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.


It’s an abandonment of dialectical reasoning and it raises a red flag because we all recognize at some basic level that if they’re willing to do that to someone else, they’re willing to do that to us, too.

Exceptionalism is everywhere in US policy. In my field, we see it applies as well to cyberwar: at the same time as we have government spokespeople making threats about military retaliation if foreign powers use internet-based attacks against us, the government launches Stuxnet. What’s the message there? We’re willing to get violent with you for doing what we do as a matter of course.

US imposes sanctions on Iran for Internet censorship“, Joe Mullin, ars technica, 8 November 2012 — “Iran’s Communications Minister and Culture Ministry are targeted, among others.”

The department announced sanctions against 4 Iranian individuals, along with 5 Iranian “entities”—government agencies and private companies. The sanctioned organizations have all limited access to media, by jamming satellite broadcasts and “restricting Internet connectivity.” They’ve also censored and closed newspapers, detained and even tortured journalists according to the State Department.

This is the same government that blocks journalists from being able to speak about the drone wars, which harasses journalists entering and exiting the country by putting certain of them on “watch lists”, which has relentlessly pursued whistle-blowers, and which appears to have been prepared to recruit denial-of-service attacks against Wikileaks.

I wonder if Iran will fire back with exactly the same charges. The Persians have a sophisticated sense of irony, though it probably wouldn’t get reported in the US media if they did.

The most recent election enshrined the precedent that “truth doesn’t matter” and the reaction against that position was relatively muted and minimal (indeed, the main reaction of both parties appears to have been “they’re lying, so let’s lie, too”)  Abandonment of truth followed by abandonment of balance.

Exceptionalism in Action

Not every nation’s leaders display this level of hypocrisy and dishonesty.

“Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation. … By reinforcing that message, we can create norms of behavior among states and encourage respect for the global networked commons.”
— Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, in January 2010 (Source: Washington Post)

“The United States is fighting a cyber-war today, and we are losing. It’s that simple.”
— Mike McConnell, in February 2010. As DNI (2007-09) he probably approved development Stuxnet. (Source: Washington Post)

For More Information about American Exceptionalism

Articles about our exceptionalism:




20 thoughts on “About American exceptionalism – what it really means

  1. Many American folklore just can’t see beyond the big army, big navy …ah, those navy seals, and big air force. Guns, guns, guns, that is the traditional, historical road to exceptionalism. Just read a bit of history… All the rest is fluff!


    1. toufuer,

      Thanks for the link! However, the past decade has shown that forecasts by the International Energy Agency and US Energy Information Administration to be more accurat — by far – than those at the Oil Drum and similar websites. Especialy more accurate than the posts at those websites by amateurs.

      The NT Times article discusses the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2012. It’s first class research, combining almost all public information about energy today. I strongly recommend reading the Executive Summary.


  2. I just can’t resist posting this from the Onion. I’m not sure if anyone else finds this funny, but to me it fits my view, that at some point the TV talking heads, maybe Americans too, simply entered the abyss.

    Could The Use Of Flying Death Robots Be Hurting America’s Reputation Worldwide?


    1. Yes, I found it funny too. I also did artwork using metaphor to highlight the way that the US military’s relationship with drones (now everywhere of course) is almost ‘romantic’, highly emotional. This Onion skit does the same, it highlights the issue by parody, because it isn’t safe anymore to disagree with this administration.


  3. Wow, you’ve totally missed the point and the concept. Yes, America has it’s share of hypocrites. Yes, American presidents sometimes hide under a cloak of false superiority. But they are missing the point too. Exceptional at it’s core meaning, means out of the ordinary. America’s founding was exceptional – no other nation had tried to form a government based on the assumption that individuals had innate worth and were, in fact, superior to the institutions they created.

    That distinguishing factor lead to unparalleled prosperity for America and it’s people (and benefited the world as a whole) as a consequence. But this prosperity or superiority in standard of living and accomplishment is not guaranteed.

    As it so happens, coincidentally I wrote piece this morning, before I stumbled upon this, on what American exceptionalism is IMHO.

    I hope you’ll check it out and respond with your thoughts.


