The Myth of American Exceptionalism

by | Oct 11, 2013

America Zoom

When the Soviet Union collapsed, America loomed as the gleaming superpower. It looked like the country had solved all of its problems. It was the envy of the world. An end of history loomed. No longer. History has come back with a vengeance. And today, after a decade of ruinous wars, the only things worth copying are the memories.

Americans are only beginning to comprehend their difficulties. Perhaps this should not be surprising. For Americans have long been weaned on the notion that they represent an exceptional nation. And, to be fair, the American belief in exceptionalism is not exceptional. Quite the contrary. Throughout history, countries and peoples have believed that they were exceptional. The ancient Greeks believed it, and called everyone else “barbarian.” So did the Romans, who conquered the world and believed they were gods.

In more recent history, we had the Anglo-Saxons, who built the British Empire, which, in its expanse, spread further and wider than any previous imperium. Russia, too, is intimately acquainted with the idea of its own exceptionalism. We need only recall Hegumen Philotheus of Pskov, who talked about Moscow being the third Rome and that there would not be a fourth one. The idea of Russian exceptionalism was even more strongly expressed in Marxist-Leninist ideology, when Moscow created a denationalized ideological empire with a calling to free mankind from the tyranny of capitalism, and believed it had a historic mission to bring happiness to the entire world through a global victory of socialism, and later communism. It claimed that all people in the world would enjoy not only equality of opportunity, but of results. As a rule, all these ideas of exceptionalism rested on the twin pillars of ideology and myths.

Myths and ideological impulses abound in American history, too. The uniqueness of the country, its isolation from the rest of the world, and the unprecedented opportunity for growth and prosperity created the myth of the U.S. as a promised land that bestows upon its people unlimited room for development, personal freedom, entrepreneurship, and wealth. The American people, as the myth goes, enjoy and possess a global leadership mandate to enlighten the rest of the world and spread democratic values and institutions. At certain stages, when countries and people seem to be experiencing progress, they believe in their own myths as it seems fate itself is leading them forward and reality appears to bolster their claims to exceptionalism and a special place in the world. In this sense, American exceptionalism as a part of the American dream has long received confirmation in the continued development of both American society and the American state.

One of the main ideas of the American dream and American exceptionalism is that of freedom of the land, in which free people arrived and settled, and by the strength of their honest labor and the Protestant Ethic, achieved great results in their work, bringing prosperity to themselves and others. At the heart of this American dream and exceptionalism, lay the foundational notion that people have unlimited possibility to move up the social ladder without regard to national origin, starting social stratum, ethnic, religious or other association by birth, because society provided unlimited opportunity for economic, socio-cultural, or other advancement.

Another, very important feature of American exceptionalism was the certainty of Americans that they had the best Constitution–one that was created by a single stroke, thanks to the genius of the Founding Fathers, regarded by many as legendary demi-gods. Then there is the belief that American society is a nearly classless one. Here is a society that effectively battled poverty and created just relations between classes and social groups.

The problem comes, however, when these idealized myths run up against bleak realities. Consider the Soviet Union. For Russians remember very well that the worse the economy got in the Soviet Union and the weaker our international positions grew, the louder, intensively, and even angrily the Kremlin’s octogenarian leadership chanted the mantra of its own exceptionalism—the liberating mission of the Soviet Union, the historic significance of Marxist ideology and the inevitability of the triumph of socialism and communism worldwide. I believe that when Vladimir Putin wrote [3] in his New York Times essay that it is very dangerous to foster the idea of exceptionalism among Americans, he spoke from the point of view of someone whose country had already suffered the collapse of such illusions. It is perilous for politicians and society to fail to notice the moment in which the gap between ideology and reality becomes an abyss. In our case, such failure led to the collapse of the USSR. And, if I understand Putin correctly, he is calling on Americans not to repeat our mistakes. This is why, I think, many American politicians, analysts and journalists, instead of thanking President Putin for the friendly piece of advice, wrongly took offence. Putin was not disparaging America; he was warning it. And for a number of reasons his concerns are not unwarranted.

First, how true is it still that the vast majority of Americans believe in individualism, try to rely exclusively on their own labor and creative energy to reach prosperity for themselves and their families, as well as for society as a whole? We can immediately see how much individualism still lives in American society. What happens today is a far cry from the minimalist government of old and the weight of individual efforts on behalf of most of Americans. As Mitt Romney mentioned during his presidential campaign in 2012, 47 percent of Americans do not pay income taxes, but believe the government must help them with health care, nutrition (by providing food stamps), pay for their living, and help them in a number of other spheres, because they are, on their own, unable to take care of themselves and their families, and depend on the government to a great extent. Some estimates put the figure of such people even higher, at 49 percent, but this figure includes people who rely on the government due to old age, and receive Social Security and Medicare. Even more modest estimates put the proportion of dependents on the government at 35 percent. Many conservative analysts and politicians believe that this has already led to America losing its way of life, turned it into a socialist country akin to those of Western or Northern Europe, and made it a de facto “nanny state” that provides for an ever-increasing proportion of Americans.

