Johann N. Neem: The next victim of the coronavirus? American exceptionalism

Summary: If we believe in democracy, we need to start by rebuilding our institutions and weaving back together a national fabric torn apart by decades of culture wars.


The rise of Donald Trump, and the embarrassing failure of the American state to respond effectively to coronavirus, has proven to the world that the United States is no longer exceptional nor, in President Barack Obama's word, indispensable. The inability of the American government to protect its citizens from a pandemic and provide global leadership vividly illustrates that American exceptionalism is dead.

This might be a good thing. American exceptionalism has allowed Americans on the left and right alike to pretend that we could evade the problems facing other societies. But now is the time to accept the reality that we are part of the world and its history, not exceptions to it.

This requires dismantling aspects of American mythology that have made it harder for us to address deep problems in our society. All nations rely on myths, and perhaps none can survive without them. But today, some of the ideas we hold dear about ourselves - that America is a country of rugged individuals, destined to be the world's first multicultural democracy and too strong and important to falter - are impeding our ability to overcome our most pressing challenges.

These ideas have a history. American exceptionalism is as old as the nation. From the founding, American citizens believed that plentiful land and opportunity combined with God's Providence had blessed them as a people. In the 19th century, these ideas became known as Manifest Destiny - the belief that God's goodwill toward us manifested in America's expansion westward, its prosperity and ultimately its freedom. At the center of this myth stood the rugged individual who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps and tamed the West.


But the self-made man was never made all by himself. The federal government cleared the land for settlement, often using armed force and violence to displace Native Americans. State and federal transportation investments ensured that farmers could bring their crops to domestic and foreign markets. The Homestead Act, passed during the Civil War, promised cheap land to Americans willing to improve it. And social mobility was promoted through an expanding system of public schools. In short, American individualism has always relied on government.

Our celebration of individualism has persisted into the 21st century, but our commitment to the public infrastructure that sustains it has withered over the past four decades. Our failure to make the investments necessary to maintain our government's quality and capability has had an impact on all of us - Americans struggle to make ends meet and social mobility is declining.

Our challenges are not just political, but also cultural.

A second myth that inhibits us is the idea that we can become a multicultural society. In the 1970s, multiculturalism emerged as a way to challenge ethnic, religious and racial prejudice. Today, we rightly celebrate America's diversity. But, over time, some advocates of multiculturalism moved beyond demands for political and social equality to proclaim that every ethnic group should maintain its own distinct culture without being as attentive to what binds us together.

Unfortunately, the United States is not exempt from the forces that produce conflict and even violence in other places. Democracies depend on social trust, and that trust depends on citizens seeing themselves as part of the nation. As many commentators have noted, today we are at risk of devolving into a society divided by ethnicity, race and religion. Democratic norms are harder to sustain if we see our opponents as enemies instead of as fellow citizens. At a time when white nationalists are threatening to reclaim America for themselves, it is essential that we balance our differences with what we share as Americans.

A third myth is that somehow American democracy can be taken for granted. This myth emerged after the end of the Cold War, when suddenly the U.S. found its military and economic primacy unchallenged. Some even believed that we had reached the end of history. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, many hoped that liberal democracy would spread across the globe. Instead, today, democracy is in retreat around the world. In the United States, voting rights are threatened, money plays an outsized role in politics, false information spreads widely on the internet and increasing numbers of Americans question the importance of living in a democratic country.

Despite our military and economic might, our democracy is as fragile as any other. For too long, too many American leaders have presumed that we are too big to fail. Over the past three decades, no matter how unequal we became, no matter how many jobs were lost, no matter how many people suffered for lack of health care, no matter how many people felt forgotten, while the rich became richer, many political leaders assumed that the U.S. would not have the kind of angry populist response that we have seen (and continue to see) in countries around the globe.

That myth is busted.


In the Trump era, any observer of the United States can see that we are no different from other nation-states. Today, we are divided into hostile camps - rural and urban, white and nonwhite, evangelical and nonevangelical, rich and poor. These divisions have produced social distrust, and, as students of democracy know, in such times, populist demagogues can feed on the resentment and anger of some while blaming others, tapping into our divisions to gain power. This is happening in the U.S., just as it is happening in Brazil, India and elsewhere.

The framers of our Constitution aspired to establish a government that accounted for the basic facts of human nature, including selfishness and ambition. For example, the Constitution depends on the separate branches of government checking the excesses of the others. As James Madison wrote, "ambition must be made to counteract ambition." But that system is being tested today. Our democracy is in a state of crisis.

If we believe in democracy, we need to start by rebuilding our institutions and weaving back together a national fabric torn apart by decades of culture wars. We must invest in jobs that ensure that prosperity and dignity are widely shared. We must nurture democracy, not take it for granted. If American exceptionalism is dead, perhaps we can begin the hard work of remaking our country.

Johann N. Neem is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and a professor of history at Western Washington University.

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