For those Americans who wield power in society, the cost of breaking with America’s foundational ideology – arrogance – is greater than the benefits, allowing American exceptionalism to be a conservative force and slow down the USA’s progress. It prevents change from being enacted, better examples from being followed and actively works to preserve broken systems and practices.
By Linus Höller (Hoeller), Northwestern University
America is great. It lies at the center of the world’s economy; is a cultural powerhouse with a practically global monopoly over the internet, movie screens and fast-food chains alike; and commands the indisputably most powerful military in the world. It is home to the best universities, some of the most groundbreaking innovators, and an immense pool of financial and physical resources to power invention and progress. America, in many ways, is the best and the greatest in the world. And Americans know that.
But America is not above the rest of the world. The inability to understand or internalize this is a key reason for the failures in modern American society.
The self-fulfilling prophecy of American exceptionalism
The views of the U.S. held by Americans and outsiders diverge considerably, consciously or not. America is obsessed with itself. It’s a phenomenon known commonly as “American exceptionalism” – the notion that America is definitively and indisputably the best at everything it does and therefore deserves to be on top of the world. No other country will ever live up to the excellence of America, the thinking goes. Mind you, American exceptionalism – perhaps better described as “American arrogance” – is a separate phenomenon from nationalism, although they are definitely not mutually exclusive and will often make a joint appearance. While a portion of Americans may not feel particularly proud of the course their country has taken in recent times or the image it has in the world currently, it is much more difficult to find people who advocate for replacing the constitution with something new or fundamentally changing the structure of the American government – and the more power or privilege a group within the U.S. yields, the less likely there will be such voices.
To state such ideas would be considered “un-American.” The Founding Fathers, the ideology goes, were wise men, who selflessly and tirelessly worked up a document which was so revolutionary, ahead of its time and, perhaps most crucially, perfect, that America adheres to it to this day with little adaptation. At least, that’s what is taught in the American schooling system and upheld to be true by American society and the American state.
The commonly held wisdom goes that the USA as we know it today is built according to the concepts laid out by the wise men that are known as the Founding Fathers and cemented in the United States Constitution, written in the name of “We, the people.” It continues that thanks to the Founders’ excellence, America was built in a way that had as its natural result the country’s becoming the greatest in the world. It would thus have been foolish to stray from the words of the Founding Fathers.
The issue is that this is a self-fulfilling claim, explained in the American psyche roughly by the following chain of thinking:
Founding Fathers were exceptional. → Constitution must be exceptional. → America today is built on said constitution. → Thus, America must be exceptional. → American exceptionalism – carried by culture, education and civil society – supports this. → There is no need to call into question the constitution and institutions.
When thinking about this formula, take special note of the absence of any external influence. Even in the modern day and age, the self-justification of American exceptionalism is based on what Americans see inside their own country, not how the country compares with the rest of the world.
At the time that the modern USA came into existence, it was no doubt an extraordinary experiment, a democratic republic built on uniquely progressive ideals and structures. That was over 230 years ago. For a variety of reasons, the U.S. has since been resistant to learning from the rest of the world. Where does this attitude come from?
The historical explanations for American exceptionalism
In part, this might be linked to the existence of the U.S.; it emerged from a separatist movement and wanted to break with the dominant way states were run. This would require independence and commitment to a bold, new path; outside influence was likely to do more harm than good for a nascent America on the path to establishing a democratic experiment, if it was supposed to last. America stayed largely isolationist (thought this is a broad generalization) until World War One. Simultaneously, however, its population was made up of immigrants who dreamed the American dream and who, vexed by the ideals of the U.S., gave up their lives at home to fully commit themselves to it. As most newcomers would have, they carried a certain enchantment that might have encouraged them and those in their proximity to close their eyes to potential shortcomings of the U.S. when compared internationally. After the war, and especially after the Second World War, America had risen to the top of the free world and was the most powerful country in the world (even during the Cold War, as in reality, the USSR’s economic system was on the way out at least from Khrushchev’s time on). Power may cloud one’s judgement, this is as true for countries as it is for individuals, and the ego that comes with being at the top (even if it’s not perfect or a pole position in every discipline) makes it more difficult to humbly accept that there may be things to learn even from those below. The Cold War’s end heightened the sense of supremacy; Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the “End of History” is a good example of the excitement – and blindness – that can come from relative power.
Even while its global influence rapidly expanded, America (and Americans) never liked comparing itself to others and instead preferred to compare itself to itself.
The Constitution legitimizes the Government and the Government the Constitution
The U.S. is the country with the second-oldest active constitution in the world; only San Marino, an Italian micro-state and a principality, uses an older one (and it’s not a clearly defined document like the USA’s).
