American exceptionalism is an idea, not a policy. It is something to strive for, but is not always accomplished. The idea is often misused by both sides of the political spectrum. The Right sometimes uses the idea to either overestimate American capabilities or disparage honest, critical assessments of American domestic and foreign policies. The Left sometimes disregards it wholesale in a bout of relativism or it often invents a straw man version of American exceptionalism and uses it to paint conservative political opponents as arrogant or hubristic.
Certainly other great powers of the past have believed in their own exceptionalism. In his funeral oration, Pericles expounded on Athenian exceptionalism, citing their democratic values and exceptional fighting ability. The Romans too thought themselves exceptional in spreading their Republic to lands that had never known proper governance. The British, as late as the nineteenth century, believed that their empire would outlast all those that came before.
So is the idea of American exceptionalism a temporary phenomenon? No, it is not.
There is a key difference between America and the rest. The previous “exceptional” empires were exactly that—empires. They based their exceptionalism largely on their imperial wealth and grandeur. Indeed all three cited their form of governance as an exceptional trait, but their forms of governance became exceptional only after the creation of empire. Their forms of governance offered an explanation for why they, unlike others, reached the summit of global power.
The United States stands in stark, unprecedented contrast because the idea that it was founded on makes it exceptional. It transcends material wealth, global power and territory; it outright rejects these archaic, imperialistic measures of prestige, power and success.
Where does the United States derive its exceptionality? Does it come from America’s form of governance, or its role in the world? American exceptionalism has often been framed in the context of its foreign policy. American exceptionalism in this sense posits that America has—and should continue to—lead the spread of freedom, both political and economic, around the world and should protect free peoples from the forces of tyranny and oppression in its various forms: fascism, communism and Islamic extremism.
American exceptionalism, viewed domestically, places emphasis on the Constitution and its revolutionary declaration of Liberalism. Indeed, many other states’ constitutions are modeled after America’s, which is the longest-serving charter of supreme law in the world. The Constitution and the system of government it established was wholly unprecedented and indeed is still characterized as the “American experiment.”
The problem that both of these views have is that it ties the idea of American exceptionalism to American policy. Indeed, exceptionalism implies superiority, but certainly not perfection. American policy, both domestic and foreign, has never been perfect and at times much less than exceptional. Many columnists who comment on the state of American exceptionalism almost impulsively work in policy decisions and use them to either support or deride the idea of American exceptionalism.
Tying American exceptionalism to American policy decisions, or deriving one from the other, misinterprets what American exceptionalism is actually about: the idea that the United States was founded on. It cannot be boiled down into a policy directive. It is our national identity, and our national aspiration.