How American Exceptionalism Works

By: Dave Roos
4th of July parade, California
People wave American flags as they ride in a Fourth of July Parade in Alameda, California on Monday, July 4, 2016. GABRIELLE LURIE/AFP/Getty Images

If you want to get an up-close-and-personal understanding of American exceptionalism, just visit any small town or big city in the United States on the 4th of July.

On this day, Americans celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the document by which the American colonies severed ties with the British Crown and laid forth certain "self-evident" truths that set apart the fledgling nation: "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."


Ask any American what they love about their country on July 4th, and no matter their political persuasion, they'll likely sum it up in one word: freedom. Freedom to exercise their religion, freedom to protest injustice, freedom from government intrusion or freedom to speak their mind.

For others, America is about opportunity. It's a place where the circumstances of your birth don't dictate the course of your life. Where individuals who work hard and remain optimistic can achieve any goal, whether it's owning a small business or being president of the United States.

And then there's the way that Americans celebrate the 4th of July, which points to some core aspects of American exceptionalism, including a few that rub other nations the wrong way.

On the 4th of July, America's blustery patriotism is on public display, with parades in the streets and flags adorning every building, lawn and oversized T-shirt. Refrains of "God Bless America" reinforce the notion of America as a divinely sanctioned land and people. Topping it all off are explosive and expensive fireworks displays, not-so-subtle nods to the military might that not only secures American freedom but solidifies its influence over the rest of the world.

In America's deeply divided political discourse, the term American exceptionalism is now wielded as a political weapon. Candidates from the right accuse their opponents of not "loving America" or of abandoning the unique attributes that make America "great" in a move toward "European-style" forms of government.

And candidates from the left insist that America's exceptionalism is born from its diversity and sense of equality and argue that policies that limit immigration or infringe on civil rights are themselves "un-American."

To get a better grasp on this slippery notion of American exceptionalism, we're going to dive into the double meaning of the term. We'll look at its surprising origins in communist theory, and the many ways that America's exceptionalism is a product of both factual differences between America and the rest of the world (metric system, anyone?), and simply the stories Americans like to tell about themselves.


What Exactly Do We Mean by 'Exceptional'?

flag-decked float, 4th of July parade
A flag-decked float participates in a Fourth of July parade in Milton, Wisconsin. Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

On one hand, to be exceptional means to stand apart as different, as in the "exception to the rule." But exceptional can also mean unusually excellent, or in popular political parlance, "great."

The first definition of American exceptionalism — that America, its government, its people and its culture are distinctive from other industrialized nations — is easier to prove. For example, Americans as a whole are far more religious than citizens of other wealthy, industrialized countries [source: Gao]. Americans also own far more guns per capita than any other nation (89 guns for every 100 Americans) [source: Fox]. Those are two ways in which Americans are undeniably exceptional.


The second definition of American exceptionalism — that America, its government, its people and its culture are better than most, if not all other countries — is clearly a matter of opinion, although it's an opinion shared by most Americans.

When the Pew Research Center asked Americans in 2014 how their country ranked compared to other nations, 28 percent said it was the best, 58 percent said the U.S. was "one of the greatest countries, along with others," and only 12 percent said that other countries were better than America. Interestingly, those numbers were down from 2011, when 38 percent of Americans said that U.S. stood alone as best [source: Tyson].

Traditionally, Republicans have held a much higher opinion of America's innate greatness than Democrats or Independents. Back in 2011, for example, a full 52 percent of Republicans said America was the best country on Earth, while only 33 percent of Democrats and Independents agreed. But those Republican numbers dropped 15 percentage points between 2011 and 2014, likely reflecting disappointment with a second-term Obama presidency [source: Tyson].

As we'll learn, though, these dual meanings of American exceptionalism have been pushing and pulling on Americans' sense of identity and its vision of the nation's place in the world, long before the term "American exceptionalism" was uttered for the first time (as an insult, BTW).

Let's start by listing a few of the ways in which the United States undeniably stands apart from other wealthy, industrialized nations.


America Exceptionalism at Work

America is undeniably exceptional is several ways when compared to other wealthy, industrialized nations.

For starters, Americans are far more religious. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 54 percent of Americans say that religion is "very important" in their lives. Compare that to other countries of similar wealth and demographics like Canada, where only 24 percent of people agree that religion is very important, or Australia and Germany, both at 21 percent [source: Gao].


In fact, Americans have much more in common with citizens of poorer countries when it comes to religious conviction. For example, high percentages of people in poor countries like Indonesia and Ghana say that belief in God is essential for living a moral life, while most North Americans and Europeans believe the opposite, that it's possible to be a good person without faith in God. America is very much the exception among Western countries, with 53 percent insisting that God is necessary for moral living [source: Pew].

