American exceptionalism

From possibility to entitlement

The downside of American exceptionalism

by Margot Melcon

The idea of America is a powerful thing. It has lured people from all over the world since before America had a name. We are a land of freedom and a place where anything is possible – an idea that continues to be a defining characteristic of this country.

American exceptionalism is the belief that we are special because we’ve accepted democracy and personal liberty as guiding principles for how we form society and live in it. Throughout America’s brief history, people have arrived on its shores with hope, optimism and a feeling of possibility. Our mythology celebrates reinvention, betterment through hard work and pulling up by ones own bootstraps, all of which are made possible by virtue of being in this place.

By the mid-1800s, this young country was going through extraordinary changes and growing pains. Differences arose that led to a civil war and questions about how we’d define ourselves as a nation, even as the land expanded away from the original eastern settlements. While the fabric of our political ideals threatened to shred, philosophical idealism never wavered.

The western expansion of America that came out of the Louisiana Purchase, explorations of Lewis and Clark and War of 1812 helped define the outer edges of what we thought of as “our land.” This growth gave birth to the term Manifest Destiny. These two words lifted American exceptionalism from the notion of opportunity to one of obligation. As a people, we were fated to spread our better way of life far and wide.

The westward movement was the physical manifestation of the idea of American exceptionalism. It’s what made the government guarantee land to those willing to make the hard trek, and what made thousands of people leave their homes to reinvent themselves as settlers in an unknown territory full of promise (similar to those who came to America in the first place). Freedom, individualism and happiness are part of the doctrine of America, and there was nothing that embodied those ideals more than setting out, staking a claim and believing that sheer force of will, hard work and desire would be enough to ensure success.

American exceptionalism has continued to evolve but not for the better. What at first was the idea that it was possible to be whomever you choose (worship how you chose, escape an oppressive class system) transformed into the idea that you would have anything you wanted, the promise that your life would unquestionably be better than your parents lives, that your only limitations were the ones you put on yourself.

In the last 150 years, the idea of possibility has become something closer to entitlement, that one should attain whatever they want, that it is somehow unfair for others to have what you long for. Along the way, the idea of working hard for betterment has fallen away in favor of instant gratification and quick rewards. Since there is no longer a physical frontier to claim, the gaze has shifted to an economic frontier, measured not in square miles but in square footage and luxury items.

Americans are offered ways to attain measures of success without having to work for them. The sense of individualism that once drove people to work hard and rely on their own promise has changed. Now phrases like, “I deserve this,” are more common. And as we saw in the years leading up to the recession of 2008, easy credit and quick fixes led a lot of people to extend far beyond their means, borrow more than they could afford, and buy houses that were bigger than they needed. They felt that at some point down the road they would be able to afford everything they felt they deserved.

The American philosophy of exceptionalism has evolved to an unhealthy place. What once made this country unique and special, even better, has taken a turn. The optimism that once drove our successes is now contributing to individual failures and massive, nationwide collapses. These days, everything is possible, including a disastrous economic downturn that we are only now starting to return from. Perhaps a return to a different definition of opportunity would benefit us all.

Primary Sources

It is odd to watch with what feverish ardor Americans pursue prosperity, ever tormented by the shadowy suspicion that they may not have chosen the shortest route to get it. They cleave to the things of this world as if assured that they will never die, and yet rush to snatch any that comes within their reach, as if they had expected to stop living before they had relished them.

– Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

For Further Consideration

1. Do you buy into the idea that Americans are exceptional or extraordinary? Is exceptionalism part of our history or does it continue today? Why or why not?

2. How did the recent financial crisis affect you personally? What about people you know?

3. Is money a taboo subject in our society? Who do you talk with about money and finances? Why them?

4. Does your family tell stories about who they are and where they came from? How have those stories impacted your life and how you see yourself?