American Exceptionalism -   Patriotism or Jingoism?

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January 23, 2011


            A few months ago a reader lamented my column by saying, “you probably don’t believe in “American exceptionalism either.” The phrase grabbed my attention. This phrase needs careful examination.

            Basically this phrase is used by some to mean that we have a unique American way of life, based on a strong belief in freedom, the practice of constitutional government, and free enterprise capitalism. (1)  This meaning is appealing. It has drawn millions of people to this country to pursue their dreams.

            A strong promoter of American exceptionalism is Sarah Palin in her latest book, America by Heart (2)  She ascribes to the above meaning and adds, “We're not saying we're better than anyone else, or that we have the right to tell people in other countries how to live their lives.” These are fine words on paper, but it is easy to jump to a meaning of superiority. Palin does exactly that in her unquestioned support of the military everywhere in the world as a “defender of our freedoms”. She also says the United States is “to be a shining city on a hill, a beacon of liberty and hope for all the peoples of the earth.” This sounds like superiority to me.

            American exceptionalism however ignores three vital aspects of American history. As recently as one hundred years ago our economic system was based on farming. Anyone could stake out a claim to some land and make a living. That’s precisely what many of our immigrant ancestors did, including my grandfather. In other words, the dream of freedom and economic security was readily available. That is no longer true. Our economy is largely urban and land is no longer easily acquired for farming.

            This view also ignores the dependence of our greatness on the genocide of the Native Americans and the theft of their lands. It also ignores the enslavement of millions of Africans. The legacy of these two horrible aspects of our history is still being felt.

            Palin and many others define constitutionalism as limited government. Then she praised the Kennedy space program as an example of American ingenuity and determination to achieve our goals. Does she not realize that this was a government program, totally contrary to her views on limited government and free market capitalism?

            She also wrote that the Civil Rights laws of 1964-1965 “are great human achievements.” Does she not realize that these acts are totally contrary to her philosophy of limited government? People in the 1960’s who held her view staunchly opposed these acts.

            To her credit Palin mentions family life and religion as key elements in our American way of life. She also emphasizes strongly that constitutionalism and capitalism both require high public morality for them to succeed. Adam Smith’s entire theory of the Wealth of Nations  was based on this premise of morality. She also quoted John Adams to support her assertion of the need for public morality.

            Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru in an article in National Review (3)  used this phrase to criticize President Obama. Palin too uses every opportunity in her book to slam President Obama as one who does not believe in American exceptionalism and is therefore unfit to be our President.            But the exceptionalists have it wrong on all these counts.

Public morality has fallen to a new low. I am finally coming to the conclusion that our politicians on both sides of the aisle are not interested in the welfare of the US and its citizens but in their own wealth and reelection. They are in the pockets of big business leaders who are interested in their own personal wealth creation, not the benefits of the company they lead. Some churches too have fallen into their own preservation rather than the values they believe in and promote, leading to faith and religious confusion. Bringing problems to light does not mean that I as a progressive believe that America is essentially flawed, as Palin wrote about us, but rather that these flawed traits and policies must be dealt with openly, honestly and constructively. Appealing to an emotional cry of American exceptionalism does not heal the polarization that exists today and obstructs progress.

            Palin is right in saying that family life is at the heart of the raising of these values to a new consciousness, Just saying what she does however will not make the problems of public morality and family life, not to mention national debt, the economy, and the banking crisis, go away. Solving these problems will require efforts by all segments of our culture and way of life, including government, non-profits, business, education, and every citizen. The change truly requires a “fundamental transformation”, not an appeal to jingoism




American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States and the American people hold a special place in the world, by offering opportunity and hope for humanity, derived from its unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom.


Also see::

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Palin, Sarah, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, HarperCollins books, 2010.


Commentary on Palin’s book:

Darrell Delamaide' Dec 1, 2010

Political Capital Market Watdch

“She is in every respect the anti-Obama: he is black, she is white; he is male, she is female; he is cerebral, she is emotional. She doesn’t want change, because America is already great. So she doesn’t need hope. She is the America we don’t have to wait for — just recognize.”

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Richard Lowry & Ramesh Ponnuru, “An Exceptional Debate,  National Review Online (no date):


Aaron Gardner, Permanence, Change, and American Exceptionalism

March 29, 2010

Commentary on above

quote inside this article:

The late Seymour Martin Lipset defined it as liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics. The creed combines with other aspects of the American character — especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force — to form the core of American exceptionalism.


Karlyn Bowman, Understanding American Exceptionalism

Review of a book of essays published by American Enterprise Institute


Nick Baumann, “Obama and American Exceptionalism”

Mother Jones, March 2, 2010


This sentence tripped me up:

[America] is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.

... But the statement that America is "freer" or "more democratic" than literally every other society on earth, is argued largely through the quotations of founding fathers and Lincoln, as if saying something made it so.


Greene goes on to explain how even Freedom House, a US-based organization widely seen as center-right, ranks America far below first in terms of freedom and democracy. In fact, the US finishes in a multi-way tie for 30th.

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