    1. Great Post Martin, nice blog site too.

      You mention that the United States is unique in that it has crafted an “advanced” government. However I beg to differ. What the Founding Fathers may or may not have known or predicted is that a nation where men (and eventually women) are free to pursue individualism at the height of possibility, it is that very individualism which will become the new moral prison. So many societies through history have danced around their own demise, repeating failed histories, as well as creating new abysses to plunge into. It is this concept where I believe we are now starting to see the root of the fall of America – Our Vast individual power melded with our ego – EXCEPTIONALISM.

      Dare I say that this concept is the inertia that drove us to the height of power, which I personally place at a moment in our history around 1996 (others can argue for different years). Since then we are exceptionalism-heavy, especially when individualism is married to self-published ego and Facebook. We are losing sight of the whole is greater than the parts and now we simply sit on our plush couches and relish in our exceptionalism, Wearing it like fine fashion, banking on it like bars of gold and patting ourselves and our fellow Americans on the back because we created it.

      The folly is that the latest generation is ALWAYS the least exceptional until their moment of great sacrifice arises (the Depression, World War, September 11th and so on). Our elders always seem to have enhanced the American Exceptionalism for us to bask in and hopefully build on. In our times, though, we doubt that building on don’t we.

      There is something to be said for the level of self-doubt and self-criticism we are discussing at FM and other sites like it. We seem not pleased nor comfortable to bask in our exceptionalism right now. My jury is still out on whether that is due to rationale or just fear.

      What do you think?


    2. America’s founding was exceptional – no other nation had tried to form a government based on the assumption that individuals had innate worth and were, in fact, superior to the institutions they created.

      That’s a great example of USA! USA! USA! Ra-RA! exceptionalism, right there. There were plenty of examples – starting with ancient Greece, then Rome, Iceland, yadda yadda yadda of democratic/republican systems that by definition treated the state as an emergent property of the citizenry. Those political systems all had flaws in that they didn’t extend that reasoning universally – a flaw the US shared as well, regarding slavery and sufferage. Indeed, all I would have needed to refute you was the single word, “slavery.”

      With respect to the view that individuals were superior to the institutions they created – you appear to be arguing the same point that Louis XIV was when he said, “L’etat, C’est Moi.”

      That distinguishing factor lead to unparalleled prosperity for America and it’s people (and benefited the world as a whole) as a consequence.

      I see. It had nothing to do with the huge tracts of land, abundant natural resources, cheap slave labor, convenient wars in Europe distracting the colonial powers from re-asserting control, technologically inferior natives conveniently ripe for genocide, excellent harbors, and extremely defensible natural borders? My, how simple history can be, once you understand a few simple things. Cause and effect just snap neatly into line, don’t they?

      But this prosperity or superiority in standard of living and accomplishment is not guaranteed.

      Caesar or Seneca could well have said the same thing, though they’d have said it better.

      I see your comments as a good indication of how well propaganda works.


    3. A quick riff on Marcus’ comments, with which I agree.

      “with the huge tracts of land”

      It’s astonishing how people look at the US development of that land and ignore that there were people already on it. This was theft, and successful theft is often very profitable.

      Now that must be put in context. The theft was possible by the massive epidemics which eliminated most of the native American population, for which the Europeans cannot be held responsible. And theft (ie, conquest) was the only basis of “international law” until 1945, so it was not illegitimate by the standards of the time — which are all that matters.

      But we should not congratulate ourselves as superior because plaque and conquest made us rich. Instead let’s recognize how effectively (if unfairly and brutally) our free market system built on those natural resources.


  4. Martin appears to have totally missed the point and the concept. Every country has some claim to consider its exceptional. The Babylonians invented algebra and what we misname the Pythagorean theorem, as well as basic trigonometry and modern irrigation. The Assyrians were the first to forge iron weapons. The ancient Egyptians pioneered brain surgery astonishingly modern in sophistication; the Athenians were the first to invent the jury system as well as democracy — contrary to Martin’s hilariously false claim that “no other nation had tried to form a government based on the assumption that individuals had innate worth and were, in fact, superior to the institutions they created — the city-state you’re thinking about, Martin, is not America, but Athens. Rome created the first judicial system run by laws, as well as inventing concrete and creating the largest freestanding domed building in the world (the Pantheon) until the 16th century, when Michaelangelo designed the dome for St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. In the 15th century BCE, the Minoans created the first widespread trading empire, along with astonishing inventions like the dry cell battery and indoor plumbing. The Polynesians were the first to pioneer transoceanic voyages; the Vikings perfected long-range navigation by the stars, the Phonecians invented writing, the Netherlands of the 16th century invented religious tolerance and the modern scientific method, and so on.

