There is nothing very exceptional about American Exceptionalism other than many Americans find themselves exceptional and demand that others do likewise. Australian Exceptionalism is risible.
Many American’s believe that, in the words of Tina Turner, America is ‘Simply the Best’. The notion of American Exceptionalism can be traced to the founding fathers, it evolved through the crucible of WWII into a belief that America’s destiny was to lead the world. A notion, once evangelical, became a propaganda crusade deployed in fighting the German Nazis, Italian Fascists, Japanese Militarism and later Communists in Korean and the Cold War. In reality it is all about power. With the birth of American Military Exceptionalism grew the need to maximise international outcomes favourable to America, particularly the acquisition of wealth. To do this it needs to see off rivals. American Military Exceptionalism exists and is nurtured in the Pentagon and State Department.
There are many strands to American Exceptionalism, some are idealistic, believing that America with God’s will could create a better world. That view was tied into the churches but now has become tangled into military exceptionalism which sits comfortably with increasing evangelical right-wing Christianity.
One strand is held domestically and broaches no criticism. It is narrow, inward looking and holds that America can achieve whatever it wants, whenever it wants. It is blind and exists in the face of reality. It is a view held on the right of American politics and is allied to and at times intertwined with the evangelical Christian right. It was held by President Ronald Reagan and Vice President Dick Chaney. It believes in the overwhelming superiority of American arms and believes those arms should be used to support outcomes favourable to maintaining American prestige and pre-eminence. A veritable Catch-22.
Another is held outside of America and dates back to the visits of European intellectuals and industrialists in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. They were awed by the wealth and power displayed by the furnaces of Pittsburgh, the trans-national railways and skyscrapers of New York and Chicago; by the opulence of theatres, universities and other public amenities. And they wrote, indeed gushed about America with envy. It is a view held by overseas right-wing politicians such as Thatcher, Johnson, Howard and Morrison.
American Exceptionalism is often referenced back to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was of a type all too familiar, strong on words and ideals and weak on practice. He was a major slave owner, with a slave mistress, who saw the ‘solution to salves’ in America as sending them back to where they had come from rather than emancipation. Despite the fine words in the Declaration he refused to envision black and white Americans as equal.
With American Exceptionalism finding its apotheosis at the end of WWII, wartime propaganda was refined into a broad spectrum championing of all things American, from the Red Woods to RCA, by the media and given expression, from amongst others, by The New Yorker, Life, Newsweek, Time and National Geographic magazines, The Wall Street Journal, Newsreels, Hollywood and Sitcoms. The media in Australia was worshipful and sycophantic in its reportage of all things American, particularly cars, clothes and consumer durables. American Exceptionalism had strong currency with my generation as we went through school and university, helped along by the Cold War.
The myth becomes reality when applied to music, movies, medical research and sport. The American hold on technology as expressed through the automotive, aviation and space industries and Silicon Valley was exceptional but the lead and reputation gained has been whittled away by competitors such as Germany, Japan, South Korea and most recently China – a source of great anxiety to America. Success in sport, and America has been very successful, is an extension of the battle ground to maintain Exceptionalism. Other countries know it and have adopted ‘whatever it takes’ including taking drugs to beat America.
Some, maybe many, Protestant churches in America support the notion of exceptionalism, particularly in the south where it has co-existed with white supremacy. Many educational institutions support the notion along with the armed services where it is linked to patriotism.
Nonetheless the notion of a broad and encompassing American Exceptionalism is hard to encompass when set against the reality of history with respect to continuing discrimination against Black and Indigenous Americans – reservations and the disempowerment that accompanied their establishment, past segregation, job discrimination and tolerance of the KKK. The hostility of the President and the Murdoch press to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and support for the gun lobby undermine claims of exceptionalism.
No doubt there are many Black and Hispanic Americans who believe in American Exceptionalism but if so, they are probably sharing American wealth. Those who do not, and there are many, can be forgiven for not embracing Exceptionalism. And the chances are they are being discriminated against. American exceptionalism does not embrace discrimination.
The ignominious defeat in the Vietnam war, despite a significant advantage in men and materiel, together with a messy campaign in Iraq, leading to Middle East instability, and an unsuccessful campaign in Afghanistan, which saw the Taliban regain control of much of the country, put paid many international perceptions of American Exceptionalism. Despite these loses, the American defence establishment continues to believe in its own invincibility.
There are hundreds of US bases around the world with 200,000 troops deployed to them. There are four US bases in Australia, with the US also having access to ADF bases and training areas. Since 9/11 the US has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the Middle East and securing what it regards as its right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, even though those rights were never under threat. The US has fifty bases ringing China with the intention of containment and control; all of this to maintain American supremacy, which is itself based on the notion of exceptionalism.
We are told by Australian politicians that Australia has shared values with the US. ‘We’, the people, share some, but not many, the ruling political and business class share more. In considering American Exceptionalism we should look at Australian Exceptionalism which is based on sport and the ‘Anzac tradition’.
In my opinion Australian Exceptionalism is shrill, shallow, showy and superficial and does not stand up under scrutiny. It is embraced by conservatives in the community and the right in politics. It finds expression on Australia and Anzac Day. Cars are adorned with, and people wrap themselves in, the Australian flag.
The cultural contribution we could make is scorned and defunded by elected leaders. Aboriginal culture is derided and sacred sites and trees destroyed. Australia produces little other than mines. Good inventions, such as solar panels first invented in Australia, had to go offshore in 1983 to be produced. What Australia might be and what it is are two different things. We have failed to make ourselves exceptional whilst our leaders are besotted and blinded by their perception of American Exceptionalism.