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Episode
189

American Exceptionalism

Aug 31, 2021
Politics
-
22
minutes
USA
US politics
War
Philosophy
Politics

The United States has a higher proportion of citizens who believe that they live in the best country in the world than anywhere else.

In this episode we'll explore the reasons why Americans are more likely to believe this, to be patriots, and to believe that their country is truly "exceptional".

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about American Exceptionalism, the idea that the United States of America is fundamentally different, it’s exceptional, making it the best country in the world.

[00:00:39] I wanted to explore this idea shortly after July 4th, Independence Day, which is a time that Americans celebrate independence from Great Britain, and rejoice at how wonderful their country is.

[00:00:54] In this episode we are not going to try to say that the US either is or isn’t the greatest country in the world, but rather explore some of the reasons, both historically and now, why many Americans believe it is.

[00:01:11] As you can probably tell from my accent, I am not an American, I’m from the UK. 

[00:01:17] As we both know, and especially if you’ve listened to the episode on The American Revolution, the United States broke away from Great Britain, creating what many Americans would say was a better, more equal, more free country, taking what was good from Great Britain, from the old world, and leaving everything that was bad.

[00:01:42] You might say the fact I’m from the UK makes me a biased, an unfair, judge of the subject. 

[00:01:50] But I would argue the opposite, and say that it probably takes an outsider to have as objective a view as possible. 

[00:01:59] And that the subject is probably best explored from a non-American perspective.

[00:02:06] So, in this episode we’ll explore four main ideas. 

[00:02:11] Firstly, we’ll start with some statistics and facts about American exceptionalism, and cover the history of the term.

[00:02:19] Secondly, we’ll look at the history of why many people in America have historically believed that their country is special.

[00:02:29] Thirdly, we’ll try to evaluate some of these through as clear or objective a lens as possible.

[00:02:37] And finally, we’ll close with some thoughts on what the future of American exceptionalism might look like.

[00:02:45] This is evidently a large and complicated subject. 

[00:02:48] So, let’s get started.

[00:02:52] For those of us who have spent much time with Americans, you have probably noticed a theme, and that is that life outside the United States is often compared to its US equivalent

[00:03:07] The United States of America is how the world should be, it’s a guiding example, and everywhere else is compared to it.

[00:03:16] Of course, there are plenty of exceptions, and people from other countries are also guilty of this, but it is a tendency that, in my experience at least, is most commonly found in Americans. 

[00:03:29] And moving away from the slightly tenuous example of our own life experience, the statistics do suggest that there is a strong belief in America that it is either the best, or one of the best countries in the world.

[00:03:47] Surveys taken over the past 10 years or so have consistently shown that between 85-90% of Americans believe it’s either the best, or one of the best countries in the world.

[00:04:01] As you might expect, the numbers are different for different political and demographic groups.

[00:04:08] 41% of Republicans say the US is the absolute best country in the world, while 19% of Democrats do.

[00:04:18] 44% of those aged 65 and over do, while only 12% of those under 30 do.

[00:04:27] 30% of white Americans say it’s the greatest country on Earth, while only 26% of Hispanics do. 

[00:04:35] And there is an inverse relationship between education and how likely you are to think that the US is the best country in the world - only 20% of those with a postgraduate degree believe it is, while 33% of those with just a high school degree do.

[00:04:56] To sum up, it is undeniable that, when compared to any other country, as we'll see in a minute, the US always comes first in one category: the percentage of citizens who believe that they live in the best country in the world.

[00:05:13] Now, the question we will explore today is...why?

[00:05:18] If you read articles written by patriotic Americans, or indeed ask many Americans, they will probably mention a combination of things.

[00:05:29] That the United States is a country founded by people with a shared belief in freedom, that it has a modern political system of checks and balances, that it has embraced modern capitalism, that it is embracing of immigrants, it is so large that you have everything from beaches to mountains, deserts to forests, that it is the home of free speech, and the result of all of this is that it’s the best place to start a business, that American salaries are higher, and that the quality of life is better than anywhere else in the world.

[00:06:07] They will no doubt admit that the country isn’t perfect, but that there is no other country that comes close, that America is, as the term goes, exceptional.

[00:06:19] Now, let’s just define this word quickly, “exceptional”.

[00:06:23] It’s usually used to mean very good, amazing, but that’s not what it actually means. 

[00:06:31] It means unusual, not typical.

[00:06:34] And this is the idea of American Exceptionalism, that there is something unusual and unique about the country, that when you put all of the factors I just mentioned earlier together, you have this magical mix, and you have created a country with a series of advantages, which is why America is the greatest country in the world.

[00:06:59] This exceptionalism, this idea that America is somehow different and superior, has led to the belief firstly that other countries should want to be like it.

[00:07:12] Throughout American history, presidents and politicians have continuously reiterated this message.

[00:07:19] Thomas Jefferson called the country an “empire of liberty”, Ronald Reagan called it a "shining city on a hill”, Abraham Lincoln talked about the "last best hope of Earth”, George Bush Senior called it the "leader of the free world”, and Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, referred to it as an "indispensable nation”.

[00:07:47] The second aspect of this exceptionalism is that, because the US is different, it can behave differently, and different rules apply to it. 