The constitution holds an exceptionally high value in American society. Changing it is infamously exceedingly difficult; the last time the constitution was amended was almost three decades ago, and that was only over an issue relating to the pay of Congress.
This is both because of its perception as a holy document and also part of why it is seen as such; after all, there would be no need for such rigidity and protection if it weren’t something extremely valuable which mustn’t be tampered with unless absolutely necessary.
In part, this reverence is justified. The constitution is crucially important to American society, as is evidenced by the fact that “the constitution” in this text may in most instances be replaced by “American institutions” and the text still maintain its intended meaning. The constitution lays out how the country is governed and provides the framework around which its civil society has formed – and since it has been a constant (with the only changes being the 27 amendments) for well over 200 years, the structures of both the state and civil society have fossilized around it.
Defending the constitution’s America has gone from progressive to reactionary or conservative – a reflex to maintain the past or at least the status quo (built on the past), with its institutions and all its implications.
This serves the same purpose as and goes hand in hand with American exceptionalism. In many ways, life is simply easier if one keeps telling oneself that one’s own society is the most advanced in the world. It makes it easier to govern at the very least: America is the best, which all must agree to, so policies coming from the government should generally not need questioning as they emerged from the solid and enduring constitutional processes that the Founding Fathers devised to keep America great. There is no need for concern, for the ideas are, by design, in line with the norms of state and society. Bad policies would be stopped in the system of checks and balances. To claim otherwise or to see a fault in American government or society is to call the entire system into question (an attack on a part is an attack on the whole, as we shall see later), an activity that is deeply un-American.
While the constitution serves a similar role in most republics, it is the degree of reverence – and the age of the constitution itself – that makes the USA a special case.
President Trump is one example of government actively practicing this American traditionalism and taking it to a reactionary extreme, viciously attacking reformers ranging from centrists to Bernie Sanders and decrying them as “un-American” and “treasonous” and wishing to go back to the “good old days.”
While others may not be as shrill about it, it is this general sentiment and its underlying cause – the extreme degree to which modern-day America is built around and inextricably linked with centuries-old structures – to which most of America’s modern-day problems can be traced.
The Costs – and Benefits – of stepping out of Line
Why do Americans choose to follow the ideology of American exceptionalism? At the heart of this decision lies a simple calculation of costs and benefits.
1. For one, everyone likes feeling like they are the greatest and best. American exceptionalism provides that feeling, and even better: it needn’t even be true. Having a reason not to worry about things is preferable over having to worry about them. It seems easily comprehensible how one might be drawn to an easier thought model (even if that requires some phenomena to remain unexplainable to the individual) rather than voluntarily shouldering the extra burden of worries that so easily could be avoided. The concept of “ignorance is bliss” applies here. Even if the situation on the ground might not align perfectly with the ideal a person has in their mind, it can be explained away through the flexibility of this particular ideology; American exceptionalism can co-opt ideas and serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy, like many ideologies can (and its close connection to capitalism, which, as Thomas Frank has shown, has a particular capacity for co-opting revolution, is helpful in doing so).
2. There also comes a social cost with calling into question American exceptionalism. Other people don’t like to be told that they are wrong – in this case, that their world view is based on an illusion – and as we have seen before, conservatism and reactionism are deeply entrenched in American society by its very structure; calling into question the status quo and the foundations of state and society barely ever go down well in any culture. Disapproving looks, a debate over Thanksgiving dinner or a punch in the face by a conservative are all costs that might dissuade people from trying to look beyond the dominant ideology – in America, American exceptionalism. McCarthyism was a period in American history during which such diverging views were especially costly and the costs especially visible.
3. Third, breaking with the ideology also requires a certain amount of individual effort and “enlightenment.” American society is conservative also by the very nature of societies wanting to sustain and replicate themselves from one generation to the next; because America’s society is so heavily reliant on and so closely connected to the skeleton from 230 years ago that lies at its center, it guards it especially tightly, as it is vital to the society’s replication in its present form. A crucial part in this always-happening process of reproduction is education. It is the way by which ideology is propagated, for education shapes the values of the next generation; religious education, for instance, works in the same way that the indoctrination with “American values” does. Take note that indoctrination is not necessarily meant in a negative sense here; it is simply a matter of fact that this is the process at play. (A negative feeling lies entirely in the readers’ mind, not this author’s words). The effort that is needed to call into question American exceptionalism therefore is that of having to break free from this mental cage by actively trying to think contrarily or seeking out information that does not support the belief system that the person was brought up in and conformed to. This ties back in with the first point in that it can be difficult and painful to want to break this and to do so seems irrational, for it will only make one’s life more difficult.