    Each country or city-state or empire has in its turn vaunted itself as “special” and “unparalleled” and so on. Each country or city-state or empire has proven in time to be unexceptional, prone to the same faults and inner demons which plague all peoples everywhere. The delusional fantasy that star-spangled awesome F*R*E*E*D*O*M “lead to unparallel prosperity for America and its people” as Martin falsely claims is the very definition of American exceptionalism. The reality, of course, is that America became prosperous first by stealing the land and iron ore and gold and forests and beavers and buffalo of millions of indigenous people, and second by murdering and raping and torturing those indigenous people to death. Then, in the mid-19th century, when America ran out of low-tech native Indians to murder and pillage, America stole the intellectual property of Europe wholesale. Americans pirated the writings and inventions of Europeans lock, stock and barrel throughout the 19th century, making themselves rich in the process. Then, around the turn of the 20th century, America waded ashore in the Philippines and China and other distant low-tech countries for another round of rapine and torture and mass murder that made Americans even wealthier.

    Then, by 1945, America emerged as the only major country in the conflict that hadn’t been bombed back to the Stone Age, so Americans made a fortune by selling tractors and refrigerators and cars and wheat and potatoes and barley to all the survivors of WW II who were living in burned-out wreckage amid the ruins of factories and the smoking cinders of formerly productive farmland.

    The delusional fantasy that Americans are somehow so special and so cosmically anointed that we were the best and most productive economy in the world is a very recent one. Until the 1940s, “high tech” meant Germany — not America. If you wanted to learn cutting-edge music or science or chemistry or math, you went to Germany up until 70 years ago. If you wanted to learn cutting-edge art, you went to France. If you wanted to learn how to really make public institutions work, you went to the Netherlands. And so on. The notion of America as a world-beating best is very recent. It wasn’t true prior to 1940, just as it isn’t true now. America became the “best” in a wide variety of fields largely because we took in massive numbers of refugees from Europe who were world-class in mathematics and physics and rocketry and chemistry and electronics etc.

    Many other nations have considered themselves cosmically anointed: the Egyptians thought that the gods reached down and made the Nile overflow every year just for their benefit, the Japanese thought that the great storm that destroyed the invading Chinese fleet was cosmic justice, the French thought that Napolean conquered Europe because France was the light of the world with the best science and laws and literature anywhere…the Brits thought they built a globe-spanning empire because there was something uniquely amazing about the British character and the British mind.

    All these supposedly world-beating best-ever societies eventually declined, just as America is declining now. That’s not fatal, but let’s not make the mistake of fantasizing that it isn’t happening.


    1. Good points.

      I would tentatively argue that the crux is not just that countries consider themselves exceptional, but that they have a universalist ideology, i.e. that they are duty bound to shape the rest of the world in their image because their exceptional qualities are ideal for mankind. In this respect, France, the UK and the USA are typical historical examples, whereas China or Japan are typical historical counter-examples.


    2. ouch!

      All facts and all revealing that the course of Human history is a linear progression. Perhaps exceptionalism comes from local, regional or global dominance based on a myriad of factors, but mostly on territorial conquest. Save for the Netherlands, all the mentions above are empiric nations.


    3. France, the UK and the USA are typical historical examples, whereas China or Japan are typical historical counter-examples.

      China has done its share of world-changing conquest (starting with its own unification) and if you want to talk “exceptionalism” you can hardly beat the Chinese who announced that “since China is for all intents and purposes the world, we have now conquered the world!” Japan’s spurts of invasive cultural outreach have also been tinged with tremendous exceptionalism, which is why they were so shocked at the Korean navy’s effectiveness in the 15th century, and so horrible to their Chinese conquered in the 1930s.


  5. Indeed, that does seem to be the core purpose of “American Exceptionalism”… it is fundamentally a conversation-stopper. No matter what criticism someone may devise, no matter what question one may ask of the status quo, exceptionalism allows you to respond: “Because shut up that’s why!”


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