Defining what makes America exceptional (or not)

The Washington Post writes about a public debates between liberals and conservatives over the idea of “American exceptionalism.” It appears that some conservatives have attacked President Obama for allegedly not believing strongly enough in this idea.

But critical to this discussion is actually delineating exactly what might make America exceptional. Here are the possibilities suggested by this article:

“The nation’s ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire,” wrote the late political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the leading scholars of the subject…

The proposition of American exceptionalism, which goes at least as far back as the writing of French aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, asserts that this country has a unique character.

It is also rooted in religious belief. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: “God has granted America a special role in human history.”

These are the sorts of traits that one can commonly hear expressed: American is about liberty and freedom, a high level of religious belief and religiously motivated action (as least compared to other industrialized nations), individualism, a laissez faire approach to markets (and life), and reliance on the ideas of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

A couple of thoughts:

1. These discussions often seem rooted in historical qualities which still have some influence today. But how would people add to this list from a more modern era? Some possible character traits to include: pragmatic, middle-class, consumeristic, materialistic, patriotic, etc.

2. What would others around the world think about this list of traits? Is America really seen as exceptional because of the Constitution? Are the five traits listed by Lipset ones that other countries would desire for themselves? Do other nations like the talk of “American exceptionalism”? Do most nations have their own versions of “national exceptionalism” or is this sort of thinking frowned upon?

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