a viable option because other powers have them, too (discounting the likelihood that a madman like Cheney will have his finger on the button at the appropriate moment).

Posted by: Jimmy Montague | Nov 18 2008 22:07 utc | 15

theres two sides to exceptionalism - the self-dubbed & the onlooker-dubbed. And its the self-dubbed that can get you in trouble. Also, if one could slip a mike into the room where the Southern-Strategists meet to do the Broeder-bonding thing, they would be revealed to be far more parochial than exceptional. And these are the guys who have dominated (read owned) USA political power over the last 40 years, during all of which exceptionalism has been alive & well.

but the real problem with exceptionalism is not in the feeling it, its the asserting it thats going to get you all twisted. If Americans would get over their fear & resentment of becoming less than exceptional, onlookers may actually begin to consider again that perhaps America can be exceptional.

Posted by: jony_b_cool | Nov 19 2008 1:07 utc | 16

"Al #1--

I would agree that exceptionalism is a false reality, but is the one reality, true or false, that gets the most American belief"

So this makes it okay to accept a myth? Propoganda? A lie?

American citizens are indoctrinated from a young age with this entire 'exceptionalism' idea, either explicitly or implicitly. Do you think this is a mistake? A coincidence? No. It's an organised and scientific method of indoctrination in order that the citizenry acquiesce to the conduct of the 'governing' elite, regardless of the integrity of their actions. The US cannot evolve until it distants itself from this myth.

Posted by: G | Nov 19 2008 1:59 utc | 17

In this sense it has inexorably meshed into and further propelled the military-industrial complex and christian fundamentalists.

Posted by: Al | Nov 19 2008 2:02 utc | 18

I agree with Gaianne, that excptionalism is largely a belief system, but underlying that is an expectation that the arrangement must deliver the goods. If the arrangement doesn't deliver the goods, as it increasingly looks like it cannot, then the question becomes whether to try and correct what has been corrupted - or to chuck out the entire notion for being corrupt itself.

From an academic perspective, exceptionalism can be argued as having been successful in mediating the party differential, as indicated in the observation that both parties are subscribers. It can also be argued to have been a necessary component (as a shared belief) in mediating the multitude of immigrant and cultural differences (with varying degrees of success) inherent in the U.S. demographic, along with the emergence and equal access toward joining an unlimited, ever expanding middle class.

On the other side of the coin, exceptionalism can be seen as the root of the problem, or as the core stubborn resistance, avoidance, and counter revolutionary impediment to the natural evolution of things political. An internally ingested cultural brew of religion and capitalism that demands people be stripped of their heritage identity and turned into narcissistic, apolitical, sociopathic, and unquestioning drones of malignant empire.

Unfortunately, I think there is ample evidence that both assertions are correct. That they are interdependent parts of the same beast. This particular empire could not fly were it not for the wings of the exceptionalist dream, which is itself dependent on the machinations of empire and its quest of exploitation.

I think the best we could realistically expect from an Obama administration is for him to mount a fighting retreat from both empire and exceptionalism.

Now that the exceptionalist arrangement is beginning to unravel

Posted by: anna missed | Nov 19 2008 3:35 utc | 19

Al 1)


$19,000M a year, each and every year, whether NASA launches a Shuttle or not,
and very soon now, that Shuttle program will be abandoned, but NASA's budget
will jump up to $30,000M a year for a Grand Parade ala Mars aka Fat Tuesday.
NASA employs 18,276 persons, that's a burn rate of $1,040,000 per employee,
which will jump to $1,640,000 per employee, and there won't be any Shuttle!!
[Remember, sat TV, sat photo and sat GPS are all privately-funded space ventures]

By comparison, GM, Ford & Chrysler have roughly 300,000, 300,000 & 489,000
employees, respectively. At the same burn rate as NASA, if publicly funded like
NASA is, the Big 3 annual budget would be $1,128,000M a year, over a $T's, but
they actually return a profit! That is, UNLIKE NASA, the Big 3 earn their way!

You obviously never worked in government, Al, or walked in their golden moccasins.
You clearly have absolutely no idea of how much they have stolen, or are about to.

Then you might ask yourself, if real US savings are negative, and real GDP is -7%,
and government budgets are set to increase 6% next year anyway, and carbon taxes to sidestream even more government payroll are coming online, where is my 401k?!

Then you might wonder, if utilities fees, surcharges and taxes for the average US household are over 50% of average SSTF monthly payments, and those utilities fees, surcharges and taxes will double the cost of utilities and property taxes in ten years from now, than will I have to go live in a tent, or in a community shelter?
Will I have a barcode tatoo and RFID implant if I live in the State-run tenement?

