America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    America on the Brink

America, the Exceptional?

Is the idea of American exceptionalism even recognizable anymore?

Steve Lagerfeld

The Statue of Liberty (detail), 1962, by Andy Warhol (1928–1987); private collection; © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.

The war over American exceptionalism is over. The idea has been battered beyond recognition by more than a decade in the gladiator ring of American politics. Now it is just a club wielded by combatants unaware that the fight has ended. The term has so many meanings that it has no meaning. One economist has even predicted that the world’s waning belief in America’s exceptionalism will help trigger a collapse of the dollar.

American exceptionalism is an honorable idea that deserves to be put on a stretcher and carried back to the intellectual world where it was born and where it may still live a long and productive life. That is where it enjoyed a relatively quiet existence until the first rumblings of war erupted around the beginning of this century. In 2008, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, injected exceptionalism into the presidential campaign. “We are an exceptional nation,” she declared, and “an exceptional country,” at one point assuring an audience that “you are all exceptional Americans.”11xRoger Cohen, “Palin’s American Exception,” New York Times, September 25, 2008, After that, conservative critics used the term to attack President Barack Obama’s policies of more expansive government at home and a diminished role abroad, and even to question his patriotism. “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program,” wrote Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry, two National Review editors, in the pages of that magazine in 2010.22xRamesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry, “An Exceptional Debate,” National Review, February 18, 2010, Newt Gingrich and other political figures joined the fray with books that equated exceptionalism with American greatness. Obama kept things going by coyly delivering only qualified endorsements of the holy words. “American exceptionalism” became a phrase conservatives wore on their sleeves to complement their flag lapel pins.

At least they did until the presidential campaign of 2016, when the two sides pulled something of a switcheroo. Hillary Clinton did not merely embrace exceptionalism; she doubled down on it, calling it the “core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way.”33xSteve Benen, “The Debate over ‘American Exceptionalism’ Is Turned on Its Head,” Maddow Blog, August 31, 2016, Meanwhile, the man who had suddenly seized control of the Republican Party had washed his hands of the whole idea (which, like many of the other combatants, he probably did not really understand). “Look, if I’m a Russian, or I’m a German, or I’m a person we do business with, why, you know, I don’t think it’s a very nice term. We’re exceptional; you’re not,” Donald Trump said in 2015.44xNicole Javorsky, “Trump’s Defenders Say He’s an American Exceptionalist. Not Long Ago, He Claimed the Opposite,” Mother Jones, July 17, 2019,

It was not a sudden burst of diplomatic discretion that inspired the future president. Trump wants an America that shakes off lofty ideals and international entanglements and gets down in the ring to duke it out bare-knuckled with other countries for the world’s treasures. His unexceptional America is in that respect no different from any other country. Winning will make it great again. Yet the president, who is nothing if not flexible in matters of principle, may be in the process of pulling one of his own patented switcheroos. In accepting the Republican nomination this summer, he uttered the E word once, and the bullet-pointed second term agenda he touted included a call to “teach American exceptionalism,” albeit with no explanation of what that might mean.

Meanwhile, the national conservative movement led by people such as former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and political theorist and biblical scholar Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism, has been building an intellectual foundation for Trump’s rough-hewn proclamations. Rejecting liberalism as the basis of both nationhood and the international order, the conservative nationalists call for a citizenship based on communal solidarity and “the national state, community, family, and religious tradition”55xYoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2018), 32, ch. 4 (e-book). rather than individualistic commitments to a common creed. Hunker down and care for your own, in other words. They believe that the liberal international order, with its insistence on the universal values of liberty and equality, inevitably ends in imperialism and war.

Exceptionalism in All but Name

Once attacked for rejecting American exceptionalism, liberals now are in almost sole possession of it, and at this summer’s Democratic National Convention they struck some of its familiar themes of opportunity, achievement, and equality (though dissenting notes were heard from the party’s left wing). Former secretary of state John Kerry took on the subject directly, adding yet another layer of meaning to the confused term. America is exceptional, he declared, because it does exceptional things.

Exceptionalism is like a large body of water fed by three currents, one religious, one political, and one creedal. In the turbulent mixture they create, one can find a basis for many different claims. Each of the currents alone is full of complexities and mingled elements, and they all run deep in American life. It is challenge enough to deal with them separately without trying to swallow the whole body of water.

