Logically, an “exception” means a subset of characteristics excluded from the set in which the subset otherwise exists. Some aspect of the items are not included in the general category, although other aspects are included. For example, if we say that all citizens may vote except those under the age of 18, the general set is citizens, and the characteristic or aspect of citizenship being excluded, voting, is citizens under that age.
“Exceptionalism” is the idea that a group of people, such as the citizens of a particular country, have unique cultural characteristics not found in any other group of people. Every country is different from the others, hence exceptional in some ways. The United States of America is exceptional in having been founded on an ideology of liberty, democracy, and federalism.
The justification for the American revolution was laid out in the Declaration of Independence. The document declared that all persons are created equal, and that they have “unalienable Rights.” These are moral or human rights inherent in human nature and its natural moral law. The Declaration says that the proper justification of government is “to secure these rights.” Another aspect of the American creed is that it is a union of “Free and Independent States,” the states having parallel sovereignty with the federal government.
The U.S. Constitution reflects this exceptional creed, as a sovereign union of sovereign states, with equality implicit in the original Constitution and explicit in the 14th Amendment, and with natural rights recognized in the Bill of Rights, especially in the Ninth Amendment. But in practice, the exceptional American creed has been implemented with major exceptions.
Slavery was inconsistent with the creed of liberty and equality, and so the country was on a collision course with that contradiction, which became resolved after the Civil War. The theft of land and the killing and moving of the Native American Indians was also a contradiction, which began to be resolved with the recognition of American citizenship, some compensations, and a partial recognition of the sovereignty of the Indian nations. The unequal status of women was yet another contradiction that became recognized and to a great extent resolved in law.
What is good about American exceptionalism is that it is to a great degree still honored in law and practice, and it has had some good influence throughout the world. But what is dangerous about American exceptionalism is that having the doctrine makes the government chiefs think that because America is good, American leaders can do no wrong.
The war of 1898 between the U.S. and Spain was an imperialist war of conquest that brought Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control. There was no moral justification for not letting these territories become independent, but the American chiefs may well have thought the conquest was justified because the U.S. would instill its exceptional values and governance to the benefit of the conquered people, even while suppressing rebellions.
There was no defense justification for the American entry into World War I, but president Wilson as a believer in exceptionalism thought he would benefit the Europeans by applying the American values of democracy and self-determination, such as by splitting up the Austrian empire into national states. The result was that Nazi Germany was able to conquer diminished Austria and the newly created Czechoslovakia, before attacking the resurrected state of Poland.
American exceptionalism thus induces political and military arrogance. In feeling superior, the American chiefs think they are justified in meddling with foreign governments. In the 1950s, the U.S. government overthrew elected the leaders of Iran and Guatemala, in contradiction to the American creed of democracy. The thought that they were defending freedom and democracy against Communist tyranny then provided the rationale for the American war in Vietnam.
The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term in his book Democracy in America, where he wrote, “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional.” Other countries have been founded upon an idea also, but not on liberty, equality, and federalism. The USSR was founded on the idea of state socialism. The creation of some states such as Pakistan was based on religion. Many states have implemented degrees of democracy and liberty, but their founding was either a result of nationality or from arbitrary boundaries set by conquerors.
After the its revolution, the French republic was founded on liberty, fraternity, and equality, but France as a country existed prior to that, and the revolutionary creed became corrupted into the terror and empire that followed.
So America really is exceptional in its founding, and also, since World War II, in its economic and military power, and also in its global cultural influence. But the heart of American power has been its market economy, and that economy has become stagnant. The tentacles of regulations, taxes, and growing welfare aid are choking entrepreneurship and employment. Workers have become a liability to firms, as the firms face the costs of litigation and medical mandates, even while the governmental school systems fail to provide the skills needed.
Massive monetary and spending stimuli, along with a temporary oil and gas bonanza, will keep America’s economy afloat until the Great Crash of 2026, when the historic 18-year real estate cycle creates the next crisis, 18 years after 2008, that will bring to an end the subsidy bubble. What comes after that is perhaps the most important question that the U.S. is avoiding. It is becoming clear that American exceptionalism is becoming a thing of the past, which is tragic, because the ideas were indeed exceptional.