The Myth of American Exceptionalism

A perspective.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, America loomed as the gleaming superpower. It looked like the country had solved all of its problems. It was the envy of the world. An end of history loomed. No longer. History has come back with a vengeance. And today, after a decade of ruinous wars, the only things worth copying are the memories.

Americans are only beginning to comprehend their difficulties. Perhaps this should not be surprising. For Americans have long been weaned on the notion that they represent an exceptional nation. And, to be fair, the American belief in exceptionalism is not exceptional. Quite the contrary. Throughout history, countries and peoples have believed that they were exceptional. The ancient Greeks believed it, and called everyone else “barbarian.” So did the Romans, who conquered the world and believed they were gods. In more recent history, we had the Anglo-Saxons, who built the British Empire, which, in its expanse, spread further and wider than any previous imperium. Russia, too, is intimately acquainted with the idea of its own exceptionalism. We need only recall Hegumen Philotheus of Pskov, who talked about Moscow being the third Rome and that there would not be a fourth one. The idea of Russian exceptionalism was even more strongly expressed in Marxist-Leninist ideology, when Moscow created a denationalized ideological empire with a calling to free mankind from the tyranny of capitalism, and believed it had a historic mission to bring happiness to the entire world through a global victory of socialism, and later communism. It claimed that all people in the world would enjoy not only equality of opportunity, but of results. As a rule, all these ideas of exceptionalism rested on the twin pillars of ideology and myths.

Myths and ideological impulses abound in American history, too. The uniqueness of the country, its isolation from the rest of the world, and the unprecedented opportunity for growth and prosperity created the myth of the U.S. as a promised land that bestows upon its people unlimited room for development, personal freedom, entrepreneurship, and wealth. The American people, as the myth goes, enjoy and possess a global leadership mandate to enlighten the rest of the world and spread democratic values and institutions. At certain stages, when countries and people seem to be experiencing progress, they believe in their own myths as it seems fate itself is leading them forward and reality appears to bolster their claims to exceptionalism and a special place in the world. In this sense, American exceptionalism as a part of the American dream has long received confirmation in the continued development of both American society and the American state.

One of the main ideas of the American dream and American exceptionalism is that of freedom of the land, in which free people arrived and settled, and by the strength of their honest labor and the Protestant Ethic, achieved great results in their work, bringing prosperity to themselves and others. At the heart of this American dream and exceptionalism, lay the foundational notion that people have unlimited possibility to move up the social ladder without regard to national origin, starting social stratum, ethnic, religious or other association by birth, because society provided unlimited opportunity for economic, socio-cultural, or other advancement.

Another, very important feature of American exceptionalism was the certainty of Americans that they had the best Constitution--one that was created by a single stroke, thanks to the genius of the Founding Fathers, regarded by many as legendary demi-gods. Then there is the belief that American society is a nearly classless one. Here is a society that effectively battled poverty and created just relations between classes and social groups.

The problem comes, however, when these idealized myths run up against bleak realities. Consider the Soviet Union. For Russians remember very well that the worse the economy got in the Soviet Union and the weaker our international positions grew, the louder, intensively, and even angrily the Kremlin’s octogenarian leadership chanted the mantra of its own exceptionalism—the liberating mission of the Soviet Union, the historic significance of Marxist ideology and the inevitability of the triumph of socialism and communism worldwide. I believe that when Vladimir Putin wrote in his New York Times essay that it is very dangerous to foster the idea of exceptionalism among Americans, he spoke from the point of view of someone whose country had already suffered the collapse of such illusions. It is perilous for politicians and society to fail to notice the moment in which the gap between ideology and reality becomes an abyss. In our case, such failure led to the collapse of the USSR. And, if I understand Putin correctly, he is calling on Americans not to repeat our mistakes. This is why, I think, many American politicians, analysts and journalists, instead of thanking President Putin for the friendly piece of advice, wrongly took offence. Putin was not disparaging America; he was warning it. And for a number of reasons his concerns are not unwarranted.

Pages