[00:08:00] From its long history of intervening in the political systems of other countries to fighting foreign wars to defend American values, there is an American belief that it doesn’t need to behave in the same way as other countries precisely because it isn’t like other countries.

[00:08:21] While the concept of “American Exceptionalism” is something that is quintessentially American, both the coining of the term and the popularising of the term come from people who are certainly not American.

[00:08:37] It was first used by the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, after he traveled there in 1831. 

[00:08:46] When he used the term, he was certainly referring to how America was different from European countries. 

[00:08:54] It was a republic, it had a different political system, it rejected aristocratic hierarchy, it put individual freedom above equality between men, which was a novel idea for a Frenchman, and the fact that US citizenship was based on beliefs and shared ideals, rather than who your parents were. 

[00:09:17] And the US was, of course, very different to Europe of the early 19th century, in that respect it certainly was exceptional.

[00:09:27] Although de Tocqueville was the first person to use this phrase, it was actually popularised by someone you really wouldn’t expect: Josef Stalin.

[00:09:38] Now, he wasn’t using the phrase to describe how amazing America was, but was using it in the context of the fact that there was nothing “exceptional” about America that would mean that it could resist socialism.

[00:09:55] In that, he was wrong of course, at least at the time, but he did help bring back the phrase into popular usage.

[00:10:04] And this idea was embraced by America, and by Americans.

[00:10:09] The level of patriotism in America can seem unusual especially for many non-Americans. 

[00:10:18] You may remember, on July 4th 2021, Independence Day this year, Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook posted a video of himself on a surfboard with an American flag, set to the music of Take Me Home, Country Roads. 

[00:10:36] You might say that this was a publicity stunt, but it’s hard to think of anything more American than this.

[00:10:43] Now, of course there was some domestic ridicule, some people laughing at it within America, but it’s hard to imagine many other countries where this would be something a corporate leader would ever do.

[00:10:58] Almost the worst insult that can be hurled at an American politician is that they aren’t a “patriot”, and anything but a deep love and belief in American values as superior is considered to be something to be sceptical about, especially within the Republican party.

[00:11:16] This is certainly extraordinary, exceptional even, given the high levels of immigration to the country - this idea that American ideals are capable of inspiring loyalty almost immediately, and as soon as one becomes an American citizen these levels of patriotism shoot up.

[00:11:38] Contrast this for a minute with some European countries.

[00:11:42] Now, you will of course be a better judge of how patriotic you feel people in your country to be, but from a recent survey only 13% of British people said their country was the best in the world, 5% of French people, 11% of people from Finland, 13% of people from Denmark, and 5% of Germans said the same.

[00:12:07] And some of these countries score far higher than the United States in many important measures. 

[00:12:15] Finland, for example, is considered to have one of the best healthcare systems in the world, Denmark is considered to have one of the best systems of social care in the world, and France is always up there on the list of countries that most people want to move to.

[00:12:31] Of course, something that is important for one person might be unimportant for another. 

[00:12:36] I imagine that the average resident of Texas would not be so happy to live in a country where guns were illegal, but the average Dutch citizen probably isn’t too bothered about not being able to buy a machine gun.

[00:12:51] What is most interesting about this to me is that this belief in the exceptionalism of America, and the subsequent patriotism, is so much higher than in other countries.

[00:13:03] There are, of course, many advantages to life in the United States, and quality of life by almost any measure will be higher for the average person born in the US than the average person in the world.

[00:13:17] America has for decades been the world leader in science and technology, it has the best universities, the best hospitals, the most successful companies in the world, people all over the world use products built by American companies.

[00:13:33] And it is the largest economy in the world, there are definitely a lot of amazing things that the United States has given the world, and a lot of great advantages to life in America.

[00:13:45] But, if America really was so exceptional, if it still had these incredible unique qualities, and if 8 times more Americans than Germans say that they live in the best country in the world, should it not be head and shoulders above every other country in almost every single measure?

[00:14:07] The US doesn’t have the highest income per capita in the world, it is rarely number one when it comes to things like average education levels or access to healthcare. It might have the highest quality services for those that can afford it, but these are only accessible to a minority of Americans.

[00:14:27] And you have probably heard statistics such as the fact that the United States has 4.4% of the world’s population but 22% of the world’s prison population, or that half a million Americans go bankrupt every year because of healthcare costs.

[00:14:46] Obviously, these aren’t all unique problems to America, every country has its own issues, but the point is, if we are in agreement that it’s hard to say that the US is objectively the best country to live in the world, and should be an example to the world of how a country should be, why do such a large proportion of Americans believe it deserves this exceptional status?

[00:15:12] Well, firstly there is a strong cultural myth of this exceptionalism. 

[00:15:17] If you have been brought up in a country where a large proportion of people believe they live in the best country in the world, then you are more likely to take that view yourself. 

[00:15:28] Secondly, it’s built into the education system. 

[00:15:31] Millions of American schoolchildren every day recite what’s called The Pledge of Allegiance

[00:15:38] They say "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

[00:15:51] Obviously, they aren’t all taking this seriously every time they do it, but it is a serious affair. 