Well, that would be a yes, Al! And maybe an ear tag too!!


Posted by: Jeraldine Ferragamo | Nov 19 2008 4:28 utc | 20

Obama was given to the American people by the elite foundations to make them believe in US exceptionalism.

Posted by: Al | Nov 19 2008 4:31 utc | 21

Jeraldine Ferragamo,

Yes? $2 trillion also randomly 'went missing' on Sept. 10, 2001 What has any of this got to do with the US's so called exceptionalism?

Posted by: Al | Nov 19 2008 5:31 utc | 22

"Manifest Destiny" should at least be mentioned in connection with the conceit of "Exceptionalism", therefore I mention it.

Posted by: Chuck Cliff | Nov 19 2008 6:37 utc | 23

Certainly "Manifest Destiny" is prototypical of American Exceptionalism as an un-codified belief system and an outward expression in foreign policy. Jackson also incorporated an emphasis on individualism, promoted extending suffrage, and favored a laissez-faire economy.

Posted by: anna missed | Nov 19 2008 9:54 utc | 24

MD = predominantly the result of religious nuts justifying to themselves and others foreign expansion / colonisation - i.e. this is why the English did, as I said above, express similar sentiments during the late 18th - early 20th century...

Posted by: Al | Nov 19 2008 10:18 utc | 25

It is interesting that the coinage of the term American Exceptionalsm by Alexis de-Tocqueville in 1831 occurred during Jackson's presidency. As it exemplifies just how historically entrenched the belief is. And given the state of the nation at that time - a recently formed political state with unlimited potential to expand into a basically unoccupied (as Jackson saw it) resource rich vast territory, and a nation being rapidly populated with an array of various immigrant populations - that such a construct would be generated, not only to justify the slaughter of the indigenous populations, but to frame it to the many different immigrant populations as new kind of "other" in need of re-education or death.

Posted by: anna missed | Nov 19 2008 10:26 utc | 26

America would truly be exceptional if it didn't practice exceptionalism: it has been a trait of all large nations & empires throughout history.

And in almost every case, has led to their downfall...

Posted by: ralphieboy | Nov 19 2008 11:20 utc | 27

It's basically the American dream deal, where people don't rely on the government for basic services such as housing, health care, educational opportunities, etc. - anna missed wrote.

(I shall henceforth be more explicit and less round about....)

Yes, but it is indeed a myth; and one that is easily contradicted by reality. It is not a vision, or a hope, or built on ‘special’ ethnic characteristics, etc.

Social mobility in the US is the lowest (or amongst the very lowest) in the developed countries. Children’s well being is the second worst - Britain takes the bottom rank for that.

Racism and classism which are masked by the myth have participated in creating a poor underclass, 1.5 million of whom are imprisoned. (Say, subtracting half a million criminals.)

The US is more ‘socialist’ than many EU countries. Now so much nonsense is written and calculated about taxes, the comparisons aren’t easy...In reasoned comparisons the US usually comes up around the median or in the second quarter, above the median. The US Gvmt. for ex spends more on college students than France does! If one would add on some sum each month for health care - that is the portion paid out of pocket by working adults (not covered by Medicaid, Medicare, other) and their employers, the US would figure amongst the top 15 or so. One could extend that reasoning to education, etc. but it all becomes absurd, too involved.

Imho the ‘low taxes’ quasi-religious mantra not only serves to reinforce the myth but is a tactic to cover up the hallucinating military spending.>federal taxes from war resisters

While the waitress at Joe’s diner may hold many beliefs about the goodness and greatness of Americans and/or the US system, in international comparisons, the US is sharply, notably, ‘an exception’ or ‘an outlier’, essentially different from other industrialised/developed countries in *only* this one respect.

Posted by: Tangerine | Nov 19 2008 15:15 utc | 28

Fiddling over daffynitions of "exceptionalism" throughout history whilst the world burns...I think I'm burnt out.

Posted by: James Crow | Nov 19 2008 15:33 utc | 29

Yeah Tangerine especially if that huge percentage going to military & corporate giveaways were redirected to social programs, healthcare, etc there would be no practical difference between the U.S. and Euro.

On the other hand the U.S. is (ironically) exceptional in the type of deregulated capitalism it has developed - one that has turned the (rather fascinating) concept of>rent seeking into a national industry, if not the primary national industry.

Posted by: anna missed | Nov 19 2008 18:24 utc | 30

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