Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
The other day, I came across a post on one of my social media pages commenting on how other first world nations were surpassing the United States in the treatment of its citizens during the COVID crisis. It got me thinking about the myriad of other posts I’ve seen criticizing what has been referred to as American Exceptionalism. It’s something of a byword these days, used to refer to the United States as self-centered and narcissistic, behind the times when it comes to how other countries and their people operate, and the contentment of its citizens to remain in that self-imposed snow globe.
It’s not too far from the truth in my experience. Yet, it wasn't always this way and the reason for that may be why so many Americans have issues confronting the new reality and siding with people who’d rather celebrate our exceptionalism, rather than jumping on the bandwagon of attacking it.
Why We’re Different
I think that in the past there was something to the concept of America being unique amongst the world’s nations. It’s easy to look at our country now and see it for it’s open flaws. The history with endemic prejudice has been well known for fifty years. It's taught so much in our society that President Trump was pushing for a counter-educational movement to "the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools". The blue and red cultural divide has been active since the mid-1990’s, but really exploded with Trump’s ascension to presidency in 2016. An event that left the whole world flabbergasted.
Millennials and Gen Zers who came of age in the 21’st century would naturally be impacted by these events as to what their country was actually like. However, Boomers and Gen Xers grew up in a time that was equally exposed to America’s flaws, but was also rather hopeful: boomers especially. The peak era for American exceptionalism is arguably the 1980’s and for all it’s many problems, there’s a reason why it's so revered and copied in pop culture even onto this day.
The exceptionalism during this time is that America’s economy had hit an all time high. Material consumption was the rage, from the wealthy to the middle-class. Media was churning out new and innovative ideas like MTV, blockbuster franchises, quality shows that would later become cultural anchors, and new music genres that would influence the world like hip hop. Technology blew up with the oncoming of home computers, Nintendo, and portable phones. And if you think all that is bullshit, then consider how America was the target for almost all defectors escaping communist and authoritarian countries.
Even before the 1980’s, America was still seen as unusual, if arrogant. At the turn of the century, it’s industry was looked to by European powers to turn the tide of World War One to either side, or was hoped to at least remain neutral because of that potential effect. The ‘Roaring Twenties’ reinvigorated the world music scene with its influx of American jazz and swing music. The Wall Street crash of 1929 also sent that same world spiraling into the Great Depression and the subsequent sequel to the last world war. Again other countries wanting America either on their side, as seen as a potential threat that needed to be neutralized before it became involved.
The aftermath of World War Two rocketed the nation to the top of the geopolitical food chain as the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world. It’s only rival being the Soviet Union. It sponsored most of the European rebuilding programs for countries devastated by the war. Former European colonies from Africa to South Asia initially looked to American democracy as a better option to being ruled by foreigners. This didn’t turn out well for many of those nations, but just that the idea was even in their heads at all says something to the perception of America as unique in the world. It may have been the new kid on the block, but it was the new kid that was making waves by being different from the way the world had functioned.
People were either drawn to or scoffed at the notion that the people could rule themselves and not fail. And there had always been a royal hierarchy or some ruling institution running affairs since there had been societies and empires. Why should one newbie suddenly overturn the established norm of human nature?
But perhaps what is most incredible is that even after America took a hard and much-need hit to it’s global image during the 1960’s, there were still people who depended on the nation and saw it as a literal land of opportunity. From Southeast Asian war refugees to oppressed people living behind the Iron Curtain, America still seemed like the best and better option to other countries. Even today, many of the products that the world produces themselves and enjoys like hip hop culture, started in America.
So American exceptionalism as a positive force in world history is just as real a thing as what it has become in the 21st century. This then begs the question of ‘what changed?’ How did America go from being Camelot to King’s Landing?
Long in the Tooth
There’s a recurring theme in the British Sci fi show, Doctor Who, that goes, “Lived too long”. It speaks to the aspect within the show that a long-lived race had become so used to being the dominant power in the universe that it had corrupted them. I think something like this has happened to us.
