How American Exceptionalism Works

By: Dave Roos

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.