The next important notion at the foundation of American exceptionalism and the American dream is that of unlimited vertical mobility. The situation here is similarly divorced from reality. Among the developed countries, the U.S. ranks close to the bottom on vertical mobility, while the smooth work of social advancement powered for a long time the myth of American exceptionalism. In a recent article in Izvestia, the American author Edward Luttwak, either due to naivete or because he hopes that no one in Russia has any idea of what is happening in the United States, pointed to the rise of Senator Menendez, whose parents were poor Cuban immigrants. Menendez, with his somewhat questionable reputation, is perhaps not an example of meritocracy at its best, and it is a pity that Luttwak did not think of someone else. One of my American colleagues—a former high-ranking official of the presidential administration—sardonically noted that Menendez’s case is hardly proof of exceptionalism, as nowadays any fool in the United States can become a Senator. To be fair, we have to say this is not unique to the United States—nowadays, just about anyone in any country can become a deputy in its parliament. According to Pew Research Center, data for the past few decades shows an increasing tendency of social class to influence the prospects of the next generation (income and education of parents are a stronger predictor of social class in the U.S. than in Canada, and Western or Northern European countries). In other words, we can see a dampening of social mobility, but the myth of it is still alive and well, and constantly parroted by politicians, analysts and journalists.

The near classlessness of American society is another prominent myth. Since the 1970s, the middle class has not only failed to grow, but has shrunk. Poverty is not only not being alleviated despite the constant fight against it, but since the time of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, it has claimed more people. Recent data shows that American society added fifteen million more people to the ranks of the poor in the twenty-first century. At the same time, for the first time in U.S. history, the top 1 percent of earners received 19.3 percent of total household income, which shows that social stratification is increasing rapidly. It is no accident that, during the last presidential campaign, Democrats claimed Republicans represented the “1 percent”—millionaires and billionaires in the country, while the Democratic Party claimed to represent the other 99 percent, who constantly seem to lose on the free market and need government support.

There is another circumstance indicative of the fact that the myth of American exceptionalism is in deep crisis. It is the fact that, while once many countries tried to copy the American political system and enviously read the U.S. Constitution that had persevered intact for so long, it is increasingly evident that this Constitution, written in the eighteenth century, is increasingly antiquated. The government only grows more dysfunctional. The shutdown has not been shut down. A default on the government’s debt looms in just a few days, threatening both the American and the world economy. The problem is that the division of power and checks and balances system ordained by the eighteenth-century Constitution as well as a few other conditions that now aggravate the situation, is presently creating a mechanism of power that cannot function in the changing political climate without one party being in control of both houses in Congress, as well as having a supermajority in the Senate of sixty or more Senators, in addition to controlling the White House to be able to adopt any serious decisions. Otherwise, any decision can be blocked by the excessive checks and balances.

One last word on American exceptionalism is in order. The global economic crisis of 2008-2009 showed that the American economy had fewer levers of handling the crisis than did, as believed, the Chinese economy. The political system, as we already said, demonstrated its extreme dysfunctionality in decision making. In international relations, the sole superpower made a series of crucial decisions in the wake of September 11, which led to prolonged and torturous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, negatively affecting not just the U.S., but also the region.

The Obama administration’s decisions about Libya, Egypt, and Syria were not marked by deep wisdom either. The U.S. left Iraq without having accomplished its goals, without leaving a democracy, or any sort of order and stability in their wake, and without even a U.S.-friendly government there. They are leaving Afghanistan with unclear consequences for the future of the country. Together with the French, Italians and other countries, American interference destroyed Libyan governance and no one can guess what will happen next. Washington is at a loss as to what to do with Egypt, which it has significantly destabilized. The United States is mired in difficulty with regard to Iran, Syria and other problematic situations. We can thus conclude unequivocally about Washington’s global role that American politicians need to wake up to the fact that the epoch in which American strategists believed they could rule the world has come to an end. A new era has begun, in which the U.S. must negotiate with its partners and allies, learn to take into account their interests, and create coalitions to solve pressing problems that cannot be solved single-handedly even by such a powerful country as the United States. The United States remains the preeminent economic powerhouse despite its colossal government debt and acute social and other problems. The defense spending in all other leading countries combined cannot reach American levels, while all the same the U.S. seems to be on a downward path. The country is shedding more and more elements of its exceptionalism both domestically and internationally, while they are still being cultivated in American mythology and ideology repeated daily by politicians and neocon analysts.

This, friends, is why I think that the last paragraph of Putin’s article in The New York Times provoked such a violent reaction among the American establishment. Though Putin did not explicitly say that the emperor has no clothes, he hinted that the emperor does not know very well what his garb is. When I discussed this notion with a friend of mine who is an American pundit, he noted very cleverly that even though the emperor is not fully naked, he has failed to notice that his clothes have begun to slip off.


Andranik Migranyan is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York.

Reprinted from National Interest with author’s permission.

Flickr/Dave’s place Indelight


  • Andranik Migranyan

    Andranik Migranyan is an Armenian-born Russian politologist, who works as a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

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