[00:15:58] Indeed, even in 2019 a high school student in Florida was arrested for not taking part in the pledge. He was later released without charge, because it’s not actually a criminal act to not take part, but it gives you an idea of how seriously it is taken.

[00:16:19] This expectation of deep respect that is required towards the flag, and the nation, is something that continues well into adulthood. 

[00:16:29] You will no doubt have been aware of the uproar against the sports players who knelt down during the national anthem in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, with the former President Donald Trump calling for them to be banned, to be kicked off the pitch for disrespecting the national anthem.

[00:16:51] Thirdly, there is the fact that, compared to many other people, Americans travel less outside their country.

[00:16:58] The United States is obviously a very large country, it’s practically its own continent, international travel is expensive, and there is a huge amount of great travelling you can do without ever going abroad. 

[00:17:11] Indeed, a recent survey suggested that 63% of Americans had never left the country and 50% don’t even have a passport.

[00:17:21] If you have never experienced life in another country, and your experience of other countries is through your often very patriotic cable news channels with limited global news, you might think it’s completely understandable that you would think that you live in the best country on Earth.

[00:17:41] And our fourth reason, which isn’t the case for every citizen, is to do with religion. 

[00:17:48] If you have listened to the episode on Mormonism, you’ll remember that in Mormonism America has a special place in the religion. And even in more mainstream American Christianity, there is a common theme that God has some special role for America.

[00:18:06] Even Ronald Reagan once said that there was a divine plan for America.

[00:18:13] Of course, if you think that your country has a special purpose, given to it by God, then this almost by default makes it special, and exceptional. 

[00:18:25] The United States of America is most certainly an incredible country, and the world has a huge amount to be thankful to it for, that is undeniable.

[00:18:35] It’s also undeniable that its effects on the world have not always been positive - from its foreign policy disasters through to its poor environmental record, the list of negative exceptionalism, one could say, is long and ongoing.

[00:18:52] And in recent years this idea of American Exceptionalism has been challenged like never before from within America.

[00:19:01] Whether it’s the questioning of the American model of capitalism by many on the left, or even the move away from intervention in foreign wars during the Trump presidency, there has been an increasing amount of questioning of whether the United States really is exceptional, whether the country should act as the world’s policeman, and whether it is so superior that other countries should model themselves on it.

[00:19:28] But, despite this criticism, the idea of American Exceptionalism is one that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. 

[00:19:37] The sense of patriotism in the US, at least in terms of numbers of people who consider themselves “patriots”, has really not changed much over the past few decades.

[00:19:49] And certainly under the Biden administration, at least before the recent disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, it looks, or at least it looked like there was going to be a renewed focus it looks like there will be a renewed focus on the US’s role as a global leader, and an example to other countries of what can be achieved if you embrace American values.

[00:20:05] To conclude, there is certainly something interesting and admirable about American confidence, both in themselves and in the superiority and exceptionalism of their country. 

[00:20:18] Americans are some of the most confident people in the world, with big hopes and dreams, big ambitions, and a true sense of self-belief.

[00:20:28] A sense that, perhaps, only comes from believing you live in the most exceptional country in the world.

[00:20:39] OK then, that is it for today's episode on American Exceptionalism, an exploration of the idea that the US is special, extraordinary, and the best country in the world.

[00:20:54] I always say that I’d love to know what you thought of this episode, but it is particularly true in this case. 

[00:21:00] We have only just scratched the surface here, and it’s a discussion that could go on for hours.

[00:21:07] Why do you think that Americans have this sense of national superiority and exceptionalism? 

[00:21:13] What did you agree or disagree with?

[00:21:16] What else is important that we didn’t get to in this episode?

[00:21:20] It is a really interesting subject, so let’s get this discussion started - the place for that is our community forum, over at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:21:32] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:38] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.



[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about American Exceptionalism, the idea that the United States of America is fundamentally different, it’s exceptional, making it the best country in the world.

[00:00:39] I wanted to explore this idea shortly after July 4th, Independence Day, which is a time that Americans celebrate independence from Great Britain, and rejoice at how wonderful their country is.

[00:00:54] In this episode we are not going to try to say that the US either is or isn’t the greatest country in the world, but rather explore some of the reasons, both historically and now, why many Americans believe it is.

[00:01:11] As you can probably tell from my accent, I am not an American, I’m from the UK. 

[00:01:17] As we both know, and especially if you’ve listened to the episode on The American Revolution, the United States broke away from Great Britain, creating what many Americans would say was a better, more equal, more free country, taking what was good from Great Britain, from the old world, and leaving everything that was bad.

[00:01:42] You might say the fact I’m from the UK makes me a biased, an unfair, judge of the subject. 

[00:01:50] But I would argue the opposite, and say that it probably takes an outsider to have as objective a view as possible. 

[00:01:59] And that the subject is probably best explored from a non-American perspective.

[00:02:06] So, in this episode we’ll explore four main ideas. 

[00:02:11] Firstly, we’ll start with some statistics and facts about American exceptionalism, and cover the history of the term.

[00:02:19] Secondly, we’ll look at the history of why many people in America have historically believed that their country is special.

[00:02:29] Thirdly, we’ll try to evaluate some of these through as clear or objective a lens as possible.

[00:02:37] And finally, we’ll close with some thoughts on what the future of American exceptionalism might look like.

