>The actual term “American Exceptionalism” refers to the theory that the United States is different in unusual or extraordinary ways from other nations because of its emergence as a new nation stemming from a revolution, becoming “the first new nation”. This led to the development of a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, individualism, populism, freedom to conduct business without governmental intrusion, and belief in equality of all races, creeds, and genders. This might make a lot of my more conservative friends cringe, but the phrase was first used by the American Communist Party in the 1920’s. Their belief was that “thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinction, the USA might for a long while avoid the crisis that must eventually befall every capitalist society.” (1)
That said, many people today equate the term American Exceptionalism as a term of pride in the United States, or a determination of their patriotism. Many Conservative Speakers are notable for this. Ignoring the actual meaning of the term and ideology it is used as a “bumper sticker” slogan to question the patriotism of others, especially our current president. One recent conservative speaker even criticized President Obama for NOT using the term when discussing the American military.(It may surprise some that President Obama has spoken of American Exceptionalism more often than President Bush did in 8 years of presidency).Comparative judgment of the United States to other countries has stood the test of greatness for a long time. It used to be that you could say, “Where else but American can you get this great education, job, health-care”….and more with definite pride, knowing that forging a “better tomorrow” was within your grasp. Recent events within our economy and government are triggering some concern that “American Exceptionalism” is threatened.
Exceptionalism means one is first, the front of the line. It also encourages others to challenge us, to want to take our place in the front. Current statistics are proof that we are losing ground to other countries, and our “exceptionalism” is threatened. American students are 23rd in the world in mathematics, behind many counties including Finland, South Korea, and India. Our students are 19th in reading. Our country is 43rd in Infant Mortality rates, behind Canada and Cuba. That means 42 countries have less infant death than we do. These are not first place numbers, and they show just how quickly we can slide out of first place in the world.
American Exceptionalism is not something that can be bought or sold. It is something that must be practiced regularly and striven for repeatedly. It is based on our youth and their attitude toward the world and how it operates. It’s based on their parents and how willing they are to challenge their children to do the work required to be exceptional. It is based on our leaders being willing to support policy and practices to enable the populace to achieve. Being rich does not equal being exceptional. Exceptional has to be earned. We must quit the bipartisan bickering about the meaning, and start the work.
(1)Fried, Albert “Communism in America, A History of Documents” (New York, Columbia University Press,1997) p.7