Epicurus and American Exceptionalism

Contrary to the insinuations of the American Right, most US liberals are not anti-patriotic, or even unpatriotic. The vast majority are proud Americans. Where most sensible people draw the line is between American patriotism- a simple affinity with the American state and its people- and American Exceptionalism, or the belief that America is uniquely important amongst the nations. There are several good reasons to reject the Exceptionalism mindset:

The first is the lack of evidence to support any such notion. America has achieved an awful lot, even given its size. A disproportionate number of inventors, scientists, and people working in the creative industries are American. The country has the world’s largest economy and military. Its contributions to every aspect of human endeavour are legion. But it has also committed some ruinous transgressions. America’s original sin- slavery- still leaves a mark on the country in the form of seemingly intractable racial divisions. Despite the wishes of the Founding Fathers, it has pursued a foreign policy of military adventurism, lured by the false god of imperial ambition. None of this is to suggest that America is uniquely evil; I disagree with a particular sort of leftist that deems the West to be far more immoral than the rest of the world. Equally, anyone who knows American history cannot claim that the country is especially benign.

The notion of Exceptionalism is problematic when applied to any country, not just America. It leads to a jingoistic mindset, in which a nation comes to believe that the normal rules of human decency and respect no longer apply to them. Exceptionalism is particular harmful when given a religious justification. It’s very difficult to argue that America should abandon its state of overreach abroad, when so many believe God made America special, and therefore any American influence abroad must be beneficial. A similar phenomenon currently grips Russia; Orthodox priests bless fighter jets that go off to bomb Syria. The logical end result of Exceptionalism is perpetual war in the name of conquest and national glory.

Exceptionalism is also economically harmful. Protectionism has long been justified on the basis that American made goods and food are somehow inherently superior. Similarly, for centuries China refused to trade with the world because of the belief that the Chinese made the best of everything. But economic isolationism leads to ruin. It was free trade Britain, not protectionist China that dominated the industrialised world for so long, despite the former’s inferior population size and natural resources.

Exceptionalism can lead to some extreme cases of wilful ignorance. If your country is uniquely wonderful, then why learn about the rest of the world? Many parts of America are plagued by a stifling insularity, which will only worsen the country’s standing in the global education league tables as knowledge of the world becomes ever more important in a globalised and multicultural society. This lack of broad knowledge can be very off-putting to newcomers, making it harder for America to attract the world’s most talented people.

Going forward, Democrats need to do far more to challenge any notion of an exceptional America. Doing so can often appear unpatriotic, particularly in rural toss-up seats. But difficult as it may seem, the holistic repudiation of American Exceptionalism is a crucial part of changing Republican dominance in so-called ‘flyover country.’ Democrats can longer pretend to be Republican-lite on values issues. Building a lasting and sustainable electoral coalition means transforming the public’s preconceptions of what being a loyal and patriotic citizen involves. If Americans can take pride in their country, while acknowledging that it can be just as flawed as anyone else, then a more inclusive and humane patriotism can emerge.

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