American Exceptionalism

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    A large U.S. flag displayed at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo/via Wikimedia Commons)

    A large U.S. flag displayed at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo/via Wikimedia Commons)

    How America is different

    “American exceptionalism – the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history.”


    That is how the Republican Party defines a common phrase.  Its meaning proves illusive, however. It’s more than love of country; most people love their own country. Nor is it simply that our national experience is unique in the way that any national experience is unique. Embedded in it is a notion of superiority, that the United States, as President Reagan put it, is “a shining city on a hill” and “the last best hope of man on earth.”

    American exceptionalism often suggests that liberty and freedom are the contribution of America to world history. Sometimes it is a reference to the claim that, in the words of Matthew Spalding, “America is the only nation explicitly founded upon the principles of human equality and natural rights.”

    The belief in the exceptionalism of America contains an irony in that many of the same people who firmly believe the United States is a source, or perhaps even the main source, of good ideas and an example to the rest of the world, are also unaware of the sometimes mundane ways that the United States is actually different from the rest of the world.

    If we turn from overarching concepts to look at some specifics, there are a number of fascinating issues where, for good or for ill, the U.S. is unique, or at least, among a very small group of nations.


    The Metric System

    The United States isn’t on the metric system. Neither is Liberia and Burma, and that is about it. In the 1970s, there was a moment when conversion was contemplated. An indepth government study had proposed a careful transition, but this never happened. Now there is no talk of conversion. The scientific community and businesses that sell globally have become fluent in the metric system, but the general public hardly aware of how isolated the United States is.


    Universal Health Care

    Despite a year-long debate over reforms to our health care system in 2009, the exceptional nature of the United State’s patchwork health care system never seemed to sink in. Other nations provide universal health care but do so in a number of different ways. The United States is alone among industrialized nations in not providing for universal coverage. The U.S. is also unusual in having a compound system with elements of socialized medicine (for veterans), a single payer system for retirees and a job-related insurance system for the majority of the employed.

    The United States is also in the upper ranks of nations in terms of the cost of health care.


    Head of state and head of government

    Many nations separate the function of “head of state” from that of “head of government.”  The queen is head of state in Great Britain, the prime minister head of government. Countries with a constitutional monarch of limited powers follow this model. The other common model is to have an appointed president as head of state with an elected prime minister. It is rare for a democracy (but common in dictatorships) to merge the two functions. While that merger hasn’t stopped the United States from being the world’s oldest continuously functioning democracy, it does create the problem of the “Imperial Presidency” where over time more and more trappings of a monarch have accrued to our elected leader.


    Death penalty

    Fifty-eight nations still allow capital punishment, but many of those have not executed anyone recently. The worldwide trend is to abolish the death penalty and a number of American states have also done so. The United States is among the world leader in the number of executions. We might not like the company we keep, as the other leading nations for executions are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.


    Imprisoning the populace

    The United States leads the world in terms of number of prisoners per capita. The rate varies significantly among various states with the southern states tending to have the highest incarceration rates. The U.S. is also notable for the wide range of crimes that result in jail time and the length of sentences imposed.


    Lacking in leftist parties

    While many suppose the United States is overrun with rampant liberalism compared with other developed nations, its lack of an actual socialist party is striking. Positions considered leftist or fringe in the United States, such as advocating for universal health insurance or legalization of minor drugs or prostitution, are mainstream in many industrialized nations. Recently, for example, the legalization of homosexual marriage in the United Kingdom was proposed by the Conservative Party.



    The United States has a robust federal system with police, schools, roads, various licensing functions and courts of first instance under the control of state and local governments rather than a unitary national system. Some other countries, notably Canada, have federal systems or some idea of separate levels of government, but the United States is unusual in how our federal system is embedded in the apportionment of our national legislature (the U.S. Senate) and the role of the Electoral College in aggregating votes for president by state.


    Freedom of speech

    While almost all industrialized nations have some guarantee of freedom of speech, the United States is unusual in the wide scope of protections granted, especially to political speech. In many other nations such things as Nazi slogans would be banned. The United States also has libel laws that make it harder to sue for defamation.


    Low percentage of international travelers

    One reason that Americans might find some of the items on this list a surprise is that a smaller percentage of Americans travel outside the United States compared to other countries. Pinning down this statistic is more difficult than it might seem. One measure is how many Americans have a valid passport.

    There doesn’t seem to be a universally accepted measure for this, figures of 30 percent or less are quoted, but typically without a source.  The State Department releases statistics on how many passports are issued  – 12 to 15 million in recent years, itself a significant increase over previous years.  Given our population of 300 million, and allowing for the 10-year span of a valid passport does suggest that the 30 percent figure is not far off.

    One industry source estimates that about 15 percent of Americans travel overseas in any given year.


    How much do we know?

    The charge that Americans are an isolated bunch compared to Europeans is not entirely fair.  The United States is larger than most nations, and so a person can do more traveling farther from home without leaving the country. San Francisco to New York is roughly the same distance as London to Damascus.

    Nonetheless, our lack of interest in international issues is well known. Americans are not well informed about basic issues in other countries, and do not, it appears, feel that to be a significant problem.


    Faithbased Exceptionalism

    So the bottom line is that many Americans are convinced we are special, haven’t gone to other countries to check that out, and aren’t sure in what way we are special.

    That’s too harsh a judgment. Don’t assume that the list of exceptional items about the United States is all bad. In particular, a more established federalism might have helped certain countries of varying ethnicities and histories to avoid bloody separatist movements. It’s true that freedom of speech has been used to protect corporations at the expense of citizens, yet our tradition of allowing “offensive” political speech or even protecting burning the flag is nothing to be ashamed of.

    Being pro-American, being proud of being American, being proud and interested in the historical journey our country has made is not the same thing as being anti-everyone else. If American Exceptionalism means we believe that among our varied and complex history is the thread of the struggle to fully realize noble ideals, that is worth cultivating. To arrogantly believe other countries can only achieve greatness by copying us, all the while being ignorant of what other countries are doing, is nothing to be proud of.

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