Skip to content Skip to footer
Does American Exceptionalism Foster American Decline?
(Photo: Joshua Daniel O.)

Does American Exceptionalism Foster American Decline?

(Photo: Joshua Daniel O.)

Following a trend set in recent years, references to “American exceptionalism” were common in 2012 and may remain a recurrent theme of US politics in the Obama era. Republicans have notably equated the concept with faith in the United States’ superiority. During the presidential race, Mitt Romney argued that “America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers” because “God” wants it to lead the world. Romney insisted that, unlike Barack Obama, he believes in “American exceptionalism,” by which he meant that America is “the greatest nation in the history of the world and a force for good.” Romney framed his campaign as a defense of America’s “exceptional” character against an unpatriotic president who “thinks America’s just another nation” and who wants it to become “a European-style entitlement society.”

The Republicans’ focus on “American exceptionalism” was premised on the notion that Obama denied that America is a special country. In fact, Obama’s speeches have routinely echoed the idea that Americans are an extraordinary people. He has even asserted that America is the “greatest nation on Earth.” Nevertheless, appealing to “American exceptionalism” was a more dignified and less direct way for Republicans to defend partisan policies. In practice, protecting the country’s “exceptional” character meant embracing the Republican program of tax cuts, deregulation, and laissez faire.

But what is “American exceptionalism?” The concept can actually refer to two distinct ideas. The chauvinistic definition of exceptionalism has become common in the rhetoric of politicians. It equates American exceptionalism with American superiority. In this view, “exceptional” means “better” or “outstanding.” This idea is often tied to the notion that America is fulfilling a special destiny chosen by God. However, “American exceptionalism” has also long had an objective definition under which “exceptional” simply means “different” or “unusual.” From this angle, America is exceptional because it differs from comparable industrialized countries, regardless of whether one views these differences in a positive or negative light.[1] For example, it may be a good or bad thing, depending on one’s perspective, that America is essentially the only Western country with very limited gun control.

Notwithstanding the conflation of “American exceptionalism” with chauvinism, the 2012 election raised fundamental questions about the nation’s unique character. America’s economic dominance is fading. It has additionally become a “winner-take-all” economy where wealth inequality is acute by Western standards. The United States could eventually lose its status as the world’s only superpower due to the rise of China. However, America is currently unable to pass reforms needed to make great strides into the future, modernize its social and economic model, and improve the lives of its citizens.

Republicans argue that the Obama administration has precipitated the nation’s decadence by trying to Europeanize America. In their view, America is declining because it is becoming less “exceptional.” In reality, America remains very exceptional and certain features of American exceptionalism contribute to the country’s decline: anti-intellectualism, religious fundamentalism, and radical anti-governmentalism. These mindsets, which mutually reinforce each other, are particularly concentrated in the contemporary Republican Party. They foster a purist, far-right ideology that is hostile to compromise and that impedes rational problem-solving, as recently illustrated by most House Republicans’ refusal to raise taxes even only on millionaires during negotiations over the “fiscal cliff.”

Throughout 2012, Republicans continued to describe the Obama administration’s moderate health care reform as a radical “socialist” plan even though universal health care is widely accepted by both the right and left in all other Western nations. The latter have considerably lower medical expenses than America and generally better health levels.[2] Unlike many Americans, other Westerners simply do not go bankrupt due to medical bills. Nor can they be denied insurance due to preexisting conditions, a peculiar American practice outlawed by Obamacare. Nevertheless, numerous Americans are persuaded that they enjoy far better access to health care than people elsewhere in the West.

The fact that scores of Americans accept manifest propaganda about “socialized medicine” and vote squarely against their own economic interest relates to a more fundamental aspect of American decline. Anti-intellectualism has become prevalent in modern-day conservative America, as exemplified by the rise of leaders disdainful of intellect, such as George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. As noted by renowned scholar Richard Hofstadter, [3] anti-intellectualism is rooted in the notion that having “too much” education is both pretentious and useless because all one really needs is common sense. Consider the words of John Boehner, who proudly argued that being Speaker of the House requires no higher education whatsoever: “Trust me – all the skills I learned growing up are the skills I need to do my job.” Today’s Republicans often associate education with the so-called “liberal elite.” Rick Santorum notably accused Obama of being a “snob” for setting the goal of a college education for all Americans in the 21st century. America used to lead the world in the proportion of young adults holding college degrees. That is no longer the case, yet Republicans are determined to cut funding for education.