[00:02:45] This is evidently a large and complicated subject. 

[00:02:48] So, let’s get started.

[00:02:52] For those of us who have spent much time with Americans, you have probably noticed a theme, and that is that life outside the United States is often compared to its US equivalent

[00:03:07] The United States of America is how the world should be, it’s a guiding example, and everywhere else is compared to it.

[00:03:16] Of course, there are plenty of exceptions, and people from other countries are also guilty of this, but it is a tendency that, in my experience at least, is most commonly found in Americans. 

[00:03:29] And moving away from the slightly tenuous example of our own life experience, the statistics do suggest that there is a strong belief in America that it is either the best, or one of the best countries in the world.

[00:03:47] Surveys taken over the past 10 years or so have consistently shown that between 85-90% of Americans believe it’s either the best, or one of the best countries in the world.

[00:04:01] As you might expect, the numbers are different for different political and demographic groups.

[00:04:08] 41% of Republicans say the US is the absolute best country in the world, while 19% of Democrats do.

[00:04:18] 44% of those aged 65 and over do, while only 12% of those under 30 do.

[00:04:27] 30% of white Americans say it’s the greatest country on Earth, while only 26% of Hispanics do. 

[00:04:35] And there is an inverse relationship between education and how likely you are to think that the US is the best country in the world - only 20% of those with a postgraduate degree believe it is, while 33% of those with just a high school degree do.

[00:04:56] To sum up, it is undeniable that, when compared to any other country, as we'll see in a minute, the US always comes first in one category: the percentage of citizens who believe that they live in the best country in the world.

[00:05:13] Now, the question we will explore today is...why?

[00:05:18] If you read articles written by patriotic Americans, or indeed ask many Americans, they will probably mention a combination of things.

[00:05:29] That the United States is a country founded by people with a shared belief in freedom, that it has a modern political system of checks and balances, that it has embraced modern capitalism, that it is embracing of immigrants, it is so large that you have everything from beaches to mountains, deserts to forests, that it is the home of free speech, and the result of all of this is that it’s the best place to start a business, that American salaries are higher, and that the quality of life is better than anywhere else in the world.

[00:06:07] They will no doubt admit that the country isn’t perfect, but that there is no other country that comes close, that America is, as the term goes, exceptional.

[00:06:19] Now, let’s just define this word quickly, “exceptional”.

[00:06:23] It’s usually used to mean very good, amazing, but that’s not what it actually means. 

[00:06:31] It means unusual, not typical.

[00:06:34] And this is the idea of American Exceptionalism, that there is something unusual and unique about the country, that when you put all of the factors I just mentioned earlier together, you have this magical mix, and you have created a country with a series of advantages, which is why America is the greatest country in the world.

[00:06:59] This exceptionalism, this idea that America is somehow different and superior, has led to the belief firstly that other countries should want to be like it.

[00:07:12] Throughout American history, presidents and politicians have continuously reiterated this message.

[00:07:19] Thomas Jefferson called the country an “empire of liberty”, Ronald Reagan called it a "shining city on a hill”, Abraham Lincoln talked about the "last best hope of Earth”, George Bush Senior called it the "leader of the free world”, and Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, referred to it as an "indispensable nation”.

[00:07:47] The second aspect of this exceptionalism is that, because the US is different, it can behave differently, and different rules apply to it. 

[00:08:00] From its long history of intervening in the political systems of other countries to fighting foreign wars to defend American values, there is an American belief that it doesn’t need to behave in the same way as other countries precisely because it isn’t like other countries.

[00:08:21] While the concept of “American Exceptionalism” is something that is quintessentially American, both the coining of the term and the popularising of the term come from people who are certainly not American.

[00:08:37] It was first used by the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, after he traveled there in 1831. 

[00:08:46] When he used the term, he was certainly referring to how America was different from European countries. 

[00:08:54] It was a republic, it had a different political system, it rejected aristocratic hierarchy, it put individual freedom above equality between men, which was a novel idea for a Frenchman, and the fact that US citizenship was based on beliefs and shared ideals, rather than who your parents were. 

[00:09:17] And the US was, of course, very different to Europe of the early 19th century, in that respect it certainly was exceptional.

[00:09:27] Although de Tocqueville was the first person to use this phrase, it was actually popularised by someone you really wouldn’t expect: Josef Stalin.

[00:09:38] Now, he wasn’t using the phrase to describe how amazing America was, but was using it in the context of the fact that there was nothing “exceptional” about America that would mean that it could resist socialism.

[00:09:55] In that, he was wrong of course, at least at the time, but he did help bring back the phrase into popular usage.

[00:10:04] And this idea was embraced by America, and by Americans.

[00:10:09] The level of patriotism in America can seem unusual especially for many non-Americans. 

[00:10:18] You may remember, on July 4th 2021, Independence Day this year, Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook posted a video of himself on a surfboard with an American flag, set to the music of Take Me Home, Country Roads. 

[00:10:36] You might say that this was a publicity stunt, but it’s hard to think of anything more American than this.

[00:10:43] Now, of course there was some domestic ridicule, some people laughing at it within America, but it’s hard to imagine many other countries where this would be something a corporate leader would ever do.