Being the top gun of the world for a little over a century has made multiple American generations stagnant. Rather than adapting to the flow of history, at some point we stopped growing and stayed or tried to stay in one place. Perhaps we had become too comfortable to the idea that we controlled the flow of history rather than were just a part of it. The watershed point in this I think was the fall of Soviet Union.
People criticize President Reagan for his big spending policies, tax breaks for big business, and setting up future problems for the country. However, what also can’t be denied is that those factors also drove our five-decade rival into bankruptcy and removed them from the world stage. And that many of those same policies became the bedrock for economic cushions that those critics grew up on. And like I said before, many cultural aspects of the 1980’s are revered today, from Michael Jackson to Nintendo.
Before this moment, America’s sins to preserve world peace were overlooked, and these included many horrible things that happened like selling weapons to regimes that were corrupt, but weren’t communist. It was for the greater good many would say. After the Soviet Union’s fall though, that cloak was no longer there. Over the following thirty years, the limitations and flaws of the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world became more visible.
So too did the attitude that it carried with it. Something I’ve heard often in my travels was that Americans were loud, arrogant, ignorant, and overbearing. And to not encounter an insensitive American was for many of them a sight to behold and sometimes didn’t know what to do with: something I experienced personally.
For a long time, the Hollywood aura that cocooned the nation was desirable to many people because it was seen as a sign of success. A status symbol. But after the 1990’s, it seemed world citizens became more aware of the other side of that charisma that looked down upon them and their own cultural values. That while protecting the world from communism, Americans also ignored the citizens they were protecting.
This brings us back to 2016 and Donald Trump. This president and the culture that supports him still look at America through the eyes of the 1980’s and to be honest, I can’t blame them for it. It was after all the time when the president became a household name and corporate success. And many of the people holding him up feel like they’ve been bombarded by the changes in society and the world to a point where their country is almost unrecognizable. And that they should feel bad because they’re Americans, especially if they’re White. Thus the slogan, “Make America great again”.
Bring back the glory days of Hollywood hero worship, guilt-free spending of hard earned money, and when the only trend American youth were into rather than ‘socialism’ was music videos, cartoons, video games, and sex.
Yet even the Americans that criticize exceptionalism are just as guilty of it as well. Emerging progressive values like LGBTQ rights, gender identity reassignment, and feminism are viewed by many global citizens as just another flavor of American exceptionalism. That Niger and Uganda need to remove their laws outlawing homosexuality because America believes differently. Or that Hungary needs to allow gay couples to adopt because its the new norm in Western countries, with an unmentionable hint at the United States being the primary instigator.
"I say that the United States of America is a unique experiment in history. I believe in American exceptionalism. I wasn't for sending ground forces into Libya. It would have been counterproductive, but we are an inspiration to these people. I know because I've looked them in the eyes, and they looked at me. They look to America for inspiration and leadership."
— - John McCain in the Situation Room Interview, Real Clear Politics.com, 08/22/2011
Still Has its Fans
There are people you can talk to across the world who still view America through positive eyes however. For many people in first world nations and some third world ones, Barack Obama represented an opportunity for America to actually be what they spent the last century claiming that they were. Even while he was arguably just as aggressive as his predecessors with predator drone usage, he appeared much more genuine in his efforts to make America a partner in world affairs, rather than running it. American citizens who have lived in socialist and authoritarian countries beforehand will tell you what it's like to live under a true dictatorship and are often the strongest supporters for conservative leaders. And other nations still look to American support for global initiatives regarding the economy, military, and environmental programs and treaties, like the G8 and NATO.
American exceptionalism as a positive force is still a thing, but it’s no longer the shiny new car glittering in the sun on a new car lot. It’s the used and somewhat dirty car that while you want a better option, at least still works. The ideology is forever marred by it’s dark side that has accumulated over the decades and no longer has distractions that can hide them, as well as a more self-aware world populace that is not no longer as easily distracted by the bling of the image of America and its reality.
© 2020 Jamal Smith