The word exceptionalism by itself is too much to handle. To many supporters and critics alike, the word sounds like a claim to superiority and privilege. But the first people to use the term “American exceptionalism” thought of the United States as anything but virtuous. For the Communist International in the 1920s (and for Marx and Engels before it), the United States posed a vexing problem. According to Marxist theory, as the world’s most advanced industrial nation it should have been leading the way on the path to working-class consciousness and revolution, yet it was not playing the part. Jay Lovestone, head of the Communist Party USA, argued that because of the nation’s economic opportunity and egalitarian civic culture, and prosperity that extended to the working class, the inevitable crisis of American capitalism lay far in the future; hence, the Party would need to follow a different path in the United States. The debate came to an abrupt end in 1929 when Joseph Stalin summoned Lovestone to Moscow to inform him that he was incorrect. Lovestone was driven from his leadership position in the Communist Party USA for what Stalin called his “heresy.” In 1930, in the wake of the stock market crash, the American Communists issued what was probably the first obituary for the hated idea at their annual convention: “The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism.”66xSee Ted Morgan, A Covert Life: Jay Lovestone, Communist, Anti-Communist, and Spymaster (New York, NY: Random House, 1999).

The idea was reborn after World War II. As William Phillips and Philip Rahv, the editors of Partisan Review, the chief organ of liberal and left intellectuals, put it in the introduction to the journal’s famous 1952 symposium, “Our Country and Our Culture,” American intellectuals “now regard America and its institutions in a new way.” Europe had proven fertile ground for the totalitarian temptations of fascism and communism, while the United States had not. Europe had been the breeding ground of two devastating world wars, and a third seemed all too possible. American artists and intellectuals, who had long seen Europe as their natural sanctuary, now saw greater virtue in their native land. “The wheel has come full circle, and now America has become the protector of Western civilization, at least in a military and economic sense…. Politically, there is a recognition that the kind of democracy which exists in America has an intrinsic and positive value: it is not merely a capitalist myth but a reality which must be defended against Russian totalitarianism.” Phillips and Rahv continued, “The democratic values which America either embodies or promises…are necessary conditions for civilization and represent the only immediate alternative as long as Russian totalitarianism threatens world domination.”77xWilliam Phillips and Philip Rahv, “Our Country and Our Culture: Editorial Statement,” Partisan Review 19, no. 3 (1952), 284,

This was American exceptionalism in all but name. The naming would come a bit later, the work of an assortment of liberal intellectuals and academics.

The Troublesome Current

While Phillips and Rahv embraced much of what would come to be called American exceptionalism, they made no mention of one of its most important (and troublesome) currents, the religiously inspired notion of the United States as a “redeemer nation.” The belief that America enjoyed God’s special favor was present before the nation’s creation, articulated in the words of Cotton Mather and other preachers and thoroughly woven into the nation’s everyday fabric and mythology, helped with the passage of time by the demise of original sin and other Christian fetters on belief in the perfectibility of man. It waxed and waned, rising to prominence at regular intervals and in different forms. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson called the United States “the only idealistic nation in the world,” endowed with a unique “spiritual energy” that had given it “the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world” in World War I.88xWoodrow Wilson, “Address at Cheyenne, Wyo., September 24, 1919,” in Addresses of Woodrow Wilson: Addresses Delivered by President Wilson on His Western Tour (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919), 336. Ronald Reagan saw a “divine purpose” in the American founding and in his 1988 State of the Union address famously envisioned the nation as a “city on a hill,” a phrase plucked from a sermon the Puritan John Winthrop delivered aboard the Arbella in 1630 before leading his followers ashore in the New World.

Nothing excites the fury and contempt of liberal and left intellectuals more than such declarations of God-given mission. In just the past two years, long after Reagan breathed his last “city on a hill,” two new works of substantial scholarship have assailed the notion that Winthrop’s text was a founding American document: Daniel T. Rodgers’s As a City on a Hill (2018) and City on a Hill (2020), by Abram C. Van Engen. Their case is pretty much a slam dunk. Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” may not even have been a sermon, and there is no record that anybody ever heard it delivered. In any case it was promptly forgotten, writes Van Engen, and remained “so thoroughly unknown that no one even knew it was lost.” When it was finally discovered and printed in 1838, it instantly sank out of sight again for more than a century, until historian Perry Miller dug it up and inserted it into Errand into the Wilderness (1956), as the starting point of the American narrative.

In an essay written for the Bicentennial, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted that millenarian dreams were far from the founders’ minds when they established the United States.99xArthur Schlesinger Jr., “America: Experiment or Destiny?” American Historical Review 82, no. 3 (June 1977): 505–22; doi:10.2307/1850885. They may have looked to God for hope, but they looked to Athens, Rome, and history generally for guidance and inspiration. What they found was not the mandate of heaven but a pathway full of pitfalls and perils, “an experiment, undertaken in defiance of history, fraught with risk, problematic in outcome.”1010xArthur Schlesinger Jr., “The Theory of America: Experiment or Destiny?” in The Cycles of American History (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 12. First published 1986. History taught them that they should fear internal failings more than anything—moral decay, corruption, avarice—and that virtue was rare. With slavery in mind, Jefferson said he trembled for his country “when I reflect that God is just.” The founders were not full of righteousness.