[00:10:58] Almost the worst insult that can be hurled at an American politician is that they aren’t a “patriot”, and anything but a deep love and belief in American values as superior is considered to be something to be sceptical about, especially within the Republican party.

[00:11:16] This is certainly extraordinary, exceptional even, given the high levels of immigration to the country - this idea that American ideals are capable of inspiring loyalty almost immediately, and as soon as one becomes an American citizen these levels of patriotism shoot up.

[00:11:38] Contrast this for a minute with some European countries.

[00:11:42] Now, you will of course be a better judge of how patriotic you feel people in your country to be, but from a recent survey only 13% of British people said their country was the best in the world, 5% of French people, 11% of people from Finland, 13% of people from Denmark, and 5% of Germans said the same.

[00:12:07] And some of these countries score far higher than the United States in many important measures. 

[00:12:15] Finland, for example, is considered to have one of the best healthcare systems in the world, Denmark is considered to have one of the best systems of social care in the world, and France is always up there on the list of countries that most people want to move to.

[00:12:31] Of course, something that is important for one person might be unimportant for another. 

[00:12:36] I imagine that the average resident of Texas would not be so happy to live in a country where guns were illegal, but the average Dutch citizen probably isn’t too bothered about not being able to buy a machine gun.

[00:12:51] What is most interesting about this to me is that this belief in the exceptionalism of America, and the subsequent patriotism, is so much higher than in other countries.

[00:13:03] There are, of course, many advantages to life in the United States, and quality of life by almost any measure will be higher for the average person born in the US than the average person in the world.

[00:13:17] America has for decades been the world leader in science and technology, it has the best universities, the best hospitals, the most successful companies in the world, people all over the world use products built by American companies.

[00:13:33] And it is the largest economy in the world, there are definitely a lot of amazing things that the United States has given the world, and a lot of great advantages to life in America.

[00:13:45] But, if America really was so exceptional, if it still had these incredible unique qualities, and if 8 times more Americans than Germans say that they live in the best country in the world, should it not be head and shoulders above every other country in almost every single measure?

[00:14:07] The US doesn’t have the highest income per capita in the world, it is rarely number one when it comes to things like average education levels or access to healthcare. It might have the highest quality services for those that can afford it, but these are only accessible to a minority of Americans.

[00:14:27] And you have probably heard statistics such as the fact that the United States has 4.4% of the world’s population but 22% of the world’s prison population, or that half a million Americans go bankrupt every year because of healthcare costs.

[00:14:46] Obviously, these aren’t all unique problems to America, every country has its own issues, but the point is, if we are in agreement that it’s hard to say that the US is objectively the best country to live in the world, and should be an example to the world of how a country should be, why do such a large proportion of Americans believe it deserves this exceptional status?

[00:15:12] Well, firstly there is a strong cultural myth of this exceptionalism. 

[00:15:17] If you have been brought up in a country where a large proportion of people believe they live in the best country in the world, then you are more likely to take that view yourself. 

[00:15:28] Secondly, it’s built into the education system. 

[00:15:31] Millions of American schoolchildren every day recite what’s called The Pledge of Allegiance

[00:15:38] They say "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

[00:15:51] Obviously, they aren’t all taking this seriously every time they do it, but it is a serious affair. 

[00:15:58] Indeed, even in 2019 a high school student in Florida was arrested for not taking part in the pledge. He was later released without charge, because it’s not actually a criminal act to not take part, but it gives you an idea of how seriously it is taken.

[00:16:19] This expectation of deep respect that is required towards the flag, and the nation, is something that continues well into adulthood. 

[00:16:29] You will no doubt have been aware of the uproar against the sports players who knelt down during the national anthem in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, with the former President Donald Trump calling for them to be banned, to be kicked off the pitch for disrespecting the national anthem.

[00:16:51] Thirdly, there is the fact that, compared to many other people, Americans travel less outside their country.

[00:16:58] The United States is obviously a very large country, it’s practically its own continent, international travel is expensive, and there is a huge amount of great travelling you can do without ever going abroad. 

[00:17:11] Indeed, a recent survey suggested that 63% of Americans had never left the country and 50% don’t even have a passport.

[00:17:21] If you have never experienced life in another country, and your experience of other countries is through your often very patriotic cable news channels with limited global news, you might think it’s completely understandable that you would think that you live in the best country on Earth.

[00:17:41] And our fourth reason, which isn’t the case for every citizen, is to do with religion. 

[00:17:48] If you have listened to the episode on Mormonism, you’ll remember that in Mormonism America has a special place in the religion. And even in more mainstream American Christianity, there is a common theme that God has some special role for America.

[00:18:06] Even Ronald Reagan once said that there was a divine plan for America.

[00:18:13] Of course, if you think that your country has a special purpose, given to it by God, then this almost by default makes it special, and exceptional. 

[00:18:25] The United States of America is most certainly an incredible country, and the world has a huge amount to be thankful to it for, that is undeniable.

[00:18:35] It’s also undeniable that its effects on the world have not always been positive - from its foreign policy disasters through to its poor environmental record, the list of negative exceptionalism, one could say, is long and ongoing.

[00:18:52] And in recent years this idea of American Exceptionalism has been challenged like never before from within America.

