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American Exceptionalism’s Two Faces Essay


The concept of American exceptionalism has been discussed for decades, and researchers have not agreed on whether it is good or bad. Some claim it is an important and beneficial trait of character adherent to all Americans. Others stress that it has both positive and negative sides. It is possible to consider ideas of researchers on the matter to identify major features of the concept and try to answer the question concerning positive and negative (if any) sides of American exceptionalism.

In the first place, it is necessary to define the concept to understand whether American exceptionalism is good or bad (or both). Since the phrase is believed to be coined by De Tocqueville, it is also necessary to consider his view on American exceptionalism. Thus, the author notes that Americans’ position “is entirely exceptional” due to their focus on particular material things (De Tocqueville 517). Nonetheless, the term (as well as the nation) evolved and acquired new meanings. For instance, modern researchers define the concept as “Americans’ deprecation of power politics and old-fashioned diplomacy… and belief that liberal values transfer readily to foreign affairs” (Sellevold 47). Hence, the term is seen as Americans’ view of themselves and their belief that the American way of life as well as an ideology is exceptional and should be copied by other nations.

As has been mentioned above, there are different viewpoints on the matter, and it is possible to consider two opposing opinions to take a glance at the debate. Koh claims that American exceptionalism has two sides, positive and negative (111). On the one hand, this concept fosters patriotism in Americans and leads to numerous positive changes in the world as the USA tends to be the driver of the change. On the other hand, American exceptionalism leads to chauvinism and makes Americans think that their nation is better than the rest, and this is seen as a reason to interfere in other nations’ affairs. The researcher also notes that American exceptionalism is closely connected with the concept of double standards, or the trend to justify certain actions undertaken by Americans and condemn the same actions undertaken by others if it is against Americans’ interests (Koh 112).

At the same time, Bromund claims that Koh’s view on the American exceptionalism is highly negative (n.p.). Bromund also argues that the American exceptionalism bears only positive traits, and all arguments against it are groundless as Americans’ ideology is truly exceptional and enables the country to remain the leading state. Notably, the author stresses that the American nation was the first one to do many remarkable things, including but not confined to the creation of a democratic society (Bromund n.p.).

These two views are very different and to understand which one is correct. It is important to look into features of the concept as well as its origins. De Tocqueville sees the origins of this type of mindset in Puritanism and ideas of settlers (517). Notably, the vast majority of researchers agree with the author as it is a fact that first settlers came to the new world to build a new and just state. Those people believed they were exceptional as they left their homeland to protect their religious beliefs.

The American Revolution became another milestone which contributed to the development of the American exceptionalism. After the revolution, Americans saw themselves as a “redeemer nation” (Phillips par. 4). They believed they created a truly democratic (in other words, just) society and developed a constitution which was the highest rule for people. This was another building rock for the American exceptionalism. Generations have been brought up on principles and values which were developed by first settlers and founding fathers. Importantly, Sellevold notes that some argue that Americans do not have ideology (48). However, the author stresses that American exceptionalism is their ideology (Sellevold 48). This is a very valuable and insightful point, and it helps reveal the concept’s major features.

Hence, one of the major positive features is that American exceptionalism leads to patriotism in Americans. Americans’ patriotism is very strong, and it “has no place in more homogeneous democracies” (Sellevold 48). Therefore, American exceptionalism is the idea that unites such a diverse society and makes Americans strive for similar values. In other words, this is the idea that created the nation and people are still united irrespective of social, economic, ethnic, political, cultural, and other differences. Admittedly, this is a positive side of the concept.

At the same time, this kind of patriotism may often obtain negative features as the line between patriotism and chauvinism is often blurred. Sellevold calls this kind of patriotism “dirty” as some Americans start thinking that everything which is not American is not worthy and can (or even should) be laughed at or even destroyed (48). When a person thinks he/she is exceptional, it becomes natural to believe that he/she knows what to do, and the rest of people simply have to follow.

