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For those Americans who wield power in society, the cost of breaking with America’s foundational ideology - arrogance - is greater than the benefits, allowing American exceptionalism to be a conservative force and slow down the USA’s progress. It prevents change from being enacted, better examples from being followed and actively works to preserve broken systems and practices.
The USA is a country that wields overwhelming power around the world. However, one great challenge has become increasingly apparent for this superpower – it’s not a rival like China or Russia, but rather one that comes from deep within: America’s own ideology.
The U.S. is afflicted by a disease which might best be described as arrogance. Supported by geographic remoteness and the fact that the country is on top of – though not above – the world, the idea of American exceptionalism is a foundational principle for modern America. Without it, the USA would not exist in the form we know it today. But it is a factor that prevents social progress, perpetuates existing inequities (especially racial injustices), and might lie at the root of recent upheaval.
Defining American Exceptionalism and Finding Its Roots
American exceptionalism stems from nationalism and patriotic pride, normal occurrences in most countries. What makes it unique, however, are its extent, influence and, crucially, that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The U.S. sees itself as above the rest of the world, concluding that the American ways, which have brought it to its current position, are thus the best path forward as well. American exceptionalism is also special in that it is deeply internalized in the structure and functioning of both the state and civil society. Upon close inspection, it becomes apparent that American exceptionalism can be pointed to as something of a “foundational ideology” for the American system.
Due to its underlying myth - that America ought to follow the “exceptional” ways that have brought it here - American exceptionalism is a strictly conservative force, opposed to and actively counteracting change. Furthermore, it bases its judgement of America’s status quo more on its own ideology than on the facts of the real world, such as the comparative performance of the USA to other countries.
There is no question that many “American values” (another abstract concept from which American exceptionalism draws legitimacy) are commendable and were revolutionary when first enacted. Liberal democracy, for instance, is such a value, its apparent success and desirability supported by its spread across the world since World War II. However, this should not distract from the fact that American exceptionalism is not the cause for such ideas, but rather a parasite that feeds off of their success.
A visible example of the conservative mechanics of American exceptionalism is the Constitution. Apart from the microstate of San Marino, the U.S. has the oldest active constitution in the world. Just 27 amendments in 233 years since its ratification have shown it to be an exceptionally unchanging document. Through education in the broadest sense – from formal schooling to family values and influence of society as a whole – Americans are made to see the constitution as a quasi-divine document stemming from supremely wise men whose work put America onto its still-continuing path to greatness. These aren’t just normative observations, but have been backed up by empirical studies showing a reverence for the American constitution that exceeds other, less “exceptional,” institutions. According to this world view, it would be foolish and dangerous to break with the historical path going forward. The mere fact that the ancient American constitution is still around and is so close to its original text is considered proof that it needs no revision.
However, as Robert Dahl has pointed out, if America’s constitution is so good, then why does no other country use one modeled directly off it?
The Price is Right?
A country’s government draws its legitimacy from demonstrated support of its population. This is why elections are held in many dictatorships. In the USA, the Constitution serves as the basis of democratic governance. Both the government and the Constitution draw legitimization from American exceptionalism. Hence, it is in the interest of the people who make up this government, and those who wield great influence over public discourse thanks to their ability to determine educational priorities, to perpetuate the idea of American exceptionalism even if they might themselves not subscribe to it. Calling into question American exceptionalism would call into question the legitimacy of their own power. Instead, they continue to propagate the myth of American exceptionalism, based on logical fallacies and the vague and undefined idea that “it’s the right thing to do.”
The cost of breaking with America’s ideology differs from person to person. But together, the teachers that tell children “you, too, could be the president one day,” the politicians hailing the supremacy of the U.S. constitution and the “commoners” celebrating on the 4th of July propagate the myth and therefore allow the society to do what is the underlying goal of any society: to reproduce the status quo from day to day and generation to generation.
There are four main considerations about the cost of falling out of line:
The calculation may be summed up as follows:
Decision = ([Perceived] benefit of breaking with AE) - (Cost of worry and lost ease) - (Societal cost) - (Individual effort).
If Decision is greater than zero - so if an actor sees a benefit remaining even when taking into account the costs - they will break with American Exceptionalism. For most people, this seems unlikely.
America’s Ideology Is Discriminatory and Backward
The existence and perseverance of American exceptionalism is strictly connected to racism. In America, those who benefit the most from the existing structures and norms are white people, wealthy people, and men; and especially wealthy, white men. This has been empirically proven and anyone can see this for themselves by looking at the composition of the Senate, for instance. It is the same demographic which the Founding Fathers belonged to, and it’s the “men” they meant when they wrote that “all men are created equal,” founding the system which persists to this day with surprisingly little change. This group has the most incentive to believe in the lies of American exceptionalism and the least incentive to think it may be false, for they are systematically shielded from the hardships that less privileged groups of society may encounter daily.
Following the norms of the system, whether that be by voting or going through the court system, legitimizes the system. For those who face no problems living their lives while staying within the bounds of the norms, it can be very difficult to comprehend how doing the same might be difficult or impossible for those who share so much in common and have the same rights on paper but are disenfranchised in various ways, such as their skin color or where they live. Because the system has legitimacy, when in doubt, the privileged naturally prefer to side with the system that they are a part of and that ensures their comfortable and frictionless life, rather than the “rebels” who are trying to change what in the privileged eyes is a perfectly fine status quo.
The ideology goes that all have one vote and equal ability to influence the government through elections, courts, petitions, and whatever other means. The truth is that this is false–there are differences, based on social groups and, crucially, race, in how much weight any one voice and opinion has in the American system.
This adds a crucial dimension to the persistence of American exceptionalism: even if those who may have once truly believed in it lose faith, for the enfranchised, it is in their own best interest to try to deny the truth. The comfort of their lives and the advantage they hold – even if this advantage simply means leading a completely average life – depend on propagating the lie and keeping it alive, feigning belief to legitimize the status quo. And because they hold greater power and influence within the society, it is easier for them to do so than for disenfranchised groups to counteract it.
The legitimacy of the American political system does not depend as much on actual outcomes as it does on the mere belief that America is the best in the world. Politicians therefore have an incentive to care more for maintaining the myth of American exceptionalism than to break with it and enact change, even if it is greatly needed. This incentive is the reason why the USA is the only developed country in the world not to have universal healthcare; it is why police reform has been slow and meaningless, if occurring at all, in red and blue cities across the country; it is why social services are weak and public transportation is not a priority; why government shutdowns occur, and why partisan gridlock can lead to no substantial legislation passing for years; it’s why progress on climate change was sluggish and then undone; why school shootings exist, and why St. Louis has the highest homicide rate of any city outside of Latin America; why voter suppression and systemic racism are not being reduced but arguably expanded.
Crucially, the longer the lie is told, the more costly it becomes to break with it.
The lie of American exceptionalism has recently celebrated its 233rd anniversary.
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