The calculation may be summed up as follows:
Decision = ([Perceived] benefit of breaking with AE) – (Cost of worry and lost ease) – (Societal cost) – (Individual effort).
If Decision is greater than zero – so if the sum of the three costs does not surpass the positive influence of the benefit of breaking with AE, a rational actor would choose to break with the ideology. It is not difficult to see how the odds of this happening are generally slim, at best.
This, then, explains why the myth of American exceptionalism is so successful at remaining the USA’s fundamental ideology even in the light of ever-greater connectedness of the globalized world and the free flow of outside information. Much like capitalism, which coopts movements that try to overthrow it from the inside, American exceptionalism is great at providing opportunities for people who want to believe in it to use real-world observations in its defense.
For instance, while things happening outside the U.S. might call into question the country’s excellence, the fact that information is freely available from all over the world within the U.S. in the first place can be held up as proof of the greatness of the American system. While this is a logical fallacy, it suffices as an explanation if the individual wishes to keep believing in the system – which, as we have seen in the cost analysis, is the rational decision.
The American ideology maintains dominance because the costs for an average member of the society to cast doubt on it are higher than simply keeping with it.
Why America’s ideology is holding it back
An ideology isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be a unifying force for a society and one that pushes it in a certain direction, perhaps toward progress. While the former is definitely true in the American example – a deep love and respect for America is a unifying force for the vast majority of its citizens and even non-citizen residents – the second is arguably not.
American exceptionalism today is a force that is doing more to hold the USA back than to push it toward improving itself.
Part of it is blindness. American exceptionalism, like any other ideology, is like shining a light in someone’s face; it is difficult to see what is really going on because the brightness is overwhelming and it is easier to focus on the light rather than the surrounding, which is more difficult to see. As discussed above and taking this metaphor to the real world, it means that it is easier to believe in American exceptionalism than to try to see America through an unfiltered lens. It hurts less.
The much bigger challenge, however, is that this ideology lies at the core of the institutions that run America. The system will strictly resist change, especially “radical” change with any real chance of re-drawing the current structures, because its survival depends on the respect for “American principles.” These are the reverence of the traditions that underly the system, including (and largely codified by) the constitution and by extension holding the Founding Fathers, their ideals, and their infallibility in high esteem. The system is conservative: It will prefer to maintain the status quo rather than enact change that alters it. It is also reactionary, in that it would prefer to regress rather than liberalize or reform. To enact change is in the least of the system’s interest, for it would mean altering it, in turn calling into question the replication of the system.
This resistance to change is rooted in part in the structures themselves, but also in the actual people who make up the system. They benefit from it and do not wish to lose their benefits – i.e. things like their jobs, pensions, and status in society.
Who benefits from the Status Quo – and who loses? Addressing institutionalized racism
Because American exceptionalism lives off the concept that American institutions (this term including all of the government, but also the structures of civil society) are exemplary, suggesting that any require reform or are otherwise imperfect amounts to attacking the illusion as a whole. While the separation of powers might serve to cause division between the branches of government, no such division exists for the society as a whole, as it is linked to the foundational ideology of the USA. Reactionary and conservative forces will push back hard to maintain said ideology so that their lives may remain easy and that the benefits they reap from not being contrarian continue to flow to them.
The existence and perseverance of American exceptionalism is also strictly connected to racism.
In America, those who benefit the most from the existing structures and norms are white people, wealthy people, and male people; and especially wealthy, white men. This has again and again been empirically proven and is generally accepted as fact. Coincidentally, it is the same demographic which the Founding Fathers belonged to, and it’s the “men” they meant when they wrote that “all men are created qual.” It is also the demographic that the Founding Fathers created the system for – which persists to this day with surprisingly little change (the increase of suffrage being without question the most significant; although barriers continue to exist to truly equal access to votes). This group has the most incentive to believe in the lies of American exceptionalism and the least incentive and triggers to think it may be false, for they are systematically shielded from the hardships that less privileged groups of society may encounter on a daily basis.
If, however, one battles with food insecurity, unaffordable but vital medicine or living in fear of being shot – whether for being black or pursuing an education – it becomes a whole lot more difficult to uphold the belief in American exceptionalism. The cost-benefit equation tips: After a certain point, it becomes more difficult to convince oneself of the existence of American exceptionalism than to accept it as a lie. And it can become more costly to partake in propagating the status quo than it is to take on the costs of trying to actively change it – of trying to enact reform.