More so, the darkest side of this dirty patriotism is disrespect to other nations and cultures, the inability to see the importance of sharing ideas to progress. Researchers stress that this patriotism may also be seen as a justification of numerous crimes such as the Vietnamese War or many other wars that took place in the world (Jacobs n.p.). Some Americans did not see that killing people (who were not Americans) was such a big crime as the war was guided by the idea of bringing democracy and peace to the land.

The concept of the double standard is rooted in this darker side of patriotism. As has been mentioned above, the double standard was considered as one of the negative sides of the American exceptionalism by Koh (114). Thus, Americans (as any other nation, in fact) tend to be guided by their interests. The double standard is the way adherence to self-interest is manifested in relations with others. Koh focuses on the legislation of the USA and other countries and the Americans’ ability to see rules and laws in terms of their interest (114). It is possible to see manifestations of the double standard in many areas of American life and throughout American history.

As another positive side of the American exceptionalism, it is possible to view exceptional global leadership. The concept mentioned by Koh, who claims that Americans have become true leaders and global drivers of the change in the world (128). As has been mentioned above, the USA has been seen as a revolutionary state by other nations as well as Americans themselves. First settlers firmly believed that they could and had to make Native Americans share their values which were virtuous, according to Europeans. Americans managed to create a revolutionary constitution that worked and was democratic.

The USA often tries to influence other nations and share experience, as well as help, develop successful strategies. The country also draws other nations’ attention to a variety of issues, and a discussion starts on a global scale. Environmental and social issues become a topic of the global discussion, and countries contribute to the development of effective solutions to the issues. It is necessary to note that the American exceptionalism extended to other countries, which started to believe that the USA was the driver of change. Thus, lots of countries are looking at the USA before making some decisions or are waiting for the US to make the first step.

At the same time, the desire to share successful experiences may often lead to negative outcomes. The desire to bring democracy to the world has led to numerous conflicts and even wars. Hence, there is also a darker side to this. The line between activism and interference in the affairs of other countries is easy to cross. For instance, the War in Vietnam may be seen as the desire to bring peace to the area and help people develop democratic values. Nonetheless, some may see the war as an unjustifiable crime against the Vietnamese nation that had the right to develop without the interference of the country even if that country had good intentions.

Therefore, American exceptionalism has two sides. Notably, it is not bliss, but it is not a curse for the American nation. The concept has enabled the country to become one of the leading states in the world. The country constituted by people of different backgrounds is united by the concept of the American exceptionalism, and it can have difficulties existing without it. Hence, it is crucial to develop the concept and minimize the negative effects of the concept. The American exceptionalism should remain the ideology of the USA, but it has to be somewhat shaped. New generations should be brought up on the bright side of the American exceptionalism. Some people try to focus on the fact that Americans were the first to make certain revolutionary things, and this is why they are exceptional.

Nevertheless, this is the wrong way to develop American exceptionalism. Americans should focus on what revolutionary and globally valuable things they are introducing. The American exceptionalism should not be grounded in the past, but it should aim at the present and future.

In conclusion, it is necessary to note that the American exceptionalism has both positive and negative features. On the one hand, it makes the Americans great patriots of their country who cherish virtuous values. The USA is seen as a global activist and the driver of the change as well as an exemplary state in many respects. On the other hand, Americans may show disrespect to other nations and even interfere in the affairs of other countries. It is also clear that the American exceptionalism is deeply rooted in the Americans’ minds. Nonetheless, there is no need to try to eliminate the concept of American ideology. On the contrary, it is essential to make sure that the positive side will develop while the darker side of the American exceptionalism will cease to exist.

Works Cited

Bromund, Ted. . 2009.

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. New York, NY: Library of America, 2004. Print.

Jacobs, Ron. . 2004. Web.

Koh, Harold Hongju. “America’s Jekyll‐and‐Hyde Exceptionalism.” American Exceptionalism and Human Rights. Ed. Michael Ignatieff. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. 111-143. Print.

Phillips, Dennis. 2010. Web.

Sellevold, Martin. “A Look at American Exceptionalism.” Australian Rationalist 65.1 (2003): 46-48. Print.

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