Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

American exceptionalism

By Claude Fischer

Unemployed protest, 1909

Ending his April 5th House floor presentation of the largest proposed cutback of government spending in history, Congressman Paul Ryan declared, “It is now up to all of us to keep America exceptional.” It was the third time Ryan invoked American exceptionalism in his speech.

Paul Ryan The idea of exceptionalism has surfaced with some energy recently. President Obama, for example, was chastised for not thinking of America as exceptional and he seemed later to take pains to claim that he, too, believes it is exceptional. Exceptionalism has (again) become a buzzword. (A conservative columnist even cited my book as proof that a liberal sociologist acknowledges America’s exceptionalism.)

There are at least two different ways the term exceptionalism is used and it is worth sorting those out. Congressman Ryan’s use of the term is quite appropriate and worth close attention. The exceptionalism he means may, however, go deeper than he imagines.


“Exceptional” can mean the very best; we’d love our kids to have teachers describe them as exceptional students. And that is the way some people on the right mean that American is exceptional. When Fox News’s Sean Hannity says, “The U.S. is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the earth,” that’s his way of saying it is exceptionally super. This sense of exceptional as meaning superior has led many academics on the left to disparage studies of  American exceptionalism. To them it seems like chest-pounding rather than scholarship and they’d like to bury the term.

But that criticism does not apply to serious researchers who have studied American exceptionalism. Eminent social scientists, such as the late, great sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, in his book, American Exceptionalism: The Double Edged Sword , mean exceptional as “unusual” or a “rare instance.” And that the United States is. On many dimensions, it is notably distinct from other western nations. Not all of those sorts of exceptionalisms are, however, “greatest, best.”

Of course, we aren’t exceptional in everything. We are not exceptionally diverse (any more, at least). Other western nations have plenty of “people of color”; for example, the U.S. is about seventh among western nations in the proportion of residents who are immigrants . And we are not exceptionally rich. By one analysis , average Americans’ purchasing power ranks below that of three other countries. And we are not – or at least haven’t been for generations – a more socially mobile society; the chances that a child of working-class parents can grow up to be middle class (or vice-versa) are about the same here as in Europe.

But we are exceptional in strikingly many other ways. For example, compared to other westerners, Americans tend to be highly religious in belief, piety, and behavior. (To be more exact, the United States is up with Italy and Ireland as the most religious western countries. So, for a predominantly Protestant country, it is exceptionally religious.) Americans also tend to be exceptionally familistic – devoted to marriage, high birth rates, strong on “family values” – compared to other westerners.

United States is unfortunately also exceptional among western nations in having high rates of homicides and interpersonal violence. And it is exceptionally unequal economically and has an exceptionally high proportion of children living in poverty. (Some people suggest, in a stage whisper, that American distinctiveness in these regards is due to our minorities. That is incorrect; among whites alone, the United States remains distinctive in these ways.)

For some scholars, American exceptionalism entails being somehow outside of the normal laws of history. Industrialization should, European history suggests, lead to workers’ movements and a fully-developed welfare state. Yet, here, in one of the most industrialized societies in the world, we have an exceptionally weak workers’ movement and a thin welfare state. (See this previous post .)

Indeed, Americans are exceptionally hostile to government action and exceptionally supportive of “free enterprise.” To be sure, Americans have set aside these laissez-faire beliefs when hard circumstances dictated a change. So, we have become firmly attached to Social Security, Medicare, farm subsidies, and the like, even though these are “welfare state” programs. (Some observers consequently label Americans as philosophically conservative but pragmatically liberal.) Still, Americans’ exceptional ideological stance has its consequences; it, for example, provides some of the wind behind the recent conservative resurgence.

This brings us back to Paul Ryan and to his specific version of American exceptionalism.

Self, Self-Reliance

Ryan said that his deficit plan “affirms our cherished ideals of individual liberty, equal opportunity, entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These are the ideals that have cultivated the exceptional American character . . . “ Ryan is essentially right; these are central American ideals. But the exceptionalism goes even deeper.

Unemployed protest, 1909
Unemployed protest, 1909 (lc ggbain.03350)

Americans, more than other westerners (and westerners more than other people), strongly believe that individual will determines the shape of the world and that individuals are the captains of their own fates. (A recent examination of how distinctive this view is can be found here .) Americans exceptionally think that self-determination is how life actually works as well as how it ought to work. What logically follows, then, are the kinds of political positions Ryan espouses – less regulation, less government, less interference in markets — albeit occasionally compromised, as I said before, by circumstances.

This world-view has much to recommend it. People who think they control their fates are likelier to try and do so; they have a “can-do” attitude. But this world-view also leads people to blame themselves if things go wrong and, especially, to blame other people if their lives go wrong. So, for example, Americans are exceptionally likely to say that poor people are poor because of their own faults rather than because of circumstances.

For most historians and social scientists, this hyper emphasis on self-determination, whatever its benefits, is short on reality. The current deep recession shows us, to take a recent example, that young people with skill and will (possessing the same talents and determination as young people of the booming 1990s did) are struggling to find jobs and start careers. The slow start they are getting today will hamper them for decades, a penalty they pay for being born in the wrong year. Similarly, good, hard-working employees have lost their jobs not because of decisions they made, but because of decisions that bankers on Wall Street or factory owners in China made. Many average Americans who have long held to the self-reliance ideology have found this turn of events bewildering.

So, Ryan is right when he describes the ideals that seem to make America exceptional. But they are more than ideals — the wish that everyone could have liberty, opportunity, be entrepreneurs, and be self-reliant. The exceptionalism is also in how Americans understand the way world really works. And when the world that exists is not the world we wish — when, for example, economic as well as natural tsunamis wipe people out; when markets are manipulated; when bad luck strikes — wishing that we were all captains of our fates does not make circumstances go away. And wishing can get in the way of dealing with real problems.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history .