During the 2012 American presidential campaign, the Republican frontrunner Mitt Romeny accused his opponent, President Barack Obama, of not believing in “American Exceptionalism”. He continued by questioning Obama’s “commitment to the view of America as a unique and unrivaled world power.” While Romney’s accusation was partly a move to pander to the Republican constituency and discredit Obama, it raised interesting questions about the philosophical nature of political exceptionalism and the ramifications of its permeation through American society. A philosophical study of exceptionalism, especially in American society, can reveal the true nature of our political and social culture as well as the ethical norms and values we possess when viewing the world.
Exceptionalism describes the perception of a country or society in a certain time period that it is ‘exceptional’ in some away and thus does not need to conform to general rules, norms, or principles. In order to arrive at this perception, however, ethical values, political viewpoints, and philosophical realities such as nationalism, cultural imperialism, xenophobia, and ethnocentrism need to be present and come into play. The simple act of considering a country or society ‘exceptional’ means that it is being judged and valued above other countries and societies. If all were valued equally or looked at in a relativistic manner (that is, the true value and worth of a different country or society could only be judged accurately by a member of its own culture and society), then there would be no ‘exceptional’ country. By approaching the concept of social and national worth using a relativistic or egalitarian frame, it would be unreasonable for a person to expect to accurately judge that their society was superior to others. Doing so would be impossible: they lack the capacity to accurately judge the worth of other societies, and thus could not weigh them against their own. Rather, they would have to accept that there can only be a system of equal, albeit culturally and institutionally different, societies and countries. The fact that American political leaders and our political cultures espouse ‘exceptionalist’ values, however, demonstrates that this is not the case. Thus, the conclusion must be made that our perception of other countries and societies against our own is not drawn from a relativistic or egalitarian frame, but rather is being skewed by other philosophical viewpoints. Further, because we uphold our own society as being superior to others (hence why it is ‘exceptional’), these viewpoints must be ones which support the notion that something about our society is inherently and intrinsically better than others.
Arching over and intertwined with these viewpoints is the concept of nationalism. Nationalism is a political identity that involves a strong identification of an individual with a nation. With this identification comes the development of a loyalty and pride from the individual towards his nation, its culture, and its society. The United States has developed a strongly nationalistic culture, which is ingrained into the American youth and which is referred to in much of the political environment. Much of this nationalism is developed as a pride in our country’s civic and legal concepts and norms, as well as on a common language and cultural tradition. At a young age, American youths are taught the Pledge of Allegiance, the stories about the founding of our country, and about our ‘founding fathers’. The stories of ‘throwing off British oppression’, the romanticizing of events in the Revolutionary War such as the Boston Tea Party or Paul Revere’s ride, and the cults of personality built around founders such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin all help in the development of pride in our country’s origins. Lessons in how the United States serves as a bastion for the lost, the oppressed, and the helpless (consider the famous quote on the Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired, your poor”), as well as how we were the first country developed along liberal democratic guidelines, with due process of law, political representation, social equality, individualism, and capitalist tendencies, help develop a pride in our country’s civic and legal roots. It’s from this nationalistic pride in our country’s civics and society that large portions of our ‘exceptionalist’ outlook stem. The historian Gordon Wood argued this point by saying that, “Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.” We are taught that the American ideals of liberty, freedom, and democracy originate uniquely from the United States, and that it is the American duty to lead the world towards embracing these ideals.
It is from this societal embrace of the ideals of democracy and liberty, and our perception of us as a ‘chosen’ people ‘destined’ to spread these ideals, that an underlying ethnocentrism is revealed in the American psyche and the overall resulting trends towards cultural imperialism demonstrated. Ethnocentrism describes the judgment of other cultures by the values and standards of one’s own culture. For us in the United States, we judge the merit and value of other countries and societies based upon our own civic institutions and legal history. For cases in which other countries are democratic in nature and have societies rooted in liberal philosophy, we can better associate ourselves with them, and generally form cooperative ties with these nations. They are relatively similar with our own society in how they are structured and the civic values they possess, and thus we weigh these countries with relatively high value. However, even then, these societies are unlike our own in that they lack the American ‘nature’ to spread democracy and liberty to other countries. Hence, we do not perceive them as ‘exceptional’, nor do we believe that they are ‘destined’ countries like our own. American nationalism, always floating above perception of other societies, thus ties into this judgment: even though these other countries are like our own in the values that we take pride in, they are not American, and thus they lack the American ‘spirit’ and the American ‘destiny’ to spread them. Therefore, they are inherently lesser. What are of even more philosophical interest are the cases where the society we are judging does not mirror our own in their societal values. In such cases, we immediately discard it as a society with less worth than our own. Cases like these would be for autocratic and nondemocratic countries, which lack the same legal and civic foundations that we so pride ourselves with in our country. The American response to such cases is to, as Wood previously argued, ‘lead’ these societies into democracy and liberty. Indeed, it is this sort of crusade for democracy that led previous administrations, such as George W. Bush’s, to engage in operations seeking democratic regime change abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan. The entire ‘Bush doctrine’, as it would come to be known, was designed to seek the spread of democracy across the world. Such a doctrine, and our world view it is the result of, is as great an example of cultural imperialism and desire for cultural hegemony as any.
