American Exceptionalism: Why?

Lee Drutman of PPI takes a close look at American Exceptionalism (I like it capitalized). He writes:

 These days, only 20 percent of Americans think the U.S. has the strongest economy in the world, and only 34 percent expect Americans can get back to the world’s top economy in 20 years. Only 17 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States.

And yet, despite all this, 80 percent of Americans still believe in America’s unique greatness (73 percent of Democrats, 91 percent of Republicans).

There is a gap here. American exceptionalism is part of our cultural heritage our self-identification. We believe there is something special about our nation. And yet, something is preventing us from achieving its full potential. What is it? No wonder there is so much anxiety.

I’d be interested in a poll that asks people what, in particular, they think makes America uniquely great. Has anyone done something like that?


  1. I doubt American exceptionalism is that exceptional: it’s just the nationalism that a large nation can get away with.

    • I have not sampled many nations “from inside”, but it seems to me that the sense of national superiority is particularly strong in the US. In particular I’m under the impression that “Americans” significantly overestimate how far their their living standard, quality of life, social process, technological and business excellence, etc. are ahead of other nations, in particular developed nations. (And perhaps also how far current standards have progressed since let’s say the 70’s/80’s. Sure, technology in all areas has advanced a lot, but how much “bang” has resulted from it in terms of quality of life? OTOH one can arguably say that doesn’t seem to be the primary goal function.)

      • Maybe so. But a lot of what you’re speaking about is just the measurement of economic activity vs standard of living. It used to be that child care in the US was primarily not paid for with cash: now many women work almost solely to pay for preschool and day care. Instant economic growth!

        But I was speaking about pure unwarranted national pride, and I’ve seen *plenty* of that from people of most nations that I’ve encountered: Germany, France, India, China, Japan, etc.

      • Mike Mandel says:

        It would be an interesting question to ask globally, wouldn’t it?

      • CompEng: Maybe I’m mistaken, but I didn’t think “American exceptionalism” is a matter of unwarranted pride, but rather an ideology based on doing things better, running things on merit, etc., in contrast to old world hereditary elites with their, and larger social, corruption and the associated lack of accountability. IMO the market-democracy (if you will) was supposed to embody this principle that prosperity flows from individual and group merit, not from the whims and social circles of an autocratic elite. By and large, the US grew first by expanding into rich unclaimed territories (throwing aside the injuns wherever they were in the way), and then by further expansion enabled by technology buildup especially after New Deal/WW2 that put a temporary damper on the oligarchies. But now the oligarchies are back (or new ones have formed), and unused-resource based expansion seems to have fizzled out. That’s the state where “Old Europe” has been for quite a while, in some aspects.

      • CompEng: The US still has a stubborn individualism and rejection of “collectivism” that is based on the notion that in the glory days you could “go West” and make a self-sufficient living off fresh earth that was not yet used up or congested. To an extent this concept could be upheld by US hegemony, allowing the US to effectively capture a larger share of worldwide resources than everybody else. But of late it has become painfully clear that it cannot be sustained. The forces of denial are strong though. I suspect the more radical right wing movements we have seen lately are an expression of this underlying discomfort and denial. Somebody has characterized the Republicans, possibly referring to its pandering to its purported base, as “the party of a better yesterday”. There seems to be something to this.

      • Mike: Do you mean the question about the “quality of life bang-of-tech”? Well, this precise question has not been asked. Technology can deliver a lot of benefits, and it does, but it is always socially mediated. For example, the US has arguably the best state of the art in medicine, but even so most people are excluded from it, or get access only at the cost of lifelong misery (for them and/or their family) from debt and being hounded by collection agencies as unrealistic and predatory costs are dumped on them while they are most vulnerable and not in a position to negotiate. I have several accounts from people whose insurance information was “mishandled” during their childbirth and who were initially charged large multiples of the final charges after the information had been corrected. If this is not predatory, then what is it?

      • Mike: Another bang-for-tech is in the category of labor substitution by technology, in particular automation. Here the promise decades ago was that everybody will have more leisure. Where’s the beef? Technology is not used to enhance people’s leisure, but to kick whoever can be kicked out of their job, and squeeze more work from the “survivors”, keeping people on virtual tethers (pager, cell phone, VPN access from home (at your own expense for internet access) etc.).

        You keep bemoaning the lack or rate-decline of innovation. Where I work, we have been asked to innovate and come up with new ideas to grow the company business (and it has been at least hinted this is supposed to happen outside our regular job responsibilities), all the while every quarter to year a certain percentage of us is let go and the jobs moved to “low cost geographies” or backfilled with contractors. Well, people who cannot feel somewhat secure in their livelihood cannot be expected to go out of their way and innovate for somebody else’s profit.

  2. Joe Cushing says:

    I once heard a great speech about American Exceptionalism that sold me on the idea. It listed many American things that were, in fact, exceptional in world history. I forgot who gave it though. I think that today, we are less exceptional than we used to be. Other nations have emulated us and we have, unfortunately, emulated other nations to a large degree. I just had a long facebook comment discussion about small government and was unable to convince a fellow American of it’s unimportance. The belief that free markets only provide wealth for the investor and the manager class is killing American Exceptionalism–because if you believe this, you tend to feel justified in taking away the economic freedom that is so important in making America exceptional.

    Mike, this blog could use some color and maybe put your picture back up in the corner like your old blog. I think that’s why I follow you a lot less on here than I did on Business Week. It just seems dreary here. Maybe even create a Mandel logo like the econlog logo–where it more than just text but creative looking text. Maybe you could a put bit red or blue M with a smaller ike and andel stacked next to it or something. Word Press does this stuff.

    • “The belief that free markets only provide wealth for the investor and the manager class is killing American Exceptionalism”

      Well, considering what flies under the label “free markets” here, isn’t that a fairly accurate perception? (Using a suitable and not too technically strict definition of “investor”.) What have the “free markets” done for the “little people” lately? (Little people in the sense of who is supposed to be paying taxes according to the infamous adage.)

      • Joe Cushing says:

        Nothing, there have been no free markets

      • Well, when saying “free markets”, I mean of course “whatever is being called or implied to be such in related rhetoric”. This is of of course a somewhat circular definition. But anyway, when talking about what we actually seem to have as opposed to the purported ideal, the perception of elite enrichment at general expense is accurate. I feel reminded of “communist” attempts at reconciling apparent and sometimes glaring contradictions, corruption, and abuses with the orthodox views by developing a system of rhetoric contrasting “real existing socialism” to the ideal “textbook socialism”, explaining we are not quite there yet but progressing nicely towards it. If only the current/next generations play ball and do everything right (under our righteous and wise leadership) we will surely arrive.

  3. To be brief, no, I am not aware that anyone has polled Americans regarding what they think makes them uniquely great. That would be very dangerous for our collective psyche, wouldn’t it? It would be dangerous, even, to try to nail down what anyone means by American exceptionalism, because a great deal of the evidence that anyone might have had in mind in the past has shifted.

    Let us not forget that self reported data is often incorrect.

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