There also seems to be a correlation between America's exceptional religious faith and its ardent optimism. Again, citizens of poorer and more religious nations are much more likely to say, for example, that today is a "particularly good day." In Nigeria and Colombia, nearly 60 percent of people have a highly positive view of their day, while wealthy but largely secular Germany sits at 21 percent and Japan a dismal 8 percent. The U.S. rides both its religiosity and its wealth for a whopping 41 percent of people with a positive outlook [source: Gao].

America's wealth is exceptional by another less positive metric — inequality. More than 41 percent of the entire world's personal wealth is owned by Americans, but America ranks at the bottom when it comes to spreading those riches around [source: Sherman]. The richest 1 percent of American households, for example, controls nearly 39 percent of the nation's total wealth, while the "bottom" 90 percent holds only 22 percent of the total [source: Egan]. While America leads the pack in inequality, it's closely followed by Sweden, the U.K. and Indonesia [source: Sherman].

Then, there's America's love affair with guns. The Second Amendment protects every American's right to "keep and bear arms" and boy do they ever! Americans own an estimated 265 million to 310 million firearms, nearly enough for every man, woman and child in the country to pack some heat [source: Kertscher]. Sadly, gun homicides are 25 times higher in the U.S. than other wealthy countries [source: Fox].

Finally, there are policies that are enshrined in laws in the rest of the world that are non-existent in the U.S. The U.S. is one of a handful of countries that does not mandate paid maternity leave, and the others in this category are small developing nations. Of course, many U.S. companies offer this benefit to their employees, but they don't have to, unless they live in one of the few states that have mandated some type of paid maternity benefit.

Why is America so different from other countries? You have to go back to the birth of the nation.


The Roots of American Exceptionalism

4th of July parade, American Revolution
Parade marchers, dressed in uniforms from the American Revolution, take part in a Fourth of July parade in Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts. Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

By nature of its geographic location alone, America has always represented something "set apart" from everything that came before. Among the early European settlers to the New World were persecuted religious minorities seeking the freedom to practice their faith in peace. Puritan leader John Winthrop believed that America was the new Promised Land and that the faithful were to "be as a city upon the hill" in their New Jerusalem [source:].

But to really understand what made America exceptional from the start, you have to look at two remarkable founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence lays out the democratic ideals and values of the new nation: that the right to rule is derived from the "consent of the governed," that "all men are created equal" and endowed by God with certain rights, among them "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."


These democratic principles were not distinctly "American," since they were developed by European Enlightenment philosophers like John Hobbes (equality as natural state), John Locke ("inalienable rights" of life and liberty), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (consent of the governed) [source: Constitutional Rights Foundation]. But America was the first nation to enshrine those ideals as the basis of a government.

America is fundamentally exceptional, therefore, because it was founded upon an idea. Prior to the Declaration of Independence, nations had evolved from tribal associations, common languages and the will of an elite few exercising their power over many. The fact that America was founded on shared moral and political principles rather than shared ancestry meant that anyone who embraced these ideals — no matter where they were born or their socioeconomic status — was now an American.

The Constitution is another exceptional document. While the Bill of Rights gets a lot of love (and rightfully so) for safeguarding individual freedoms against government tyranny, the basic structure of the federal government as outlined in the Constitution was also a game-changer.

The U.S. government was the first to explicitly distribute the federal government's power between three "separate but equal branches": the legislative to write the laws, the judiciary to interpret the laws and the executive branch to enforce them. (You can thank French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu for that one.) This system of checks and balances all but guarantees gridlock, but also ensures that no individual president or majority party can act with impunity.

So that's the historical foundation of American exceptionalism, but when was the term first coined and how was it used? This one might surprise you.


Origins of the Term 'American Exceptionalism'

May Day Parade, NYC
American communists carry posters of Russian leaders during a May Day parade in New York City in 1935. Dick Lewis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

It's tempting to say that Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French diplomat and sharp commentator on the political and cultural character of the early United States, invented the term American exceptionalism. The evidence is found in his landmark work, "Democracy in America," when answering the question of whether the example of America proves that democratic nations don't care about science, literature or art.

Tocqueville doesn't defend America's intellectual rigor — quite the opposite. "It must be acknowledged that in few of the civilized nations of our time have the higher sciences made less progress than in the United States; and in few have great artists, distinguished poets, or celebrated writers been more rare," he writes.


Instead, Tocqueville argues that America is "quite exceptional" in several important ways — its practical Puritanical origins, its innate commercial drive, its geographic isolation and distracting natural beauty — that it can't possibly function as a stand-in for all future democratic nations. Just because Americans don't care about art and science, he basically says, doesn't mean that democracy is for dummies.

So while Tocqueville was one of the first to call America "exceptional," it was certainly meant in the "unusual and different" sense, and was not necessarily a compliment.

There's a stronger argument to make that the term American exceptionalism was first coined by American communists in the late 1920s. Yes, communists. Basically, European Marxists started wondering in the early 20th century why the United States was the only capitalist and industrialist nation that hadn't experienced a socialist uprising. Weren't American workers longing for the same rights as their comrades in countries like Germany and Russia?