Schlesinger argued that America’s departure from this more prudential worldview had encouraged what he mildly called “our recent excesses” (including the Vietnam War and covert interventions in several developing nations), and in the more than forty years since, others have issued far more impassioned indictments. Schlesinger did not blame those excesses solely on exceptionalism. There are plenty of other pitfalls: the all but inevitable arrogance that comes with being a dominant power, ambition, incompetence, and bad judgment, to name a few. And it is far from clear how widely shared this sense of divine blessing really is or has been. Would there have been no Vietnam, no Afghanistan, and no Iraq if there had been no religious exceptionalism? Americans are not the only people who are quite capable of making a mess of things without it. Schlesinger put it well: “We can take pride in our nation, not as we pretend to a commission from God and a sacred destiny, but as we struggle to fulfill our deepest values in an inscrutable world.”1111xIbid., 21.

And exceptionalist ideas were hardly the only ones that influenced American actions in the past. Manifest Destiny and imperialism, for example, were inspired by ideas from philosophy and science, argues James W. Ceaser. The historian George Bancroft, the “intellectual godfather” of the Young America movement that championed westward expansion, was a Hegelian who embraced the idea that history called upon particular nations or civilizations to advance the human spirit at particular moments in history. The clergyman Josiah Strong, a key promoter of imperialism, advanced a Darwinian notion of a “final competition of races” in advocating an Anglo-Saxon drive to reshape the world.1212xJosiah Strong quoted in James W. Ceaser, “The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism,” American Political Thought 1, no. 1 (Spring 2012), 17; doi:10.1086/664595.

Awakening from the Deceitful Dream

Still, it is not always easy to separate America’s religious exceptionalism from its political exceptionalism, the second of the three major currents. From the start, the founders had a strong sense of the United States’ political distinctiveness, and they and their successors spoke freely of the nation’s historical role. This was, after all, the first nation founded on revolutionary Enlightenment ideas about the structure of society and the role of individuals within it, including “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” as the Declaration of Independence put it, and they embraced them with a sense of mission. “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people,” George Washington declared in his first inaugural address.

Washington did see a “token of providential agency” in the nation’s progress to independence. Yet he also cautioned, in the same frequently quoted sentence above, that “the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right.” In The Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton put it plainly: “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”

It is hard to know which task left to us by the founders is more challenging: serving as the stewards of democracy or balancing the notion of an inspired founding with a realist’s view of the world. We have only intermittently managed the second task, and it may be that modern minds lack the subtlety to succeed at it. Fortunately, the founders, while perhaps casting a grateful glance to the sky, settled on a thoroughly political understanding of the task before them, and it is the one we should recall now.

They had a similarly earthbound understanding of the country’s democratic mission. Their America was fragile, weak, and distant from the centers of power, and their conception of the nation’s role in the world was accordingly restrained. But these conditions no longer obtain, leaving us to decide whether to warm ourselves by our own exemplary “sacred fire of liberty” or carry it abroad. How to carry it is the question for us to resolve, and is a question of making wise policy rather than following theological imperatives.

It was once inconceivable that the United States would abandon its role as a standard-bearer for freedom and democracy, since liberals and conservatives have both at times demanded active efforts abroad, albeit with conflicting policy prescriptions. For both, democracy was a giant step on the road toward a wider vision of a world with greater freedom—human dignity enlarged by legal protections, prosperity, freer borders, trade, and resistance to authoritarian governments. The democratic imperative was not only a motive force but a constraint. The past three and a half years have given us a taste of a very different kind of vision, and it should remind all those who don’t share it of what they believe in common rather than what divides them.

There are critics who assail American democracy itself as a lie and a sham, negated by the facts of slavery, segregation, the treatment of Native Americans, and other evils. The New York Times’ 1619 Project goes so far as to argue that the nation was founded in part to preserve slavery from English reformers.1313xThe 1619 Project’s name is derived from the year the first Africans were brought to American shores. See “The 1619 Project,” New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2019, Controversy has swirled around many of the 1619 Project’s main points, beginning with the question of whether the thirty Africans who arrived in 1619 were slaves, as the Project states, or indentured servants. A good selection of articles on both sides of the controversy can be found at RealClear Public Affairs, Engaging the 1619 Project, For the most part, however, the critics’ various arguments seem to be about the American narrative (another controversial idea) more than the exceptionalist idea, and it is hardly an argument, since American history is being rapidly revised along the lines the critics favor. It is hard to see why Abraham Lincoln’s statement in 1857 is not still the best response to critics who rightly point to the nation’s failures: The authors of the Declaration of Independence “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”1414xAbraham Lincoln, “Speech at Springfield, Illinois, June 26, 1857,” Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 2, Abraham Lincoln Association online,;singlegenre=All;sort=occur;subview=detail;type=simple;view=fulltext;q1=june+26+1857.