Anti-intellectualism dissuades people from informing themselves and helps explain why an exceptionally large share of the US population lacks elementary knowledge. One in three Americans is unable to name any of the three branches of government. Forty-two percent do not know that America declared independence in 1776; and 24 percent do not know from which country it gained independence (Great Britain). While America has an abundance of bright minds, the ignorance found in certain segments of society is an Achilles heel. America may not be able to afford much longer to have a citizenry whose level of education is not consistent with its superpower status.

The belittlement of education has contributed to the acute polarization of America during Obama’s presidency as ill-informed citizens have been inclined to believe anything about the federal government’s “tyranny.” Scores of Republicans think that Obama radically raised income taxes during his first term, whereas he actually cut them for 95 percent of working families as part of his economic stimulus. Even though the Tea Party has stridently denounced overtaxation, current income tax levels range towards historical lows. In 2009, Palin convinced a third of the public that Obamacare included “death panels.” Conspiracy theories have far more political weight in America than in other developed countries, as further demonstrated by persistent claims regarding the supposed “hoax” of global warming or Obama’s fake birth certificate.

Of course, American exceptionalism also has many positive dimensions. Neil Armstrong’s passing reminded us that Americans were the first on the moon – a prodigious feat accomplished without the benefits of modern computer technology. The spectacular landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars equally illustrates the remarkable contributions of Americans to science. It is therefore a paradox that four in ten Americans reject the theory of evolution in favor of Genesis-based creationism, a singularly high proportion in the developed world at the dawn of the 21st century. Religious fundamentalists frequently perceive education and science as obstacles to faith. Nearly half of US Protestants are unaware that Martin Luther was the main figure behind the Protestant Reformation.[4]

These aspects of modern America stand in sharp contrast with the nation’s origins in the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers were highly learned men whose conception of government was influenced by Enlightenment philosophy. They created the first modern democracy, as the Declaration of Independence of 1776 preceded the French Revolution of 1789. The Marquis de Condorcet, a leading French philosopher, wrote that due to the American Revolution, people no longer had to learn about the rights of men from philosophy – they could now learn from “the example of a great people.” [5]

It may be that decline is the inevitable fate of any leading society. After all, America’s incipient decline has come at the heels of Europe’s own decline. Former European powers like the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal are now only shadows of their former selves. Perhaps it is now America’s turn to experience the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations. From the Roman Empire to the Mongol Empire to European colonial empires, countless dominant societies have gradually faded over the course of history.

Yet, decline is not simply a matter of fate. Leaving aside certain environmental factors partially beyond human control, the ascent and downfall of civilizations is largely human-made. America’s decline after little more than a century as a superpower seems far from inevitable at this stage. It remains the world’s largest economy. It is a leader in technology and many other fields. Its universities are widely recognized as among the very best in the world. It has great thinkers and innovators. In sum, there is much to admire about contemporary America. Still, the aspects of American exceptionalism mentioned above – anti-intellectualism, religious fundamentalism and a visceral suspicion of government – arguably contribute to the country’s decline.

1. The concept of American exceptionalism has been studied by numerous scholars. See, for example, Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (Norton, 1996); Peter H. Schuck & James Q. Wilson, Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation (Public Affairs, 2008); Jack P. Greene, The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800 (University of North Carolina Press, 1993); John W. Kingdon, America the Unusual (Worth, 1999).

2. See, for example and

3. Hofstadter won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

4. See the Pew Forum study: “About half of Protestants (53 percent) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity.” Refer to page 8 of the study.

5. See Marquis de Condorcet, De L’Influence de la Révolution d’Amérique sur l’Europe (1786): “Le genre humain avait perdu ses titres, Montesquieu les a retrouvés et les lui a rendus. Mais il ne suffit pas qu’ils soient écrits dans les livres des philosophes et dans le cœur des hommes vertueux, il faut que l’homme ignorant ou faible puisse les lire dans l’exemple d’un grand peuple. L’Amérique nous a donné cet exemple. L’acte qui a déclaré son indépendance est une exposition simple et sublime de ces droits si sacrés et si longtemps oubliés.”

​​Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.

Truthout is widely read among people with lower ­incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.

We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so — especially now, because we have just 1 day left to raise $25,000 in critical funds.

We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?