The belief in “American Exceptionalism” is often thrown around by political conservatives. To them, this is their civic religion. You cannot get the conservative vote in this country without giving the correct answer to this litmus test.
The tenets of this religion are as follows:
- America is different than any other nation that was, is, or ever wilt be.
- It was founded by divinely inspired men, who penned a divinely inspired Constitution ordained by Providence.
- Lincoln was divinely inspired to keep the country united during the Civil War, as America was destined to never separate from a centralized government, because it was exceptional.
- Because of this, America is destined to benevolently dominate the world scene forevermore – this status must be maintained at all costs.
Overall, this political view regards the U.S. government as a shining city on a hill that promotes freedom and democracy throughout the world, its military presence overseas bringing peace and stability to otherwise war-torn regions.
Or, as Tom Woods puts it: America is the awesomest of the awesome, and the only reason anyone could not like everything that America does domestically and in foreign countries is solely due to their envy of its sheer awesomeness.
Granted, one will probably find envy or jealousy in some of the criticism, particularly from countries which have a history of doing exactly what the U.S. government does but are limited by internal politics and finances.
I think a more literal and practical definition would be this:
What is considered acceptable for governments to do as part of their foreign policy is different for the U.S. government, because it is exceptional and therefore worthy of separate standards.
It doesn’t matter if a Democrat or Republican is president or in control of Congress.
Or, if you want to put it into a sound-bite: The rules apply the same to everyone, except America.
To give an example off the top of my head, take the U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s. Half a million children died because the U.S. State Department decided to deprive them of necessities such as water purifying chemicals and medicine. All because they were ruled by a leader whom they hadn’t elected and whom the U.S. didn’t like at that particular moment in time. America switches allies and enemies the same way an indecisive high schooler switches clothes.
The concept of American Exceptionalism is so entrenched that the U.S. government didn’t even bother to dispute this on national television. When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked how they could starve half a million children because they didn’t care for their political leader, she said it was worth it.
Notice she didn’t even protest the number, or whether their actions had killed children. She openly confessed to it, as though she somehow had the authority to do it.
Half a million dead kids. Imagine if another country’s leader said the same thing about half a million dead American kids they had killed.
While this happened on a Democrat’s watch, conservatives don’t talk it about. Because it doesn’t match the tenets of American Exceptionalism. The policy was also based on prior decisions made by Republicans.
Meanwhile, U.S. government still has the gall to lecture other governments on human rights violations, such as when it sent Marines to Somalia during their civil war – the numbers dead were 300,000, nearly half of the amount starved in Iraq by U.S. sanctions.
When three thousand Americans were murdered on Sept. 11. 2001, Americans were enraged, and rightly so. They were ready for war.
Yet that pales in comparison to what their own government has done
So prevalent is the mentality that Americans think nothing about their government meddling in countries like Ukraine. Putin is a thug, but how does this concern the national security of the United States? If Russia so much as suggested getting involved in a border dispute between Texas and Mexico, we’d already be in a war.
Meddling. That’s the word for it.
Americans don’t dwell much on how their government has meddled in other nations, because it is exceptionally permitted to do so. They see the Iranian government as depraved, which is an accurate assessment. Yet Iranian politicians are no more depraved than the people who reside in the White House.
And unlike the U.S. government, Tehran has not tried to dispose of a popularly-elected U.S. president and replace him with a puppet leader who tortures his own people, as the CIA did in Iran in 1953.
What this civic religion does is create a moral myopia in the eyes of its adherents. You see the injustice done to your country clearly, but not the crimes committed by your government against others. A plane hijacking in New York is an act of terror and justifies bombing an entire nation, but sanctions on a Third World country are necessary to bring some second-rate dictator to their knees, even though they always continue to live in luxury while the poor watch their children die from malnutrition.
We saw this myopia in 2007, when Ron Paul shocked a Republican audience in the midst of a presidential primary debate by suggesting that the U.S. government’s actions overseas brought terrorists to our shores and that failure to change our policies is based on a double standard.
He asked a very reasonable question: How we would feel if another government did to us what we do to them?
The unspoken answer is that the rules for the U.S. government are different.
The critical flaw in the American Exceptionalism religion is that it conflates society with government. Thus, people feel duty-bound to defend their government through thick and thin and any perceived criticism is seen as an attack on America itself.
It is also collectivist in nature. Good and evil are determined by which country you reside in, not by what you do. There are exceptions to this, to be sure, but it is the general rule. That innocent people suffer and die is not considered, unless they are “your” people.
American Exceptionalists are quick to claim that their critics “blame America first.” No, we just hold the U.S. government to the same standards other governments are.
They also presume we are inferring other governments are better than ours.
Not so. China and Russia are ruled by the same type of people. They just have different titles and names. The personalities, the lies, the power-seeking; it’s all the same no matter what country you are in. Politics is politics.
As an American libertarian, I reject the idea that the State that happens to illegitimately rule over me is exceptional, or has the authority to behave a certain way towards other nations which I would not tolerate from another government.
The only thing exceptional about American Exceptionalism is how open, and proud, its believers are about the double standards they hold.
By the way, if you want to know how neo-conservatives were able to thrive during the 2000’s despite holding plenty of views contrary to the typical political conservative, look no further. They practically covered themselves with an American flag, enabling the most liberal Republican to get the conservative vote every time just saying how America was the greatest country in the world.
Again, they answered the litmus test correctly. It’s also why conservatives ignored Ron Paul in both 2008 and 2012.
There’s a lot of problems in the United States today, worst of which is our foreign policy. Before anything changes, however, the concept of American Exceptionalism has to go.