One of the great myths of American history is that the US is an exceptional society with an exceptional history, earned as the shining light on the hill of democracy, the first modern republic in world history. Despite all the claims of such luminaries as Chris Matthews (of MSNBC lore) and presidential historian Doris Kerns Goodwin, America is hardly exceptional. What makes us exceptional is the frequency with which we claim to be so different and so unique from the rest of world. Beyond that, we’re about as exceptional as a C+ level college student.
Speaking of students, my US history students have laid claim to American exceptionalism almost as often as Chris Matthews. If it’s US history prior to the Civil War, then the claim has been about breaking free from Great Britain’s empire, the Founding Fathers and the writing of the US Constitution, and building the first modern representative democracy. If it’s the twentieth century, then it’s about the good ol’ US saving the world from the tyranny of communism — or at least, anything that wasn’t supportive of US-style capitalism (which isn’t the same as democracy, by the way). Both are hogwash, as full of half-truths as George Washington’s honesty, Abraham Lincoln believing in Black equality and Henry Longfellow’s portrayal of Paul Revere’s ride.
I’m sorry, but I don’t find it exceptional that the US formed a representative democracy that represented the interests of rich, landowning White males, many of whom were plantation slave owners too chicken to deal with the issue in the summer of 1787. Even the comparison to ancient Greece and Rome is specious on a power-blue cloudless day in New York in September. Whether it was direct or representative democracy, both were limited democracies that relied heavily on slavery, warfare, and eventually became empires. America was born out of an empire, and to this day, has imperialist notions about itself and its relationship to the world.
As far as American the Superpower since 1945, I find it laughable that people see us as this shining beacon of truth, justice and the American democratic way on the world stage. There are folks who really think that we were too generous and altruistic in our Marshall Plan largesse, in our dealings with nations whom became aligned with us in the quarter-century after the end of World War II. Hogwash! With the US controlling fifty percent of economic production and activity in the world in 1945, it needed trading partners to ensure its future prosperity and dominance. The Marshall Plan was as much about the creation of stable trading partners and economies as was about checking Soviet influence in Central and Southeastern Europe.
Besides this, for every West Germany, South Korea and Japan, there were also our CIA-sponsored coups in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, military disruptions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and protections of American corporate interests throughout sub-Saharan Africa, South America and the Middle East. But I’m sure that this was only about spreading our exceptional democracy and economic prowess to the rest of the world. At least, that’s what American exceptionalists keep telling us.
There’s another perspective here, though. One that would describe America as an empire, or an empire in the making, at least. For American history is the stuff of imperialism, including the very justification we use for our actions on the world stage. Based on this point of view, America is unexceptional. As Dorian Gray of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) would say, “Empires rise and fall. There are no exceptions.” The choice we as Americans have is whether we prefer the soft landing that Great Britain recently experienced, or a crash-and-burn.