From their earliest years in school, American students are told that theirs is an exceptional country in the world. They are told that the nation’s political, economic, cultural, and scientific dominance is the result of an intangible mix of characteristics that are unique to America and Americans and which should afford the country special treatment on the world stage.
Throughout most of American history, the idea that the country was exceptional was more or less beyond question. Not only did America lead the world in standard of living, scientific achievement, and cultural popularity, but there was a certain character to its people that primed them for significant achievement.
However, that’s not quite the case anymore. Thanks to a variety of factors, the country has started to lose her importance in the world and her citizens are more or less indistinguishable from citizens of other western countries.
All this begs the question, “Is America still exceptional in the 21st century?”
For the first 150 years of its existence America was totally unique in the world. Not only did it have huge resources and strong institutions, but it benefited from massive amounts of immigrants who all committed themselves to American ideals.
It seems strange to think that things like democracy, liberty, opportunity, or equality, were ever associated with just one place. Nowadays, they are bedrock in every western country and to threaten them is one of society’s biggest taboos. However, until the First World War, European society was still largely run by aristocrats and America really was a “city upon a hill” that everyone looked to as a place to escape inequality.
The result of that reputation was tremendous. Millions of ambitious people left the rigid social hierarchy of the Old World and came to America. They then fully committed themselves to furthering her ideals and strengthening her institutions in order to keep improving what they saw as an already exemplary society.
That huge population, united by shared principles, and combined with immense natural resources, led to a country whose position, reputation, and impact on the world stage were unprecedented in human history.
Yet, it was never going to be the case that America would be exceptional forever.
The big things that made America exceptional (her ideals, the caliber of her immigrants, and the strength of her institutions) are no longer unique in the world.
American ideals have been appropriated by every other western country for decades. Thanks to the internet, everyone is reading the same things and ideas get popular not just in one country, but on a borderless internet. So what you’re left with isn’t some uniquely American approach to structuring society. It’s a world approach, or at least a western one. Although the ideals now exist in at least some capacity in every nation on Earth.
America is also no longer seen as the top destination for immigrants. Countries like Canada andAustralia have been aggressive in attracting the type of foreign talent they need to build their economies. On top of that, Europe, the region where America has historically drawn the bulk of its immigrants, has become so similar to the United States as to slow immigration down to a trickle. Indeed, America doesn’t really offer much to the citizens of other developed nations that would make them want to move here.
Perhaps America could remain exceptional if it still had strong institutions to properly manage the powerhouse it once was. However, those have now been shown to be corrupt at almost every level.
Between the nearly explicit “For Sale” sign attached to its law makers and the fact that the NSA has invested staggering amounts to spy on every citizen, it seems like not a day goes by that public trust isn’t eroded a little bit more.
The result is a demoralized people that takes an increasingly low level of interest in bettering society. As such, American democracy, once an example for the world, has come to be ruled by unscrupulous self-promoters that mainly concern themselves with using the office to they and their allies’ advantage. Indeed, as regards the health of their institutions, the United States actually lags far behind developed countries.
So, it’s fair to say that America can’t really lay claim to most of the features that once made it exceptional. Nowadays, the country is living off of its former glory.
The position it found itself in after WW2 was so dominant that the country was able to structure the entire global political and economic systems to its own benefit. However, after years of abusing those privileges, the future looks very uncertain for theYanks.
The future for America definitely does not shine as brightly as her past. The country’s abuse of its dominance has made others far less willing to blindly support it, especially considering that they now have viable alternatives in the form of friendship with China and Russia.
The same is true with old European allies. No longer content with the mostly unilateral relationship we shared for the past few generations, Europe has (ironically) demanded more equal treatment which it has been quite successful at getting.
This isn’t to say that America’s legacy will just go away overnight. After all, when you spend nearly 100 years as the most powerful nation on earth, it does allow you to coast for a certain amount of time. However, the writing is certainly on the wall.
If anything, America is set to fall behind other countries in the west. Whereas Europe successfully dealt with the inequality left over from centuries of aristocratic rule,America has yet to address the significant racial inequality stemming from its own history.
In fact, in the past generation, the country has significantly increased inequality amongst its entire population (ironically creating the same type of aristocracy that many of its immigrants were so desperate to leave in the first place).
In short, America has significant structural issues that make it unlikely to regain an “exceptional” position in the world any time soon.
Once upon a time America was exceptional. However, like Greece and Rome before it, not everything lasts. And that’s not always a bad thing.
There are plenty of Greek and Roman ideals that were perfectly well suited for their age but would be either shockingly offensive or woefully inadequate for the demands of modern society.
Similarly, it is possible that American ideals, such as unrestricted capitalism and individual freedom over societal cohesion, just aren’t well suited for the realities of life in the 21st century.
Only time will tell.
Do you think it's possible for America to become exceptional in the way it once was?