The other day I was aimlessly browsing the web looking at movies when I stumbled upon a review for a modern-day rendition of a Cold War-era spy/thriller Tom Clancy novel. The subjective synopsis given for the movie reported that “outdated patriotic tropes” negatively influenced the critic’s impression. This initially took me aback—why is patriotism, at least to this critic, now considered outdated? Why is support for our country becoming an increasingly unpopular sentiment? What’s changed since the Cold War that has prompted such a shift in attitude? Sparking an intriguing line of inquiry within me, these questions ultimately provided the catalyst for the writing of this article. Needless to say, I never anticipated I would experience a political climate in our country where any expression of patriotism was controversial and occasionally even condemned. Patriotism shouldn’t be the blind endorsement of our country regardless of the circumstance, but an underlying desire and hope for our success as a nation, something I feel is becoming decreasingly prevalent in a society plagued by cynicism and an obsessive emphasis on failure as the sole defining attribute of any entity, whether it be a nation or individual.
But once a closer examination is taken, the instigators of this mindset become more and more evident. Our generation has grown up in an era defined by relative foreign policy failures. We’ve essentially known nothing except perpetual conflict in the Middle East, our inability to contain the economic and military rise of China and the subsequent genesis of what looks likely to be a new Cold War. But just prior to the turn of the century was a period hallmarked by successful American diplomacy, consisting of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent reunification of Germany, and the termination and prevention of genocides in Bosnia and Kosovo, respectively.
As is common with our polarized society, the subject of national confidence bisects a startling percentage of the population into two relatively distinct groups. First are those whose nationalistic worship of America embrace it as an inerrant, infallible, and divinely-endorsed entity that holds an inherently superior position over the rest of the globe. On the other side of the aisle is an increasingly large demographic of those who view America as a nation historically characterized by radical oppression, imperialism, and exploitation—one that should never have existed and has been nothing but detrimental to human flourishing. I would suggest that, if relied upon exclusively, both approaches are dangerously flawed and potentially disastrous for the future of our nation.
The first mindset is one I am deeply familiar with—a form of hijacked, excessive, and arrogant patriotism that inevitably gives way to borderline jingoism. Frequently evident in areas of cultural homogeneity and relative isolation, this approach is often characterized by an unwavering devotion to the national cause, a general absence of critical analysis, and a refusal to levy criticism of any kind against the entity of America and the values she epitomizes—what some may call “The American Way”. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that this mindset is often exacerbated by intellectual rigidity, stubborn loyalty, or simply a lack of historical awareness. This approach manifests itself in foreign policy as an approach that views America as infused with a kind of savior complex—a nation commissioned by the Lord to rescue the world from its toil and whose intentions are exclusively pure and moral. Aside from the obviously problematic theological implications, the outcome of this mindset is generally arrogant, ignorant, and detrimental to exterior perspectives of our society. As will be examined in the next section, the illusion of American perfection is far from the truth.
The second approach is one of deep-rooted cynicism derived from legitimate grievances. As information has become more widely available and our generation has become indoctrinated with a perceived responsibility to engage in activism, many have embarked on a crusade to expose American inadequacy and accentuate her failings. For instance, some may validly point to the Vietnam War, the invasion and subsequently failed reconstruction of Iraq, and the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan as more recent examples of the failures and limitations of an overly interventionist foreign policy. This brings to the table a pill, at least for some, that is hard-to-swallow: America is hilariously far from perfect.
As critics of traditional American exceptionalism point out, the moral failings of slavery, Western expansionism, colonialism, past systemic racism, occasionally over-zealous foreign policy, and much more have all but irreparably tattered our legacy. Appropriately, this warrants confrontation. Pretending our nation has been hallmarked by nothing but righteousness and inclusion is dangerously ignorant and insensitive to those who have experienced massive injustices throughout American history. As such, humility must be an integral part of our approach. However, obsessively dwelling on the sins of our past and allowing them to exclusively define our national identity is a frivolous exercise in intellectual contempt. It reflects an intrinsically biased and ignorant approach to the critical analysis of America’s historical impact. As Nicole Bibbins Sedaca remarked during her lecture at the Thanksgiving panel recently held on campus, “The founding principles of this nation are no less desirable because of our past failure to live into them.” As Sedaca also emphasized, our founding principles remain exceptional in nature. This isn’t in any way a detraction from the significance of those missteps but is merely a prioritization of them in our evaluation. Our reminiscent tendencies cannot be selective.
I believe an important middle ground must be reached. One that is only possible through clarification of what exactly constitutes the malleable concept of American exceptionalism. Perhaps even redefining it.
The commonly asserted definition of this concept, which has been largely responsible for the growing hostility towards it, is one of American superiority and righteousness. To me, American exceptionalism is the recognition and appreciation of our past successes, utilizing the motivation of these to pursue future ones. But unfortunately, concurring with our inherent infatuation with negativity, the magnification of America’s successes has failed to accompany the magnification of its failures.
At a glance, America was the pioneer of modern democratic government and the founder of the liberal international order—a geopolitical force that has arguably constituted the most influential catalyst for global betterment in human history, waging ideological warfare against authoritarianism and promoting representative government and human rights. The past 70 years have seen the largest increase in democratically-governed nations as well as the most drastic improvement in global living conditions and poverty alleviation, largely thanks to the efforts of the United States. No longer the sole hegemon following the recent rise of China, the survival of the United States has and will remain essential to preserving global stability by countering the geopolitical influence of authoritarian regimes who seek to undermine these values. These ideas can be condensed down into the simple belief that the net result of America’s existence has been positive. Our reminiscent tendencies cannot be selective.
The concept of American exceptionalism needs to be revived, but not the dangerous belief that distinctly American cultural attributes are inherently superior and desirable on the global scale—rather than the United States as a nation is uniquely positioned to continue being the prominent promoter of ideals most conducive to human flourishing—largely ones that it introduced on the global stage, such as representative government and basically-defined human rights, where applicable. Our sins must be acknowledged and remembered, but fundamentally denying America’s positive influence on the development of our world and promoting overly-cynical perspectives on our failures as the defining attribute of our national identity will continue leading to a lethally divided nation—the integrity of which I fear may not endure the next major trial. As former National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan writes in an article for The Atlantic Magazine,
“In the wrong hands, American exceptionalism can be a dangerous idea. It can justify too much. It can admit too little. It can offend and alienate. But for proponents of an engaged and effective foreign policy, failure to own and define the idea—especially when malevolent forces are seeking to own and define so many national ideas—is even more dangerous.”
American exceptionalism has constituted the driving force behind our pursuit of excellence. It is a concept that, when viewed and pursued in the right context, is essential to our national identity. Frivolously jettisoning it would likely result in an irrecoverable downward spiral of hopelessness and despair. Void of foundational hope, everything that has epitomized the existence of America—her crippling failures, monumental successes, and resounding influence on humanity as a whole—will fade into oblivion.
America is worth our effort.
“I have seen America in contrast with many nations and races. My profession took me into many foreign lands under many kinds of government. I have worked with their great spiritual leaders and their great statesmen. I have worked in governments of free men, of tyrannies, of Socialists, and of Communists. I have met with princes, kings, despots, and desperadoes. I have seen the squalor of Asia, the frozen class barriers of Europe. And I was not a tourist. I was associated in their working lives and problems. I had to deal with their governments. And outstanding everywhere to these great masses of people there was a hallowed word—America. To them, it was the hope of the world.” – Herbert Hoover
Sullivan, Jake. “What Donald Trump and Dick Cheney Got Wrong about America.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 13 Dec. 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/01/yes-america-can-still-lead-the-wo rld/576427/.