Unfortunately, this system is able to quite easily discredit such tendencies: Because at least in theory, in the story told by the ideology, all people hold equal right and all have the same ability to drive change “legitimately,” so by following the norms of the system. Elections in a democracy serve the same purpose as they do in dictatorships where they have predetermined outcomes: To provide legitimacy to the rulers. Following the norms of the system – whether that be voting or going through the court system legitimizes the system. For those who face no problems to live their lives while staying within the norms, it can be very difficult to comprehend how this might be difficult or impossible to do for others who share so much in common and have the same rights on paper. Because the system has legitimacy, when in doubt, they naturally prefer to side with the system that they are a part of and that ensures their comfortable and frictionless life rather than the “rebels” who are trying to change what in the privileged eyes is a perfectly fine status quo.
The ideology goes that all have one vote and the equal ability to influence the government to act in the way that they want it to: Through elections, courts, petitions, and whatever other means. The truth is that this is false; that there are differences, based on social groups and, crucially, race, in how much weight any one voice and opinion has in the American system.
And this truth adds a crucial fourth dimension to the persistence of American exceptionalism: Even if those that may have once truly believed in it find the faults in the ideology, it is in their own best interest to try to deny them. The comfort of their lives and the advantage that they hold – even if this advantage is simply leading a completely average life – depend on propagating the lie and keeping it alive. And because they hold greater power and influence within the society, it is easier for them to do so than for disenfranchised groups to counteract it.
Currently, in the U.S. it is assumed that higher voter turnouts will benefit the slightly more progressive Democratic party. Republicans, therefore, appear to have more reliable voters – either their incentives are higher, or their costs are lower, or both. It seems likely that it is especially the barriers to vote – the costs – that are lower for Republicans, as they are more likely than Democrats to fall into the very demographics described above that have less to lose from voting on a weekday and that have not been affected as much by voter-suppression tactics, many of which have been put in place by the GOP itself. Within the Democratic party, too, we have seen especially clearly in recent years that it was very “moderate” – conservative – candidates that won the nomination, presumably for much the same reasons, just within the universe of Democrats.
And this vested interest by advantaged groups is the reason why the USA is the only developed country in the world not to have universal healthcare. It is why police reform has been slow and meaningless, if at all taking place, in cities across the country, Democratic or Republican or something else. It is why social services are weak and public transportation is not a priority. Why government shutdowns can happen, or no substantial legislation be passed for years because of partisan gridlock. It’s why progress on climate change was sluggish and then undone. Why school shootings exist, and St. Louis has the highest homicide rate of any city outside of Latin America. Why voter suppression and systemic racism are not reduced but arguably expanded.
The system does what it’s designed to do – reproduce itself
Fixing any of these problems would mean accepting that America is not infallible. It would mean looking at examples abroad and accepting that in many cases, America is not the best in the world. And while almost everyone may see it and many may understand it, it is in the interest of those that run the country – by definition from within the government, and by extension white Americans (and especially men) all over the U.S. – to continue averting their eyes. For them, the cost and risk of initiating change is greater than the costs of maintaining the status quo – even with these shortcomings. After all, they personally are not or less affected by all of these problems. And the system has managed to persevere despite these hiccups.
From the perspective of an individual member in public employment, their positions depend on the continued existence of the American society in its current form. (It can be argued that this is true for the private sector, too). Initiating reform would mean that their course has thus far been incorrect and might lose them an election. If it is a non-elected position, then rebelling might get them removed by their boss, who follows the same incentives. Or, in all cases, it may simply erode trust in the American ideology.
From the perspective of an individual member of the privileged social groups that benefit from the status quo, they would not see much benefit from reform but can see – knowingly or subconsciously – the drawback of losing or diluting the privilege that they innately hold. They are thus more likely to act conservative or reactionary than progressive, unless they have other motivations to do so, such as personal gain or beliefs (though, again, it is easier and less costly to believe in American exceptionalism and thus be conservative or reactionary than progressive).
From the perspective of the parties, it would mean losing the support of the most influential group of Americans – and those that have the time and resources to turn out to vote. Initiating reform would not only alienate those that have benefited from the status quo (who are almost certainly the same people who have brought about a continuation of the status quo to begin with, i.e., have elected the parties into power), but would also mean calling into question their parties’ record and the functioning of the government, and would strengthen those who seek to call into question their thus far cemented positions.
Crucially, the longer the lie is told, the more costly it becomes to break with it.
The lie of American exceptionalism has recently celebrated its 233rd birthday.
 Except for minorities, blacks, criminals, people with not enough money and half the population that had a preexisting condition called “being women.”