Tag Archives: exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism gives us a faith-based public policy. Our confidence might be our weakness.

Summary: We have come to believe we are exceptional, not just morally, but also operationally. We act as if we are beyond the need to plan and prepare for possible problems. It is faith-based public policy. Here we review how we came by this delusional belief, and examine how it plays out on a potentially serious problem: the growing US debt.

What, Me Worry?

American Exceptionalism


A brilliant insight, but likely to fail us if we depend upon it:

“Men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other resources.”
— Abba Eban (Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs), quoted in the 19 March 1967 New York Times

Note how this aphorism about people has become one about us (It was not said by Winston Churchill; details here). Rather than assume success, we should take this advice:

“Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”
— Andy Grove, CEO of Intel 1987 – 1998


Two centuries of success have taught us complacency, confidence that we are not only exceptionally moral as the “city on a hill” in Matthew 5:14, but also exceptional in an operational sense. We assume success as our due, without the necessity for preparation, planning, or even effort. Energy, climate change, demographic challenges, underfunded pension plans, the next wave of automation, growing inequality — we assume success vs all problems, so take few precautions. It’s an odd kind of  faith-based public policy.

Success has brought us the “victory disease” (senshobyo in Japanese, a term coined in the 1930s by novelist-turned-strategist Chuko Ikezaki ).

A people more aware of cycles might prepare for a period of hard times, much as darkness follows light (and lean years follow the good ones). It could be painful yet not like the Long Depression of 1873-1879 or the Great Depression of 1929-1939.

Let’s look at one example: our high Federal debt load, destined to rise as the boomers retire. We are confident that growth will easily fix these, as growth solved the massive debts the UK accumulated from the Napoleonic Wars. As growth solved our massive debts from the Civil War and WW2.  This confidence is delusional.

Those debt loads were made manageable by several factors in the decades that followed the wars:

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About American exceptionalism – what it really means

Summary:  As an afterword to the campaign, Marcus Ranum takes a look at American Exceptionalism.  While either false or daft as a doctrine, every presidential candidate had to profess allegiance to it.


But first, let’s look at the origin of the phrase “American exceptionalism”:

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. {Circumstances} have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people, and attempt to survey them at length with their own features.
— Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Book I, chapter 9 (1840)

“Communists in the 1920s talked of “American exceptionalism,”, the belief that thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinction, American might for a long while avoid the crisis that must eventually befall every capitalist society. American exceptionalism explained to Communists why their movement, like the rival Socialist movement, fared so poorly here in the most advanced capitalist country on earth.”
Communism in America: A History in Documents, Albert Fried (1997)

When we use the term “exceptionalism” what we’re really saying is that whoever’s doing it has abandoned the most simple and central premise of moral argument: what applies to me, applies to you. And vice-versa.

This principle is found in every moral system that I’m aware of, and is often re-cast as The Golden Rule, or The Categorical Imperative. Lao-Tze expressed it as:  “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself” and Buddha as “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”

This is an important principle because, I believe, most people understand it. Indeed, the core principle of arguing about anything is to “turn the tables” on your interlocutor and “put yourself in their shoes.” I submit to you, that when leaders begin to abandon such an obvious principle, they lose credibility. And that’s as it should be — because it indicates that those leaders are comfortable adopting a policy of exceptionalism, which is ultimately dictatorial.

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Look in the mirror at America and see the world brotherhood

Is this American exceptionalism? From an interesting article in the latest New York Review of Books:

{It} might fit something John Dower identifies as a common trait in America, something he translates as “victim consciousness” {in Japanese higaisha ishiki}. What this means is the tendency to focus on the suffering of America, especially at the hands of foreigners, while conveniently forgetting the suffering inflicted by Americans on others.

… The largest mainstream newspaper companies, despite some differences in political tone, can be depended on to echo a kind of national consensus established by the same web of government and business interests of which the mainstream press forms an integral part.

… In the so-called “press club system” {kisha in Japanese} reporters from the major national papers are allowed access to particular politicians or government agencies, on the understanding that these powerful sources will never be discomfited by scoops, unauthorized reports, or special investigations. It breeds a kind of journalistic conformity that is hardly unknown in more freewheeling democracies … but is institutionalized in America.

The mainstream press does not really compete for news. What it does much too often instead is faithfully reflect the official version of reality.

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