[00:19:01] Whether it’s the questioning of the American model of capitalism by many on the left, or even the move away from intervention in foreign wars during the Trump presidency, there has been an increasing amount of questioning of whether the United States really is exceptional, whether the country should act as the world’s policeman, and whether it is so superior that other countries should model themselves on it.

[00:19:28] But, despite this criticism, the idea of American Exceptionalism is one that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. 

[00:19:37] The sense of patriotism in the US, at least in terms of numbers of people who consider themselves “patriots”, has really not changed much over the past few decades.

[00:19:49] And certainly under the Biden administration, at least before the recent disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, it looks, or at least it looked like there was going to be a renewed focus it looks like there will be a renewed focus on the US’s role as a global leader, and an example to other countries of what can be achieved if you embrace American values.

[00:20:05] To conclude, there is certainly something interesting and admirable about American confidence, both in themselves and in the superiority and exceptionalism of their country. 

[00:20:18] Americans are some of the most confident people in the world, with big hopes and dreams, big ambitions, and a true sense of self-belief.

[00:20:28] A sense that, perhaps, only comes from believing you live in the most exceptional country in the world.

[00:20:39] OK then, that is it for today's episode on American Exceptionalism, an exploration of the idea that the US is special, extraordinary, and the best country in the world.

[00:20:54] I always say that I’d love to know what you thought of this episode, but it is particularly true in this case. 

[00:21:00] We have only just scratched the surface here, and it’s a discussion that could go on for hours.

[00:21:07] Why do you think that Americans have this sense of national superiority and exceptionalism? 

[00:21:13] What did you agree or disagree with?

[00:21:16] What else is important that we didn’t get to in this episode?

[00:21:20] It is a really interesting subject, so let’s get this discussion started - the place for that is our community forum, over at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:21:32] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:38] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.



[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about American Exceptionalism, the idea that the United States of America is fundamentally different, it’s exceptional, making it the best country in the world.

[00:00:39] I wanted to explore this idea shortly after July 4th, Independence Day, which is a time that Americans celebrate independence from Great Britain, and rejoice at how wonderful their country is.

[00:00:54] In this episode we are not going to try to say that the US either is or isn’t the greatest country in the world, but rather explore some of the reasons, both historically and now, why many Americans believe it is.

[00:01:11] As you can probably tell from my accent, I am not an American, I’m from the UK. 

[00:01:17] As we both know, and especially if you’ve listened to the episode on The American Revolution, the United States broke away from Great Britain, creating what many Americans would say was a better, more equal, more free country, taking what was good from Great Britain, from the old world, and leaving everything that was bad.

[00:01:42] You might say the fact I’m from the UK makes me a biased, an unfair, judge of the subject. 

[00:01:50] But I would argue the opposite, and say that it probably takes an outsider to have as objective a view as possible. 

[00:01:59] And that the subject is probably best explored from a non-American perspective.

[00:02:06] So, in this episode we’ll explore four main ideas. 

[00:02:11] Firstly, we’ll start with some statistics and facts about American exceptionalism, and cover the history of the term.

[00:02:19] Secondly, we’ll look at the history of why many people in America have historically believed that their country is special.

[00:02:29] Thirdly, we’ll try to evaluate some of these through as clear or objective a lens as possible.

[00:02:37] And finally, we’ll close with some thoughts on what the future of American exceptionalism might look like.

[00:02:45] This is evidently a large and complicated subject. 

[00:02:48] So, let’s get started.

[00:02:52] For those of us who have spent much time with Americans, you have probably noticed a theme, and that is that life outside the United States is often compared to its US equivalent

[00:03:07] The United States of America is how the world should be, it’s a guiding example, and everywhere else is compared to it.

[00:03:16] Of course, there are plenty of exceptions, and people from other countries are also guilty of this, but it is a tendency that, in my experience at least, is most commonly found in Americans. 

[00:03:29] And moving away from the slightly tenuous example of our own life experience, the statistics do suggest that there is a strong belief in America that it is either the best, or one of the best countries in the world.

[00:03:47] Surveys taken over the past 10 years or so have consistently shown that between 85-90% of Americans believe it’s either the best, or one of the best countries in the world.

[00:04:01] As you might expect, the numbers are different for different political and demographic groups.

[00:04:08] 41% of Republicans say the US is the absolute best country in the world, while 19% of Democrats do.

[00:04:18] 44% of those aged 65 and over do, while only 12% of those under 30 do.

[00:04:27] 30% of white Americans say it’s the greatest country on Earth, while only 26% of Hispanics do. 

[00:04:35] And there is an inverse relationship between education and how likely you are to think that the US is the best country in the world - only 20% of those with a postgraduate degree believe it is, while 33% of those with just a high school degree do.

[00:04:56] To sum up, it is undeniable that, when compared to any other country, as we'll see in a minute, the US always comes first in one category: the percentage of citizens who believe that they live in the best country in the world.

[00:05:13] Now, the question we will explore today is...why?

[00:05:18] If you read articles written by patriotic Americans, or indeed ask many Americans, they will probably mention a combination of things.

