US & Canada

Why US exceptionalism is not exceptional

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Image caption In the US, there has been a renewed interest in the nation's 'exceptional' qualities

"American exceptionalism" is the trend-topping topic of conversation in the US at the moment.

"Americans believe with all their hearts, the vast majority of them, that the United States of America is simply the single greatest nation in all of human history." So said Florida's new Republican Senator Marco Rubio in his acceptance speech following last month's mid-term elections.

Many of his fellow Republicans alluded to the same view as they celebrated their "shellacking" of rival Democrats.

All the talk has turned into a polling fact. In a survey published this week a USA Today/Gallup poll suggests 80% of Americans believe their country has a unique character and unrivalled standing in the world.

Gotcha moment

The reason for the surge in discussion of this phrase is, of course, partisan politics. At a Nato summit in the spring of 2009, President Barack Obama was asked his views on American exceptionalism.

Image caption Sarah Palin - won life's lottery when she was born an American

He answered: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

That was a gotcha moment for the uniquely and exceptionally American Tea Party movement. It showed dangerous relativism on the part of the president. "We are number one" means just that for Tea Party activists.

Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich et al, hammered Obama about his relativism throughout the campaign.

Now, I have to make a confession. Depending on how the question was asked and who was doing the asking, I might be among the 80% who agreed with the USA Today/Gallup formulation - if I had not lived abroad for so long and reported from so many foreign countries.

When I moved to London a quarter of a century ago I certainly felt "exceptional". I could see what the problems facing British society were and thought, like many fellow American expats, that we could fix up Britain in about a month with a combination of American pragmatism and work ethic.

Get a written constitution in, abolish the House of Lords, pry the executive function of government out of the legislature - so that the prime minister was more like a president. Then do away with the symbols of the old class system and inherited privilege so that everyone felt that no matter how humble their circumstances at birth, they could become, if not the monarch, at least the prime minister.

Then embrace immigration, refresh the society with incomers who wanted to work hard and better themselves. In other words, make Britain more like America and Bob's your uncle.

English tree planted in US soil

When I began to express those views to British colleagues and others in government, I was puzzled by their resistance. "We're different," they would say. "We are an island nation."

Well, yes, I thought, that is self-evident. But having heard the phrase once, I began to hear it a lot.

Conservative politicians explaining why Britain should not develop closer ties with the European Union would tell me: "We are an island nation." The implication is: "We are different from those nations of the continent precisely because we have no borders with anything but the sea."

Image caption Britain holds that its uniqueness is down to its status as an island nation

All the post-election talk in the US about my native land's exceptionalism, has reminded me of that phrase: "We are an island nation."

The idea of British exceptionalism - actually it is more English exceptionalism, as the Scots and the Welsh feel equally unique - can be backed up by historically minded Brits.

They will tell a swaggering American a tale of a small island off the coast of Europe - an island that has not felt an invader's footstep since 1066, a people which until recent times ruled half the globe through naval and commercial prowess, and produced Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Newton, Faraday and Darwin.

From this island people, a branch of the English family tree was planted on the virgin continent of North America and has done exceptionally well - although, along the way people on the offshore branch lost a bit of English modesty and came to believe the notion of "liberty" is theirs.

John Locke was an Englishman after all. You don't need a historian to explain other ways in which the Brits maintain their exceptionalism: driving on the left when the rest of continental Europe drives on the right, household electrical plugs and wiring completely out of step with neighbours and trading partners.

It is easy enough to imagine that if Britain was not an island but shared a land border with two or three other countries, this form of exceptionalism would have given way to standardisation... but: "We are an island nation."

Germany's disastrous turn

It is even possible to imagine that Britain would have given up the pound sterling and joined the euro, if it shared a land border with Germany and France.

Speaking of France, it is not just the British who join Americans in feeling exceptional.

The French make a national fetish of their notion of "gloire". French glory lies in the nation's claim to wonderful words that Americans regard as their personal property, like liberty and equality.

My guess is that if Germany hadn't taken such a disastrous turn pursuing its own notion of exceptionalism, one could write similarly about Germany.

Even today the ordinary Russian will tell you that the capacity for enduring suffering in his nation is proof of how exceptional the people, the narod, are.

Image caption Americans apparently like to claim words like liberty and equality as their own

In my reporting career, virtually everyone, Israelis, Iraqis, Iranians and others, find a uniqueness, a sense of mission and, depending on their faith, a sense of divine blessedness in their national identity.

So my experience teaches me that while America is exceptional, it is not different in many ways from any other society in its sense of being special.

As for being number one, it is hard to imagine Sarah Palin or the incoming Speaker of the house, John Boehner, or any other contemporary American exceptionalist disagreeing with this: "Remember that you are an American, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life."

Except that is a paraphrase of a statement made 100 years ago by an arch English exceptionalist, Cecil Rhodes. Substitute Englishman for American and you get the true quote.

When Rhodes made the statement, England really did have, as Gallup's pollsters put it, "unrivalled standing in the world." Today England is still exceptional but maybe not in the same way it was then.

A lesson for today's American exceptionalists to consider, perhaps?

michael-goldfarb.com