lessons for gentlemen: understanding american exceptionalism

american exceptionalism

Have you ever wondered to yourself, “What is it that makes America the greatest country on Earth?” You are not alone.

There are many possible answers to this quandary. Our freedom. The Green Bay Packers. Our endless appeals system. Nathan’s hotdog eating contest. All are valiant contenders, but none quite grasp the true nature of America’s greatness.

Simply put, we are great because we know it. And that “knowing it” is called American exceptionalism. This post is a guide to American exceptionalism and, thus, our greatness.


At its core, American exceptionalism is the proposition that the United States is different from other countries in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy. In Europe, this idea was called colonialism and, later, the white man’s burden. Before the United States had fully cultivated the idea of American exceptionalism, we referred to our special place in the world with terms like manifest destiny.

America’s exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming what political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called “‘the first new nation,’…other than Iceland, to become independent” This may sound unfair to Iceland but, let’s be honest, Icelandic exceptionalism is on par with Canadian exceptionalism, which would be unacceptable.

In a terrifying twist in etymology, American exceptionalism was actually coined by the American Communist Party and Josef Stalin when Stalin criticized the ACP for believing that the US did not fall under Marxist law “thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions.” Though these factors do not make America exceptional per se, they did contribute in an exceptional way to America’s victory in the Cold War.

Modern Use

Though American exceptionalism was not originally meant to imply superiority, many neoconservative thinkers have come to promote its use in that sense. America is a shining “City upon a Hill” that is exempt from the forces affecting other countries (suck it, gravity).

In the 2012 Presidential Campaign, the GOP heavily embraced the idea of American excptionalism in a time of economic hardship. The GOP’s alliance with the concept reinforced the staunch belief that an exceptional, hegemonic United States represents a secure, stable future for democracy and capitalism in the coming age. That will be for us to decide. We are America.

American exceptionalism has also extended to our foriegn policy regarding nuclean proliferation. In short, exceptional countries can have nuclear weapons and the rest cannot. There are three main rules for deciding who is exceptional and who is not:

  1.  If you are a powerful, strategically located, or historic ally, you are exceptional and may have your nuclear weapons.
  2. If you are in the Axis of Evil, you are so unexceptional and we will get so mad if you have nuclear weapons.
  3. If you are any other country, you are not exceptional and  we do not want you to have nukes, but we will will provide you with some sweet trade deals and foreign aid to soothe the pain.

Beyond what I have presented above, American exceptionalism can be seen in everyday life, from gun rights to fast food. If our nation was not built on the belief that we are a special country, with a special mission and exceptional powers, it is unlikely that westward expansion, the Cold War, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, or many of our other incognito conflicts in Latin America or the Middle East would have ever happened. In this way, American exceptionalism is a self-fulfilling prophesy. We have created a definition of what we want it to mean and have acted as a country to embody this definition.

Otherwise, these colors might run.

Further reading:



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