[00:05:29] That the United States is a country founded by people with a shared belief in freedom, that it has a modern political system of checks and balances, that it has embraced modern capitalism, that it is embracing of immigrants, it is so large that you have everything from beaches to mountains, deserts to forests, that it is the home of free speech, and the result of all of this is that it’s the best place to start a business, that American salaries are higher, and that the quality of life is better than anywhere else in the world.

[00:06:07] They will no doubt admit that the country isn’t perfect, but that there is no other country that comes close, that America is, as the term goes, exceptional.

[00:06:19] Now, let’s just define this word quickly, “exceptional”.

[00:06:23] It’s usually used to mean very good, amazing, but that’s not what it actually means. 

[00:06:31] It means unusual, not typical.

[00:06:34] And this is the idea of American Exceptionalism, that there is something unusual and unique about the country, that when you put all of the factors I just mentioned earlier together, you have this magical mix, and you have created a country with a series of advantages, which is why America is the greatest country in the world.

[00:06:59] This exceptionalism, this idea that America is somehow different and superior, has led to the belief firstly that other countries should want to be like it.

[00:07:12] Throughout American history, presidents and politicians have continuously reiterated this message.

[00:07:19] Thomas Jefferson called the country an “empire of liberty”, Ronald Reagan called it a "shining city on a hill”, Abraham Lincoln talked about the "last best hope of Earth”, George Bush Senior called it the "leader of the free world”, and Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, referred to it as an "indispensable nation”.

[00:07:47] The second aspect of this exceptionalism is that, because the US is different, it can behave differently, and different rules apply to it. 

[00:08:00] From its long history of intervening in the political systems of other countries to fighting foreign wars to defend American values, there is an American belief that it doesn’t need to behave in the same way as other countries precisely because it isn’t like other countries.

[00:08:21] While the concept of “American Exceptionalism” is something that is quintessentially American, both the coining of the term and the popularising of the term come from people who are certainly not American.

[00:08:37] It was first used by the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, after he traveled there in 1831. 

[00:08:46] When he used the term, he was certainly referring to how America was different from European countries. 

[00:08:54] It was a republic, it had a different political system, it rejected aristocratic hierarchy, it put individual freedom above equality between men, which was a novel idea for a Frenchman, and the fact that US citizenship was based on beliefs and shared ideals, rather than who your parents were. 

[00:09:17] And the US was, of course, very different to Europe of the early 19th century, in that respect it certainly was exceptional.

[00:09:27] Although de Tocqueville was the first person to use this phrase, it was actually popularised by someone you really wouldn’t expect: Josef Stalin.

[00:09:38] Now, he wasn’t using the phrase to describe how amazing America was, but was using it in the context of the fact that there was nothing “exceptional” about America that would mean that it could resist socialism.

[00:09:55] In that, he was wrong of course, at least at the time, but he did help bring back the phrase into popular usage.

[00:10:04] And this idea was embraced by America, and by Americans.

[00:10:09] The level of patriotism in America can seem unusual especially for many non-Americans. 

[00:10:18] You may remember, on July 4th 2021, Independence Day this year, Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook posted a video of himself on a surfboard with an American flag, set to the music of Take Me Home, Country Roads. 

[00:10:36] You might say that this was a publicity stunt, but it’s hard to think of anything more American than this.

[00:10:43] Now, of course there was some domestic ridicule, some people laughing at it within America, but it’s hard to imagine many other countries where this would be something a corporate leader would ever do.

[00:10:58] Almost the worst insult that can be hurled at an American politician is that they aren’t a “patriot”, and anything but a deep love and belief in American values as superior is considered to be something to be sceptical about, especially within the Republican party.

[00:11:16] This is certainly extraordinary, exceptional even, given the high levels of immigration to the country - this idea that American ideals are capable of inspiring loyalty almost immediately, and as soon as one becomes an American citizen these levels of patriotism shoot up.

[00:11:38] Contrast this for a minute with some European countries.

[00:11:42] Now, you will of course be a better judge of how patriotic you feel people in your country to be, but from a recent survey only 13% of British people said their country was the best in the world, 5% of French people, 11% of people from Finland, 13% of people from Denmark, and 5% of Germans said the same.

[00:12:07] And some of these countries score far higher than the United States in many important measures. 

[00:12:15] Finland, for example, is considered to have one of the best healthcare systems in the world, Denmark is considered to have one of the best systems of social care in the world, and France is always up there on the list of countries that most people want to move to.

[00:12:31] Of course, something that is important for one person might be unimportant for another. 

[00:12:36] I imagine that the average resident of Texas would not be so happy to live in a country where guns were illegal, but the average Dutch citizen probably isn’t too bothered about not being able to buy a machine gun.

[00:12:51] What is most interesting about this to me is that this belief in the exceptionalism of America, and the subsequent patriotism, is so much higher than in other countries.

[00:13:03] There are, of course, many advantages to life in the United States, and quality of life by almost any measure will be higher for the average person born in the US than the average person in the world.

[00:13:17] America has for decades been the world leader in science and technology, it has the best universities, the best hospitals, the most successful companies in the world, people all over the world use products built by American companies.

[00:13:33] And it is the largest economy in the world, there are definitely a lot of amazing things that the United States has given the world, and a lot of great advantages to life in America.