Cultural imperialism is defined as the cultural aspects in the creation and maintenance of unequal relationships between civilizations favoring the more powerful civilization. For the United States, the exportation of American values such of liberty and democracy represent the imperialistic control of what the French philosopher Michel Foucault described as “governmentality”. He described it as the “art of government”, and represents “the ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has as its target population, as its principal form of knowledge political economy, and as its essential technical means apparatuses of security.” By controlling such factors in a government, Foucault’s argument means that the United States could gain hegemony on the ‘truth’ in the government, and thus gain power. He described the ‘truth’ as inherent in systems of power, coincides with hegemony, and which is culturally specific, inseparable from ideology. By controlling the ideological framework of a government, by shifting it into a liberal democracy along the lines of how the United States is framed, the United States could thus shape and therefore control the power of that government and gain hegemony and influential clout over it. The United States has, aside from the recent Bush-era endeavors to spread democracy, historically embarked in a sort of cultural imperialism. Following the Second World War it spearheaded the development of many of the norms of the ‘free, Western world’ to counter those of the Soviet Union. These norms included adherence to capitalist, market economies, a respect for international law and organization, and general liberal, democratic tendencies. From these norms developed institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations, which the United States has since used to coerce other, lesser powers into conforming to the capitalist, liberalized, democratic worldview. Aside from such power-politics, however, the transmutation from other societies ‘governmentality’ to those of our own across the globe is still the goal which we seek because our society tells us we have been ‘destined’ to do so. Our willingness to supplement the political norms of other societies with those of our own is demonstrative of our imperialistic societal view, and it happens that our possession of the capacity to enact this cultural imperialism enables us to do so. Little consideration is placed into the standing norms of those societies, and little conceptualization of cultural relativism explored. Again, our nationalistic tendencies make us perceive these other societies as inferior, and our ‘destiny’ dictates to us that they must be changed. Hence, because of our willingness to change these ‘inferior’ civic societies and that our capability enables us to do so, a sort of American cultural hegemony has appeared across the globe in the form of our civic values.
The permeation throughout much of the world of capitalism, liberal civics, and democracy has largely been the result of the United State’s efforts as a superpower in the past half century, and the United States, as the source of these values, can be claimed to hold cultural hegemony over the globe. Cultural hegemony is the manipulation of societal cultures so that it is imposed as the norm, and then is perceived as a universally valid ideology and status quo beneficial to all of society. In the terms of global society, liberal democracy, by which it is meant political representation and the right to personal freedoms and liberties, is now accepted as a universally valid right. Additionally, they have become status quo norms in the global society: societies and countries which rebuke liberal democracy are viewed as pariahs in the international community, such as Gaddafi’s Libya, North Korea, and Iran. Thus, the United States has enforced and pushed its own societal values across the globe so that they have become the international norm, and from this it has gained hegemony over the values which the international community subscribes to. The fact that the United States has been so successful in shaping the international society, and that it is the uniquely American values which have become the norm, lend support to the perception that the United States is therefore uniquely ‘exceptional’ and above all other states, include those which also adhere and subscribe to our societal values.
Challenges to the American hegemony on international societal values do arise, however, and in the present day and age the United States appears to be gradually slipping in its position as the unrivaled global power able to exert its force to enact its ‘destiny’. These challenges reveal an underlying xenophobia within the United States: a fear that other societies will be able to enact and enforce their societal norms upon the international community. Because we perceive our society to be ‘exceptional’, and therefore better than all of the rest, we are concerned with the prospect that a society of lesser ‘worth’ will shape the norms of the future. Nationalistic pride in American civics, as well as the belief that it is our ‘destiny’ to spread and convert the world to our style of liberal democracy, means that we are determined not to allow foreigner societies do what we have sought out to do. It is not, in our minds, their destiny to have. Perhaps this can explain why Mitt Romney accused President Obama of not believing in American exceptionalism: He was assaulting Obama’s commitment to the American ‘destiny’ while making subtle nods to this underlying xenophobia in American society.
American exceptionalism is thus a powerful and motivating experience in the American psyche, as is the worldview it espouses (one in which the United States is a unique, unrivaled state with a morally-superior purpose to spread liberal democratic values). However, this exceptionalism is a result of underlying worldviews and philosophical frameworks which operate within the United States, those of nationalism, ethnocentrism, cultural imperialism, a desire for an American-dominated international cultural hegemony, and an underlying xenophobia. While, in the perspective of an American who adheres to the American civic values and societal norms, the American ‘destiny’ to spread democracy and liberty is a good one, the underlying philosophical frameworks which result in this destiny and are a result of the perception of other societies because of this destiny lead to ethical quandaries.
 Romney questions Obama commitment to ‘American Exceptionalism’. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/post/romney-questions-obama-commitment-to-american-exceptionalism/2012/03/31/gIQA7xKUnS_blog.html. 31 Mar. 2012, Accessed 12 Apr. 2012.
Dolan, Chris J (2005). In War We Trust: The Bush Doctrine And The Pursuit Of Just War. Ashgate Publishing Ltd, pp. 229.
Foucault, M. (1991). ‘Governmentality‘. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 87–104.