American exceptionalism has been a hot topic of debate, and in particular, since the 2008 Presidential election. Since then, it has been used as a go-to point for argument and debate over American leadership and what her role is and should be, with respect to other nations of the world today. The domestic debates tend to be in alignment with party platforms, arguing the pros and cons of our hegemony based on a few common criteria including our elite economic status and financial power, our military capabilities, and our image in the global community as the leader of the free world.

However, the public dialogue, and in particular the conservative base, is remiss in dismissing, pertinent information which may alter the reality of our state of exceptionalism. Naturally, Americans want to hear that we are exceptional. Yet, there are other factors to be considered, as some scholarly writers have expressed that although we have been successful in areas such as economic growth and military leadership, we have failed to maintain our own economic and social infrastructure, which has left us fragile and unable to maintain the following of other nations.

The concept of American exceptionalism, which we refer to today, was first introduced in 1831, by the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his book, “Democracy in America” (CSPAN). Tocqueville expressed America’s uniqueness in her rise out of revolution, and creation of a new ideology, “Americanism”, he writes, is “based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, populism and laissez-faire. The Communist party, along with many liberal political elites, has continued to use this term inciting arrogance against Americans, and remains popular today in the vernacular of politicians. To explain the recent dramatic increase in our awareness of this issue, Robert Tomes, Director of the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs and Adjunct Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University, in a quote in Survival Magazine, says that “exceptionalist discourse” is increasing and has risen in its appearance in US Publications from 457 times in 1980, to more than 4,172 times in 2012 (27). Currently, the Tea Party Conservatives at the far Right of the political bench, wave the flag with pro-American exceptionalist sentiment; while the Liberals, on the far left, seek to downplay America’s role in the global community and pursue a more unifying and team-like approach with other nations.

A very visible dialogue over this topic was during the Presidential election season in 2008. President Barack Obama said publicly that America is not exceptional, and Romney capitalized on it to rally his base. The Washington Post reports President Obama saying in 2009, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” (Blake). But, at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney retorted with a very different view:

American exceptionalism is organized around these bedrock principles: America must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose, and resolve in our might…No friend of America will question our commitment to support them, no enemy that attacks America will question our resolve to defeat them, and no one anywhere, friend or foe, will doubt America’s capability to back up our words (Kitfield).

Other promoters of American exceptionalism put forward similar flag-waving sentiment include the former Alaskan Governor, Sarah Palin, and political think tank leaders such as Jim DeMint, CEO of the Heritage Foundation (a major GOP financial supporter). In his book, Falling in Love with America Again, Jim DeMint writes of the early triumphs of America and how a great nation has arisen from its ashes. He claims that no other country has been able to produce such great wealth, democratic stability, and has become such a great leader of all nations. He proudly proclaims, “In the twentieth Century, we fought two world wars, overcame The Great Depression…applauded the triumph of the civil rights movement, welcomed the equal treatment of women in the workplace, {and} won the Cold War without firing a single shot” (273).

Pro-Americans like Jim DeMint tout the free markets as being primary in the exponential growth of America’s economy, and also our natural resources, using the energy market as an example by claiming America has enough gas (in the form of shale) to meet our own needs for the next 175 years; and that this in itself, if allowed to be fully utilized, will add $47Billion to the GDP (223). Author of Conservative Comebacks to Liberal Lies, Gregg Jackson, says that America is a strong and her ideals must be cherished. He claims, “America is a strong but fragile liberal democracy whose long standing traditions must be revered and preserved” (318). Liberals however, adamantly profess opposing claims that America is treacherous, non-religious from its inception, uses war to export her democracy (317). Jackson writes that liberals believe Americans a) stole the country from the Indians and Mexicans, b) that we are now pluralistic in nature and no longer a Christian nation, c) that America is a racist, homophobic, and sexist nation, d) that all cultures are basically equal, and e) that America is the most violent nation on earth (317). Similarly, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has been outspoken in the public sphere about his condescension over our renewed enthusiasm over America’s exceptionalism. When the New York Times gave him the opportunity to speak in an op-ed column, he criticized Obama’s support of America claiming it was dangerous with, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation…We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal” (Washington Post).

Although it is comforting to some Americans to hear the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, scholarly writers such as Daniel Rossides, in his article, “American Exceptionalism Turned Upside Down,” says that America has failed to take care of important aspects of social and economic structure. Rossides argues, “Few Americans are aware that their society leads the developed world in virtually all social pathologies and inefficiencies” (Social Policy). He goes on to say that the United States leads the world in income and wealth inequality, that it has the highest rate of poverty, and that a real picture of our GDP (properly formulated) would show us last in productivity (23).