Should we abandon that quest? What would be put in its place?

These are largely theoretical questions, because belief in the American idea seems to remain widespread. Representative Adam Schiff invoked it during President Trump’s impeachment trial, telling the Senate, “America is not just a country but also an idea. But of what worth is that idea when, if tried, we do not affirm the values that underpin it? What will those nascent democracies around the world conclude?”1515xAdam Schiff, “Opening Statement,” S5455, Congressional Record Online, January 22, 2020, https:// Former president Barack Obama, so often attacked as an exceptionalism denier, sounded some of the idea’s key themes in his recent eulogy for Representative John Lewis, whose “exceptional” life, he said, “vindicated the faith in our founding, redeemed that faith; that most American of ideas; that idea that any of us ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation, and come together, and challenge the status quo, and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals. What a radical ideal. What a revolutionary notion.”1616xBarack Obama, “Eulogy for John Lewis,” transcript in New York Times, July 30, 2020,

A Description, Not an Ideology

Exceptionalist ideas and myths have staying power because they are rooted in the nation’s historical experience and culture. This third, creedal current of exceptionalism was not born of a concern with divine intervention or foreign affairs. The great political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset gave form to it in a series of writings beginning with The First New Nation (1963). He credited Alexis de Tocqueville with first applying the word exceptional to the United States, which he did once in Democracy in America, but Lipset, a Trotskyist in his youth, was surely aware of Comrade Lovestone’s more pointed development of the concept. (Trotsky himself wrote in 1926 that prosperity enabled America to “fatten the labor aristocracy in order to keep the workers in shackles.”1717xQuoted in Seymour Martin Lipset, “Why No Socialism in the United States?” Radicalism in the Contemporary Age, vol. 1, ed. Seweryn Bialer and Sophia Sluzar (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1977), 69.) There is no mention of John Winthrop or his city on a hill. Lipset’s exceptionalism began with the premise Alexander Hamilton enunciated on page one of The Federalist: that the American experiment in liberty and self-government was an example to the world—whose failure, said Hamilton, would be “the general misfortune of mankind.” For Lipset, the point was not to wave the flag—although some notes of national pride seep into The First New Nation—but to explore what the new, emerging nations in Asia and Africa could learn from this country’s experience. Exceptionalism was a description, not an ideology.

Social equality and individual achievement were the two main driving forces in Lipset’s America, and they grew directly out of the country’s revolutionary experience and the distinctive culture that gave birth to it. Individualism, for example, with its roots in Enlightenment thought, flourished in the absence of a feudal tradition, with its habits of deference, and with the help of the Protestant emphasis on the achievement of personal grace, which nourished the secular achievement impulse. The two forces were in tension, since the drive for achievement constantly creates new inequalities—“the ever recreated and renewed American dilemma.” Lipset was plain about the nation’s shortcomings. “Prosperity, freedom and equality cannot be for white men only,” he wrote.1818xSeymour Martin Lipset, The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1963), 395.

Lipset returned to these tensions in American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (1996). In the years since his earlier book, there had been some convergence of values between the United States and Europe, as measured by public opinion surveys on matters such as religious observance and belief, but he still saw an “astonishing” degree of uniqueness. He also saw greater imbalances among the components of what he called the “American Creed,” as stronger individualistic, egalitarian, and antistatist currents took a greater toll on community, morality, and social institutions.

A quarter century later, the imbalances that worried Lipset are worse. Social mobility, which makes the egalitarian idea possible and serves as the great lubricant easing America’s tensions, has declined.1919xSee for example, Jonathan Davis and Bhashkar Mazumder, “The Decline in Intergenerational Mobility after 1980,” Working Paper 2017-05m, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, July 2017, The attraction exerted by the poles of national politics has grown stronger, and people at both extremes reject many of the ideas, beliefs, and myths gathered under the umbrella of American exceptionalism. Yet America’s distinctive qualities are deeply rooted in its history and culture. The currents of American exceptionalism are not something we can escape by erasing a few words. Finding new and better ways to create a more perfect union will not be easy, but as Lipset said, “a free society must be a conflicted one.”2020xLipset, The First New Nation, ix.