Still exceptional?

January 7, 2011
Portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau. In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville arguably introduced the idea of American exceptionalism.

What if the United States isn't just experiencing a deep recession but is entering a period of long-term economic decline? Analysts point out that in some ways the U.S. has already taken a backseat to China, which is the world's largest manufacturer and exporter. Goldman Sachs predicts that by 2027 China will have the world's largest economy. In Fortune's list of the largest companies in the world, three Chinese firms are in the top ten but only two American ones (Walmart and ExxonMobil). Mean­while, China is financing the U.S. government's substantial and growing debt.

The narrative of inexorable economic decline is not entirely persuasive. The U.S. still has the finest set of universities in the world, which attract the best minds from all over the globe. Its entrepreneurial spirit and technological inventiveness are unmatched. The U.S. still dominates in what Joseph Nye has called "soft power"—the power of its ideas and culture, which much of the rest of the world still finds attractive. And it overwhelmingly has the world's most powerful military force.

Nevertheless, we're likely to enter a period in which the U.S. is simply one of a number of economic powers that challenge one another for dominance. Paul Kennedy, a historian of the rise and fall of empires, suggests that such a situation would represent a return to the norm in world affairs.

What will be interesting to watch is how American people and leaders adjust to new economic constraints and diminished expectations. One temptation will be to look for scapegoats, at home and abroad.

At stake in this question is the long tradition of American exceptionalism—the myth that the U.S. has not only a unique history but a special destiny that makes it economically, politically and even spiritually greater than other countries. This strong version of American exceptionalism is an article of faith for some politicians, and it is likely to be a campaign theme in the 2012 presidential election. Mike Huckabee, a possible candidate in that election, says: "To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation."

But what is it that makes America ex­ceptional? Its military might? Its economic power? One often hears that the U.S. is exceptional in offering its citizens unmatched economic opportunity. But in fact the U.S. has been surpassed by other countries in measurements of social mobility. With its widening gap between the rich and the poor, the decline of its middle class and crises in its health care and educational systems, the U.S. is no longer the golden land of opportunity.

Refashioning a sense of identity is hard, but it has been done. After the British realized that they no longer ruled a world empire, they fashioned an image of themselves as plucky underdogs who had stood up against the Nazis. Eventually, a new narrative of American identity will be needed. Surely Christians have something distinctive to contribute to that refashioning.


U.S. Exceptionalism

The enduring exception is that the U.S. is, perhaps, the only nation in the world that is based on an idea rather than an ethnicity. In its foreign policy and nation branding the U.S. should trumpet the importance of its political freedoms as catalysts to economic progress.(That's how, for example, Brand India will probably try to distinguish itself from Brand China). Domestic economic policy in the U.S. should then focus on developing the middle class, which is the vanguard of consumer spending and economic growth, creating a first-class educational system and honing a health care system that takes the worry out of getting older.

The U.S. may then transform itself from the "only remaining superpower" to the "world's top idea generator."

Letter from Walter Brueggemann

Thanks for the editorial “Still exceptional?” (Jan. 25). I have read and pondered it in the wake of President Obama’s State of the Union message that, not surprisingly, was saturated with references to U.S. exceptionalism. Your call for a “new narrative” is surely correct.

I have the impression that such a narrative will be especially difficult because that U.S. claim is deeply intertwined with two other practices of exceptionalism. The state of Israel trades on an ancient exceptionalism that it imagines gives it a “pass” on current political reality. And the church counts heavily on its exceptionalism as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9).

None of these modes of chosenness serves well. Israel’s sense of exceptionalism cuts no ice in the real world of the Near East. The church’s claim is un­bearably triumphalistic. And it is clear that U.S. exceptionalism, for all our talk about freedom and democracy, serves as a ground for violent exploitation. I do not think all of these claims are equal or commensurate, but they are surely intertwined and mutually supportive; they all wait for a “new narrative.”

Walter Brueggemann
Cincinnati, Ohio