[00:13:45] But, if America really was so exceptional, if it still had these incredible unique qualities, and if 8 times more Americans than Germans say that they live in the best country in the world, should it not be head and shoulders above every other country in almost every single measure?

[00:14:07] The US doesn’t have the highest income per capita in the world, it is rarely number one when it comes to things like average education levels or access to healthcare. It might have the highest quality services for those that can afford it, but these are only accessible to a minority of Americans.

[00:14:27] And you have probably heard statistics such as the fact that the United States has 4.4% of the world’s population but 22% of the world’s prison population, or that half a million Americans go bankrupt every year because of healthcare costs.

[00:14:46] Obviously, these aren’t all unique problems to America, every country has its own issues, but the point is, if we are in agreement that it’s hard to say that the US is objectively the best country to live in the world, and should be an example to the world of how a country should be, why do such a large proportion of Americans believe it deserves this exceptional status?

[00:15:12] Well, firstly there is a strong cultural myth of this exceptionalism. 

[00:15:17] If you have been brought up in a country where a large proportion of people believe they live in the best country in the world, then you are more likely to take that view yourself. 

[00:15:28] Secondly, it’s built into the education system. 

[00:15:31] Millions of American schoolchildren every day recite what’s called The Pledge of Allegiance

[00:15:38] They say "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

[00:15:51] Obviously, they aren’t all taking this seriously every time they do it, but it is a serious affair. 

[00:15:58] Indeed, even in 2019 a high school student in Florida was arrested for not taking part in the pledge. He was later released without charge, because it’s not actually a criminal act to not take part, but it gives you an idea of how seriously it is taken.

[00:16:19] This expectation of deep respect that is required towards the flag, and the nation, is something that continues well into adulthood. 

[00:16:29] You will no doubt have been aware of the uproar against the sports players who knelt down during the national anthem in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, with the former President Donald Trump calling for them to be banned, to be kicked off the pitch for disrespecting the national anthem.

[00:16:51] Thirdly, there is the fact that, compared to many other people, Americans travel less outside their country.

[00:16:58] The United States is obviously a very large country, it’s practically its own continent, international travel is expensive, and there is a huge amount of great travelling you can do without ever going abroad. 

[00:17:11] Indeed, a recent survey suggested that 63% of Americans had never left the country and 50% don’t even have a passport.

[00:17:21] If you have never experienced life in another country, and your experience of other countries is through your often very patriotic cable news channels with limited global news, you might think it’s completely understandable that you would think that you live in the best country on Earth.

[00:17:41] And our fourth reason, which isn’t the case for every citizen, is to do with religion. 

[00:17:48] If you have listened to the episode on Mormonism, you’ll remember that in Mormonism America has a special place in the religion. And even in more mainstream American Christianity, there is a common theme that God has some special role for America.

[00:18:06] Even Ronald Reagan once said that there was a divine plan for America.

[00:18:13] Of course, if you think that your country has a special purpose, given to it by God, then this almost by default makes it special, and exceptional. 

[00:18:25] The United States of America is most certainly an incredible country, and the world has a huge amount to be thankful to it for, that is undeniable.

[00:18:35] It’s also undeniable that its effects on the world have not always been positive - from its foreign policy disasters through to its poor environmental record, the list of negative exceptionalism, one could say, is long and ongoing.

[00:18:52] And in recent years this idea of American Exceptionalism has been challenged like never before from within America.

[00:19:01] Whether it’s the questioning of the American model of capitalism by many on the left, or even the move away from intervention in foreign wars during the Trump presidency, there has been an increasing amount of questioning of whether the United States really is exceptional, whether the country should act as the world’s policeman, and whether it is so superior that other countries should model themselves on it.

[00:19:28] But, despite this criticism, the idea of American Exceptionalism is one that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. 

[00:19:37] The sense of patriotism in the US, at least in terms of numbers of people who consider themselves “patriots”, has really not changed much over the past few decades.

[00:19:49] And certainly under the Biden administration, at least before the recent disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, it looks, or at least it looked like there was going to be a renewed focus it looks like there will be a renewed focus on the US’s role as a global leader, and an example to other countries of what can be achieved if you embrace American values.

[00:20:05] To conclude, there is certainly something interesting and admirable about American confidence, both in themselves and in the superiority and exceptionalism of their country. 

[00:20:18] Americans are some of the most confident people in the world, with big hopes and dreams, big ambitions, and a true sense of self-belief.

[00:20:28] A sense that, perhaps, only comes from believing you live in the most exceptional country in the world.

[00:20:39] OK then, that is it for today's episode on American Exceptionalism, an exploration of the idea that the US is special, extraordinary, and the best country in the world.

[00:20:54] I always say that I’d love to know what you thought of this episode, but it is particularly true in this case. 

[00:21:00] We have only just scratched the surface here, and it’s a discussion that could go on for hours.

[00:21:07] Why do you think that Americans have this sense of national superiority and exceptionalism? 

[00:21:13] What did you agree or disagree with?

[00:21:16] What else is important that we didn’t get to in this episode?

[00:21:20] It is a really interesting subject, so let’s get this discussion started - the place for that is our community forum, over at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:21:32] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:38] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.



[END OF EPISODE]