American communist leader Jay Lovestone argued in 1928 that the economic and social conditions in American were "exceptional" and that a moderate, reformist approach was more suitable than violent class warfare [source: Liberman]. Joseph Stalin wasn't a fan of this theory to say the least. He demanded that Lovestone end his "heresy of American exceptionalism." For his efforts, Lovestone was kicked out of the American Communist Party in 1929 [source: Zimmer].

Again, the American communists and Stalin employed the term American exceptionalism to explain the oddity of the United States, certainly not to hold it up as a shining light to the world.

But Lovestone was on to something. Unlike most European democracies, America has no history of monarchy or feudalism, and therefore less deference to the state, as well as less class consciousness. This could translate into citizens being less interested in joining trade unions (or communist parties) as well less interested in having their government dictate policy. Political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset argued that Americans identify with the social class they aspire to rather than the one they are in, so they are more sympathetic to the concerns of the small businessperson (who would be forced to pay for these benefits) than to those of his or her workers [source: Kurtzleben]. This could be one explanation for why a policy like paid maternity leave has never been a vote-getter.

Next, we'll explore how American exceptionalism came to be embraced by conservative politicians as a badge of pride and patriotism.


American Exceptionalism as Political Stance

William Temple, Patrick Henry, CPAC 2018
William Temple of Brunswick, Georgia, dressed as Gov. Patrick Henry, participates in an opening prayer during CPAC 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. The American Conservative Union hosts this annual event to discuss conservative issues. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In 1980, nearly 350 years after the Puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay, then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan invoked John Winthrop's words to describe the Republican party's vision for America. It was time for America to be that "shining city on a hill" that not only serves as a beacon of good governance, but also stands up for the downtrodden the world over.

Not incidentally, that very same year marked the first time that the term "American exceptionalism" appeared in a mainstream American newspaper [source: McCoy]. It was part of an editorial in The New York Times highlighting the issues that mattered most in the 1980 presidential race between Reagan and Democratic incumbent President Jimmy Carter.


Topping the list, wrote Richard Tofel, was the "spiritually troubling question" of American exceptionalism. "Is America different from other nations?... In the past, our leaders unhesitatingly accepted an exceptional role; recently, others have derided this view as naive, imperialistic, or worse. As our unquestioned supremacy recedes, we need to decide what 'America' means to us, and what it will mean to the world."

Reagan clearly believed in America's exceptionalism and inherent greatness, and his landslide victory in 1980 marked the arrival of conservative ideals to the White House. It was Reagan who embodied the modern conservative political values of limited government, a strong military, the paramount importance of faith and family, and the unquestionable defense of liberty, at home and abroad. And perhaps more importantly, Reagan's faith in these exceptional values of American life came in response to a world in which America's top spot was under threat.

Subsequent generations of conservative politicians have taken up the flag of defending American exceptionalism while simultaneously mourning its demise. After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush and his neoconservative policymakers leaned on themes of American exceptionalism to justify the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as extensions of America's impulse to do good in the world [source: Grandin].

But it was the 2008 presidential race where the actual term "American exceptionalism" was first uttered in a presidential debate and took on its current meaning as political shorthand for patriotism in the face of perceived threats to liberty, both external and internal [source: McCoy]. As the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama embraced his own definition of American exceptionalism, one based on inclusion and opportunity, calling his entire career "a testimony to American exceptionalism."

Despite Obama's efforts, Republicans have essentially owned the term politically in the modern era. Newt Gingrich's 2011 book, "A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters," is a shining example of conservative's full-throated embrace of the term, although no presidential candidate captured the dual essence of American exceptionalism quite like President Donald Trump.

Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," boils the American exceptionalist rhetoric down to four simple words on a red hat. America is by nature the greatest nation on the planet. Ascendant superpowers like China are beating America because it has drifted from the Founding Fathers' vision of a limited government and put "globalism" ahead of "America first."

Ironically, liberal political analysts have called Trump's election "the end of American exceptionalism," arguing that the 2016 election proves that Americans aren't immune to the same populist forces of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment that placed right-wing hardliners in power worldwide and won support for Brexit in the U.K. [source: Zeitz].


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Author's Note: How American Exceptionalism Works

In President Barack Obama's final State of the Union speech in 2016, he stated, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism". The difference, and I suspect the reason why American exceptionalism is a topic of global political concern, is America's outsized influence on the world. Perhaps it's less important of America's values and system of government are truly unique on the face of Earth, and more important that we use our very conspicuous position for good. Interestingly, when Donald Trump was asked on the campaign trail what he thought of American exceptionalism, he responded, "I don't think it's a very nice term... I think you're insulting the world." Maybe our politics aren't as divided as we think.

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More Great Links

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