Exceptionalism and the American narrative

If you believe, like Ronald Reagan, that America is the “shining city upon a hill,” or, like President Obama, that you can “contribute to a story of success,” then you’re not alone. You are in the company of millions of Americans who think the U.S. is qualitatively different from other countries, with a very specific destiny to claim.

As I sat down to write this column, I had to ask myself two important questions: Why should students care? Why is it important to carry “American exceptionalism” out of political discourse and into the consciousness of everyday life? The short answer is because, whether we like it or not, we are a part of the great American story.

The long answer is how.

As G.K. Chesterton noted in his book “What I Saw in America,” while the identities of other countries are derived from a common history, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” Thus, the birth of America was not incidental, but purposefully crafted and conceived by ideology that may be captured in a few words: liberty, justice and democracy. Its ideology-based birth is what makes America special.

Politicians have the duty of guiding America toward obtaining true liberty, but have different ideas on how she should be led. They clash on fundamentals of creed. Liberals believe liberty prevails with government involvement, while conservatives believe liberty prevails through the individual. If America has a destiny based on liberty, then there must be a methodology likely to achieve ultimate liberty. And that’s where we come to a halt: Which party has the best method?

American exceptionalism becomes a rhetorical tool to gain our political alliance. It makes us feel like we are a part of a greater vision, like we are all missionaries of great justice. When we make political choices, we make them in the name of justice, liberty, and democracy. We not only believe, but feel, like we’re part of the American story.

Recall the U.S. involvement in the Iraq War, when former President Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address that we would bring not only food and supplies, but also “freedom” to the people of Iraq. Recall how Arizona terminated Mexican-American studies programs because Mexican-American history is an “inaccurate” history and an “indoctrination.”

The concept of exceptionalism suggests a long trajectory of progress, but it actually prevents action.

What’s more is that it deludes us into believing that everything will be OK, as long as we trust the creeds on which America was founded and believe the story of American liberty. As Charles Blow, a columnist for The New York Times, told NPR’s Neal Conan, American exceptionalism “makes you feel like you are a part of something that will always prevail because it just will, because it always has.”

So as long as we keep telling ourselves that we’re doing something, even when we are not doing much at all, we are headed toward progress. As a result, we resist ideas that challenge the achievements of our political structure, or the rewards of capitalism — even when they are just not working for us. And thus, we continue working. We keep principles of nationalism and exceptionalism close, despite that they are not taking us anywhere.

 

Reach the columnist at ctruong1@asu.edu
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