Status redistribution and American exceptionalism

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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12 Responses

  1. Avatar Bob says:

    “You don’t have to graduate from an Ivy…to feel proud or special about being an American….” JS

    I’m under the impression that graduating from an Ivy, indeed any post secondary education, impedes the feeling of American exceptionalism.Report

  2. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    You know, I didn’t really understand the Obama-mania until I watched one of his rallies on C-SPAN in which hundreds of his liberal supporters were chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and it suddenly dawned on me that many liberals were yearning for a patriotic connection to their country, which in some sense he provided. I don’t know if it’s that conservatives are more patriotic, or just less alienated.Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Rufus F. says:

      @Rufus F.,
      I’d say I feel more alienated as I am given to understand that liberal godless people like me are not real Americans.

      I desperately want to take back the flag from the right.Report

      • @ThatPirateGuy, Right, but that’s what I mean. Liberals had been told for years that their ideas are “unamerican” and along comes this guy who, at least on the surface, seemed to be truly of the left and who was also really popular with more Americans than the Republican guy. I think Obama allowed liberals to experience that patriotic identification with the nation that Sanchez is talking about.Report

  3. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I’m not sure that Sanchez isn’t using the wrong word with patriotism. It sounds like he’s describing a sort of populism in which “America” is me writ large, instead of a glorification of the nation in itself.

    Also, living in Canada, you can understand that I’m skeptical of the idea that America needs that sort of thinking to have a coherent society. We do okay without it. I do find it both bewildering and fascinating how my Canadian neighbours constantly downplay and deny the greatness of their country, and maybe I’ll become the first gung-ho Canadian. But I also suspect that the reason American society has become so damned sclerotic is exactly this tendency to make “whatever I want” coterminious with “American”.Report

  4. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    We probably need some sort of metanarrative to remain a culturally cohesive society, some overarching idea or mythology of what it means to be an American, but I’m less sure that this has to be based on an idea of American exceptionalism. Would others prove as unifying, though? I don’t know.Report

  5. Avatar R.C. says:

    Keep in mind that the U.S. defines itself as a particular republic in continuous organic unity with the governments of 1776 and 1789, and embracing both the high ideals and declarations of the Founding Fathers (e.g. that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, et cetera) and their prudence in limiting and distributing the power of government (through Enumerated Powers and Federalism and Bicameralism and the like).

    The U.S. tells itself that national origin is irrelevant: We welcome immigrants who arrive legal and seek to become Americans. Your parentage is irrelevant: You can be an American without having been born to Americans. Indeed, the U.S. considers itself a voluntary membership organization. Only your choices can make you more or less American; things outside your control are not deemed obstacles to American identity.

    But one’s opinions about governance are chosen, not inherited. Therefore Americans squabble about faithfulness to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, or about whether they were really all that wise after all, or about whether they were wise about X but not about Y. And once an American establishes in his mind what he thinks the founding principles of America really were, he criticizes others for being insufficiently orthodox.

    That is what the U.S. is; it is its identity.

    Now other nations are defined according to history and boundaries and often according to people groups with specific ancestries. France didn’t cease being “France” merely because monarchs were succeeded by Republics, let alone because a Republic structured according to such-and-such a principle was succeeded by a Republic structured according to different principles. But just imagine what a patriotic American would say were the U.S. governmental systems redesigned around sharia! “This is not America,” he’d say. “America is gone.”

    Which goes to show you where American identity is found.

    American Exceptionalism, then, can be summed up as the view that the things which form American identity are, in themselves, exceptional.

    But this amounts in general to an assertion about the notions of human rights and just authority and prudent governance and human equality which are identified with the Founding Fathers; namely the assertion that these notions were good and right, or at least a significant advance towards human good.

    And in particular persons expressing their own versions of American Exceptionalism, it amounts to the assertion that their own personal understanding (or interpretation, or even “spin”) of the American Founding fathers and their significance in human history is correct, is true, and represents an advance in human good.

    So is “American Exceptionalism” good?

    Well, not if it comes across as haughty, of course, which it sadly often does.

    But consider this: American Exceptionalism can be, in a sense, correct. That is, it is a debatable question, but a real question, whether the ideals which form American identity are in fact good for humanity, or whether alternative ideals (such as the notion that totalitarianism or monarchy are superior forms of government) are better.

    American Exceptionalism often boils down to a repeated assertion that Republicanism REALLY IS superior to Direct Democracy or to any form of government in which the people have no say; that Constitutionally Limited government REALLY IS superior to government whose powers are assumed to be total; that the just authority of government REALLY DOES derive from the consent of the governed; and so on.

    If you believe such things, you’re an American Exceptionalist inasmuch as you hold the American identity notions to be superior.

    But notice how humble, in a sense, this view is: It follows from “American Exceptionalism” that any OTHER country which adopts the same ideals will thereby be doing itself a favor. The French might one day practice American Exceptionalism, without any irony save that conversational irony which at which the French so excel.

    Does America need American Exceptionalism?

    I think so, in the sense that:

    (1.) I don’t think a nation can be unified without something to unify around, and if the principle of unity is not notional/ideological as I have described above, then it must inevitably be something lesser, such as blood ties, race, religion, and the like.

    (2.) I think that notions like the value of freedom cannot long be preserved in a fallen world unless you re-iterate them. Otherwise people vote themselves dictators in the hopes those dictators will provide them with bread and circuses. So American Exceptionalism’s constant re-preaching (provided it doesn’t come off as haughty) is a pretty healthy thing for preserving the body politic.Report

  6. Avatar MFarmer says:

    Americanism is a collection of ideas relating to the philosophical founation — The Declaration of Independence — it has competed with communism, socialism, Fascism, Democratic socialism, and now progressivism. Many on the right think Americanism is the best political/economic system so far, although many are complaining about the perversions of Americanism we’ve experienced through the years. I see nothing unusual about judgements that claim Americanism is the best the world has created so far. Those who disagree can make a case for other political/economic systems, but some squishy relativism stating that no system is necessarily better than others doesn’t help much. Also, Sanchez’s and Kinsley’s reactions are to questions asked to the American people — they answered — it’s not like people are chanting in unison around the nation “America is #1! All the rest suck!”Report

  7. The two people I’m aware of who talk most about “American exceptionalism” — Sarah Palin and Liz Cheney — are the same people who would throw away the most valuable characteristics of the American people.

    Americans, at their best, are one of the most anti-authoritarian peoples in the world.

    The whole Cult of Old Glory/The Pledge of Allegiance/100% Americanism/American Legion/Loyalty cultural paradigm that arose from the 1890s through 1920 was a radically authoritarian departure from the idealized American character.

    Simply put, anyone who flies a Gadsden Flag and simultaneously worships the unlimited National Security State, without seeing the contradiction, is an imbecile.Report

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