American Exceptionalism

February 14, 2021

American Exceptionalism, a doctrine supported by many public figures, involves a mindset that is a barrier to the future prosperity of the United States. This conviction grew out of the sincere belief by America’s founding generation that voters in the newborn democracy would prevent repetition of the errors and distortions of other nations. They believed the United States was destined to play a unique role in helping other nations improve their societies.

Missing from the American Exceptionalism argument was acknowledgement that American governance, unlike Athena, had not burst full blown from the head of Zeus. The founders were grounded in the democratic principles embodied in British law, the French Enlightenment, the secular Hellenism of Classical Greece, and Native American practices. 

A great weakness in the perspective of the American revolutionaries was that the right to vote was limited to men who owned property. The process of guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote is still not fully resolved more than two centuries later. Despite such imperfections, many other nations have steadily reshaped their societies based on America’s successes and its philosophical foundations.  America led in this reform but is no longer unique.

A trait of nascent states is to attack their neighbors.  The United States unsuccessfully invaded Canada several times in the early 1800s. Forty years later it defeated Mexico to gain sovereignty over much of the Southwest, including what became the states of Texas and California.  The United States continued to be aggressive in Central America, culminating in the Spanish-American War which brought control of Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands.

The war in the Philippines became a standoff that was not resolved until World II.

Since that time, the United States has regularly intervened in South America and been involved in wars throughout the world. American behavior is like that of other super powers – not at all exceptional.

Precious to the newborn United States was its dedication to social mobility. No longer would individuals be locked into the classes into which they were born. The United States became justly famed for greatly advancing this goal. As of 2021, however, the United States has fallen to twenty-seventh place in social mobility compared to other nations, just ahead of Spain but easily bested by number-one Demark. The United States led the world in this visionary reform, but is no longer exceptional.

Closely related to social mobility was America’s pioneering work in advancing quality public education. Although we are still in the first ranks of higher education, we currently flounder in public education. Compared to other nations, we have fallen to thirtieth place in math and to nineteenth in science. The present world leaders in education are Finland and Canada.

An international Satisfaction with Life Index was created in 2007. While prone to distortion by some subjective factors, the index documents how citizens feel about their quality of life and the competence of their government. The United States places eighteenth, with Finland the happiest nation followed by Denmark and Switzerland.

I could continue these examples by citing the existing American wealth gap, inadequate public health services, environmental issues, social unrest, a decayed infrastructure, and the like. The United States usually places in the top twenty-five percent of successful nations but rarely makes the top ten. Not unworthy. Not exceptional.

The obvious conclusion is that while the United States does many things satisfactorily, other nations are doing much better. Rather than blithely speak of American Exceptionalism, the time is long overdue to eat some humble pie and seriously study why other nationals are besting us.

Working against our national interest is an idea often associated with American Exceptionalism: the belief of many Americans that our nation has a divinely sponsored mission to lead the rest of the world. In other words, God is in our side. If so, why fret about the temporary success of other nations?

A recent issue of Foreign Policy cites examples of how the divine character of American exceptionalism is promoted. Ronald Reagan, for one, regularly stated that there was “some divine plan” sustaining American supremacy. He once quoted Pope Pius XII as saying, “into the hands of America, God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.” During his presidency, George W. Bush declared, “we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom.” Democrats such as President Biden and Hillary Clinton had expressed similar views.

Nations that cheer themselves by bragging of past accomplishments rather than soberly dealing with contemporary problems are on the road to irreversible decline.

The United Sates still possesses incredible resources, enormous energy, a penchant for invention, and a record of whittling away at its problems. These assets suggest our top national priority needs to be change, not embracing the status quo. Nostalgia for an often mythologized past is fruitless. Blindly indulging the notion of divinely orchestrated American Exceptionalism is sheer folly.


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