There is a distinct American Mythos that includes many folklore elements associated with America’s divine calling by G-d to be the “Shining City on the Hill” taken from Mathew 5:14. It was John Winthrop’s address to the Puritan settlers who, in a sermon, charged them to become that Shining City on the Hill and fulfill the destiny that G-d had charged them with as His Chosen People.
The Puritans were unique, in as much as, they didn’t fully embrace Calvin’s Principles of Predestination or the less stringent Principle of Devine Providence, but chose something between. However, the Puritan theological position clearly became the foundation for the myth of American Exceptionalism.
Almost from the founding of the nation; the idea of American Exceptionalism has been the basis for American continental expansionism, American domestic and foreign policy, and how Americans view themselves in relation to others. The concept and myth of Manifest Destiny, a conceptual outgrowth of American Exceptionalism, was openly promoted for the grab of territory, subdue the Native Americans and the development of resources.
From the earliest days, America was able to concentrate on internal development due to its geographic location; bordered by two massive bodies of water, one on the east coast and one on the west. This effectively isolated the nation from ‘old world’ influences allowing for self-direction in relative isolation and without interference. Part of the isolated development was based on a need to populate the emerging nation and provide the human resources for agricultural development and the industrial revolution.
Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term American Exceptionalism in 1831 in his work, Democracy in America. He used the expression to describe the uniqueness of Americans and the American experience.
De Tocqueville’s work was written at a time when America’s promise seemed unfettered, unlimited and was unburdened by millennia of history dominated by the landed aristocratic classes of the old world. For the first time since the Roman Republic, the American Republic presented an opportunity for human self-fulfillment. The application of personal persistence and hard work held the promise of success and prosperity. But, reality differed radically from the carefully constructed myth.
New immigrants quickly found that the streets were not paved with gold and the real America presented as many challenges as opportunities. Each new group of immigrants faced the challenge of prejudices from the previous groups that had already settled and established themselves. After the Civil War, a new group entered into the matrix, the former slaves who were feared would take the jobs at the bottom, eliminating opportunities for the new immigrants. However, until well after the close of the 19th century; America primarily remained focused inwardly, but ambitions were growing on becoming a global colonial power, becoming a driving force.
Although our true purposes were to build a colonial empire with a mighty navy to protect U.S. business interests; it was described to the public as taking American republican democracy and capitalism to the rest of world in the name of peace and prosperity. We were going to rescue the downtrodden, overthrow corruption and rise up the masses to enjoy the benefits of Americanism.
This belief became so engrained into the American belief system that by the time of President Woodrow Wilson, we believed ourselves to be the Shining City on the Hill that would lead the rest of the world out of the morass of old world politics, the end to war, freeing people from undemocratic principles and establish global justice for all. By the time of the Second World War, the dreams of Wilson and others had never been realized. The second half of the 20th century was to become truly the American Century.
The close of the Second World War found the U.S. to be the dominate power with its production capacity fully developed and undamaged. For 15 years we celebrated an accumulation of wealth and power as the rest of the world rebuilt out of the ashes of the most destructive war in history. The myth of American Exceptionalism gained strength and support based on being the only clear alternative to global, soviet style communism. The Cold War mentality and realities became the foundation to maintain American Exceptionalism for the next half century. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the conceptual foundation supporting American Exceptionalism began to form cracks. Without the cover of “fighting communism;" a new light began to illuminate American domestic and foreign policy, and it wasn’t all that pretty and magnanimous.
The end of the 20th century and the opening of the 21st century places America in a new world order. Other nations have begun to reach their full potential and they have found they don’t need the U.S. and are willing to push on with or without us. The only added value that we might currently offer is as a global military power; our roll has changed from developer to protector and maintainer. We have yet to fully embrace our new role as a nation amongst nations. American Exceptionalism is no longer a supportable myth. For those of us who have traveled extensively and resided outside our borders; we know that all nations, to one extent or another, are all exceptional. America doesn’t hold the keys to the kingdom any longer.
The myth of American Exceptionalism can no longer be used effectively to justify America’s prominence as the lead nation. We are faced with the reality that we must honestly compete in the new global order. “Gunboat Diplomacy” will only prove to be less effective over time and has already proven to be a liability. At present, our defense spending exceeds that of all other first tier nations combined. Whereas, we are spending each year around 17 percent of our GDP to maintain our military might; the other nations we are competing with are spending their national treasure in the development of their nation’s infrastructure, education and technology. With our military spending just to maintain that which was, is seriously handicapping our ability to compete and we are left with only one tool; the threat of force.
The repeated political posturing in support of the “America’s Mission” to bring democracy and free trade capitalism to the rest of the world has lost its effectiveness and meaning. The time has come to dial back the rhetoric and to begin actions that will legitimately return America to a place of honor. We must address our serious domestic shortcomings. We must rededicate ourselves to policy and actions that will lift up all of our citizens and make way for a brighter future. Although American Exceptionalism continues to be a myth, we can make the myth into a reality by restructuring and redirecting our energies. The first step would be to cut military spending by 20 percent per year until we reach a level of 50 percent of what we are currently spending. Leading by example is the only means to communicate the America Message.