The pros and cons of American Exceptionalism

By Irene Cohen and Ellie Mulvaney

Exceptionalism. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this word as the condition of being different from the norm.

In the context of a nation, it becomes an ideology, one that believes that a particular country or region is inherently different than its counterparts, and significantly more remarkable.

In America, this conception affects how we live and develop, but the question is; is this more helpful or harmful?

To start, let’s take a look at some benefits of American Exceptionalism. One key benefit is the ability of exceptionalism to foster entrepreneurship in up-and-coming generations. According to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, 84% of children are earning more than their parents as of 2017. This can partially be attributed to the desire of many Americans to reduce international reliance and produce the majority of products in the country. This strengthens the workforce, and actually creates jobs in the nation, given the exceptionalist mindset leads to highlighting “made in America,” as superior to overseas production.

A second contributing factor to the increasing entrepreneurship comes from the belief that America presents opportunities for everyone. In the assumption that America is, indeed, exceptional, comes the theory that America is so outstanding that anyone can create something out of nothing in this country. The validity of this statement is arguable, and no answer can be absolute, because it’s so subjective, but this positive reinforcement and encouragement can give citizens a drive to push themselves up on the socioeconomic ladder.

American Exceptionalism, in certain instances, can also lead to a constructive patriotism in its citizens. As an effort to maintain the reputation, or rank, of the country, Americans may strive more to improve conditions within. This can include policy reform, like firearm restrictions, education, environment, and economic affairs, as well as judicial undertakings and criminal justice. The more inspired a person is to improve their nation, the more likely they are to vote, protest, etc. to make a change.

On the flip side, American Exceptionalism is not all positive. American Exceptionalism often creates the idea in many of its citizens that Americans can do no wrong. This leads to them believing that they should have the final say, not anyone else. This is clearly illustrated by many poll findings of a majority of Americans thinking that U.S. soldiers should not be tried internationally for war crimes, unlike Europeans who do think their soldiers should be allowed to be tried internationally for war crimes. Another instance of this decision making bias is Americans being much more opposed to letting international organizations decide what they should do regarding global warming, starkly contrasting the opinions of other Western countries’ populations.

Another drawback of American Exceptionalism is that it does not foster a good sense of community. An August, 2004, Pew and Council on Foreign Relations poll found that while most Americans thought that they were not respected as much globally as they used to be, that same poll found that Americans did not rank improving foreign relationships very high on their list of international goals. This poll shows while Americans acknowledge that they don’t have the best relationships with foreign countries, they feel as if that is not a necessity. American Exceptionalism breeds the idea that you only need to look out for yourself, you don’t need to work with others to get ahead in life.

After looking at both pros and cons of American Exceptionalism, it is ridiculous to think that one could objectively answer the question, is it more helpful or harmful? Like everything, people have their opinions with their own reasoning behind it depending on their values. Some may think that American Exceptionalism benefits us more than hindering us, but someone else could think that it was harmful. Both opinions are valid and have many points to back up their statement, and that is why you can’t objectively say whether it’s good or bad.

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