Further, Daniel Rose, Chairman of Rose Associates, in a speech delivered at Yale University, claims that America faces “serious unknowns” (190) in the years ahead. Rose says that a nation’s success will rely less on resources and production and more on social functionality and quality of life. He says, “The tangibles of mineral, industrial and financial capital will recede in importance relative to the intangible strengths of an educated, motivated, socialized and future-minded public” (190). There are other factors, he suggests, such as skyrocketing medical costs, a rampant number of emigrating college graduates, and the fact that the United States is not providing ample opportunities for the employment of the middle and lower class (191).

Moreover, there are whistleblower research-journalists, such as Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine”, that have exposed a darker side to America’s rise to her proclaimed hegemony. If the definition of exceptionalism includes an implied moral code, then the historical involvement by America in corrupt behavior during its rise to power, is noteworthy. In her research, Klein shows how wealthy corporations, individuals, banks, and other institutions working together in harmony, to target, manipulate, and reshape foreign economies into newly formed “democracies” that benefit their own interests. These new free markets are purposely aligned with pre-determined recipients of lucrative businesses contracts (to the exclusion of the native, domestic companies), she says; along with specialized private bank funding and enormous financial support from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (both controlled by US leadership). Combined with a pre-coup plan and a post-coup staged government, she reports that they have changed local laws to allow the transfer of public money and resources, into very deep private pockets (84). Klein calls this the “model for-profit warfare” (15). Thus, Klein claims that on the forefront, politicians and media have shown democratic triumph of a newly emerging democracy, behind the scenes are American and other not-so-gentle forces helping to ensure their own success. Klein says in a nutshell, it is a massively corrupt, redistribution of wealth of public funds into private, foreign hands (84).

With a similar story, investigative journalist Jim Marrs, author of “The Rise of the Fourth Reich,” claims that during WWII, while American forces fought against the Nazis, the government and some United States corporations actually supplied and helped the Nazis. Maars claims that Ford Motor Company and General Motors both had contributed to aiding the Nazis in murdering Jews, both by financial contribution, and by supplying resources. He says also that Henry Ford became very close with Hitler and Ford became Hitler’s “guiding light” (30). They were so closely tied, Maars claims, that Ford wrote an anti-Jewish book titled, “The International Jew” in which Hitler copied directly from in his own work, “Mein Kampf (31).” Maars also notes that Ford gave funds to the Nazis and in 1938 was the first American to receive their medal of honor: “The Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle (31).” Edsel Ford, Maars claims, sat on the board of American I.G. Farben (one of the funding agencies that also contributed to the war in Venezuela and Argentina) and at a meeting in Dearborn, Michigan determined that rather than build aircraft engines for Britain, Ford would build five ton military trucks for Germany. With this research, Maars brings to light that America’s involvement in our own heroism is sometimes devious and clandestine in nature…and not what some might consider to be exceptional in moral terms.

As public dialogue largely excludes the negative sides of the debate, it is important that we acknowledge all sides of these discussions. Especially, as we face an ever increasing intertwining of nations, as Thomas Friedman supports in his book “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”, that the world faces an ever increasing, rapid and expansive globalization and a more complex structure of countries blending their economies, financial networks, and political affairs (xvii). With China and other nations rising in economic power and global leadership capabilities, America may find herself facing an inevitable redefinition of her role in the world, and as Daniel Rose suggests, America may need to focus more on “The good life”, with quality over quantity (190).

***This essay written for Professor Wandler’s Expository Writing class at Harvard University Extension School, 2014***


Works Cited

Blake, Aaron. “Putin: America is not exceptional.” The Washington Post.com. The Washington                Post, 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 02 May 2014.

DeMint, Jim. Falling in Love with America Again. New York: Center Street, 2014. Print.

Friedman, Thomas L. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. New York: Picador, 2012. Print.

Jackson, Greg. Conservative Comebacks to Liberal Lies. New Jersey: JAJ, 2007. Print.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine. New York: Picador, 2007. Print.

Kitfield, James. “Foreign Policy Debate May Not Match Reality.” National Journal (2012): 6.                                                                                                    Academic Search Premier. Web. 2 May 2014.

Maars, Jim. The Rise of the Fourth Reich. New York: William Morrow, 2008. Print.

Rossides, Daniel. “American Exceptionalism Turned Upside Down.” Social Policy Winter. 2013: 23-27. Print.

“The Alexis de Tocqueville Tour Exploring Democracy in America” CSPAN. Tocqueville.org 1997-1998. Web. 09 May. 2014.

Tomes, Robert. “American Exceptionalism in the Twenty-First Century.” Survival Feb-Mar.          2014: 27-50. Print.