"Unexceptional Is Fine by Me"

A few weeks ago I got an email from Scott Shane, a reporter at The New York Times, who wondered if we could set up a time for an interview over the telephone. Being unused to such requests, I was excited, curious, and more than just a little bit nervous. Shane wanted my input on the concept of American exceptionalism and what I thought might be the impact of the belief in American exceptionalism on this year's presidential race.

It seems that Shane found his way to me through my blog, "Ranking America," a seriocomic look at how the U.S. measures up in comparison to other countries in as many categories as I can find data for -- everything from oil production (3rd) to beer consumption (13th per capita; 2nd overall). After our conversation, Shane wrote a well-received article for the Times called "The Opiate of Exceptionalism," and he included a few lines from our conversation.

I think it is important to say that I'm not a big believer in American exceptionalism, in the idea that the U.S. is somehow qualitatively different from other countries in its freedoms, its prosperity, and its power. This isn't to say that I don't love my country. The fact that I chose to become a professor of American Studies is an indication of the depth of my feelings for the U.S. However, much like with my children, I don't need my country to be the best in order for it to merit my love.

Yes, I understand that the U.S. is by far the richest country in the world and that its military might is unparalleled. It hasn't always been the leader in these areas, however, and its economic and military predominance will decline inevitably at some point. Indeed, China is projected to have a larger GDP than the U.S. by 2025. Although there are no countries on track to seriously challenge American military power, that is no reason to think that the U.S. will always reign supreme in that category.

For many people, the belief in American exceptionalism isn't as much tied to military or economic might as it to freedom. For them, it may come as some surprise to learn that the United States is not the freest country in the world. By almost any measure of freedom that exists out there -- economic freedom (10th), civil liberties (46th), freedom of the press (22nd) -- the U.S. does not stand apart from other industrial democracies. In fact, it lags behind many countries in measurements of personal and economic liberty.

The belief in American exceptionalism can lead to blindness about the areas where the U.S. doesn't fare as well as it could given its immense wealth and comparatively stable political system. It also can lead to simplistic rationalizations for the nation's shortcomings, and to finger pointing by one political party to the other. "They are evil," so this thinking goes, "and we are good. If you just vote them out and us in, then all the bad things facing this country will go away."

After all, the belief in exceptionalism is premised on the belief that the United States is uniquely endowed to achieve perfection, and that the failure to achieve perfection is not because such perfection doesn't exist, but because we have failed to live up to our promise. Thus, a simple (and permanent) change of political direction ought to be enough to lead us back to the path of perfection.

I don't buy it. Neither party has a monopoly on useful critiques nor on sensible ideas for how to address the problems that face the country without threatening what is already working well. Sadly, though, this way of thinking seems almost heretical in these politically polarized days.

The United States is a country of great achievements, deep flaws, and immense potential. To reduce such complexity by painting the country as "exceptional" does a disservice to the memory of the generations of men and women who struggled, and who continue to struggle to make the country what it is -- better, perhaps, than it once was, but not as good as it might someday be.