Is America an exceptional nation? Or have we lost our lustre?

Exceptionalism has become a big deal in some political circles, most notably on the right. 

What is exceptionalism? In a nutshell, it is the belief that one nation stands apart from others because of its unique founding and innate mission, or because it is a better nation. 

Some have used exceptionalism to say that ordinary rules do not apply to the behavior of an exceptional state. Thus, a “chosen” nation may unilaterally invade another country.

This argument over exceptionalism mainly has to do with foreign policy. But the mere notion that America is somehow better than other nations begs examination. An obvious question would be: Do Americans feel exceptional in the current economy and with two wars whose duration exceeds that of World War II and has cost as much as that global struggle? New York Times writer Frank Rich’s Dec. 26  column, “Who killed the Disneyland dream?” asks “How many middle-class Americans now believe that the sky is the limit if they work hard enough? How many trust capitalism to give them a fair shake?” 

The problem with the belief that America is somehow special is that on so many levels, we cannot be said to be superior. Nor do we define a global standard. For instance, if you travel to Asia, you quickly realize that America lags technologically. Also in Asia, but also in Europe, you would realize that America’s rail transportation (for passengers or freight) is to be pitied, not envied. How about education? 

The only measure by which America can be said to be exceptional is its military. That is our trump card, and it has enabled our reckless involvement in foreign adventures. And those adventures have bled the nation financially.

For some of these reasons, the debate over exceptionalism is embarrassing. While it is essential for America to seek out moral high ground in the context of world public opinion, nationhood also involves taking care of one’s own. We might have an impressive military, but our domestic needs are gravely wanting.