The exact origins of the concept of American exceptionalism are difficult to pinpoint. Perhaps it is rooted in John Winthrop’s “City upon a hill” biblical reference in 1630, which exhorted colonists to become an example for the rest of the world. Other theories suggest that two centuries later, Alexis de Tocqueville and his Democracy in America served as the source of the idea by saying, “The position of the Americans is quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”
When these examples are cited, they almost always are assumed to have a positive connotation, as evidenced in particular by references to “City upon a hill” by presidents from Kennedy to Reagan. Is this justified? With “City upon a hill,” it seems so, given its overtones of reverence—but this quote’s actual connection to modern-day exceptionalism remains tenuous, primarily because it predates the American Revolution. De Tocqueville’s quote, on the other hand, significantly loses its luster for subscribers to American exceptionalism when put in context; it is directly followed by an apparent observation of American philistinism, claiming Americans’ minds are “diverted” from scientific and artistic exploration. And who was among the first to actually use the exact phrase “American exceptionalism”? None other than Joseph Stalin, when he condemned a “heresy of American exceptionalism” in 1929, in the context of the failure of the U.S. to embrace communism-needless to say, not intended as a compliment.
When placed against a historical backdrop, commonly held conceptions of ‘American exceptionalism’ do not hold up to scrutiny. This is supported by The Atlantic’s description of the term “American Exceptionalism” only developing its current meaning during the 1980 election cycle; its increasing appearance thenceforth in the news created a false impression of longstanding validity as a phenomenon.
Although many people still believe that the United States is unique and “superior”-consider the assumptions behind the impassioned chants of “America First” during the 2016 election- this idea has been continuously refuted. In fact, this belief has been empirically rebutted by indexes noting the nation’s mediocre rankings in terms of nearly everything, from education to corruption to quality of health care. In terms of policy, however, America does remain jarringly and indisputably exceptional when compared to other highly developed countries, in its continued endorsement of three longstanding policy stances: lack of gun control, mass incarceration, and capital punishment. The distinction of the United States on each of these three fronts—or, perhaps, twisting—the American psyche.
A Pew Research Center survey demonstrated that most Americans (58%) value individual liberty over the state’s ability to ensure nobody is in need. In all European countries surveyed, on the other hand, the state’s role in aiding society was preferred to individual liberty by a majority. These statistics on the degree of US individualism corroborate, among other things, the idea that an individual’s right to own a gun has more value than the risk that gun-carrying individual might pose to society.
The efficacy of gun control laws is largely disputed. However, whether gun control regulation is effective or not, there is a correlation between national rates of gun ownership and the likelihood of a mass shooting, according to a 2015 study conducted by Professor Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama. The U.S. has the highest per-capita gun ownership in the world, as well as the highest rate of gun homicides among developed countries—a statistic that cycles through the news each time there is another mass shooting, such as the tragedy in Las Vegas this September or in Texas this November.
In her book The Gunning of America, historian and writer Pamela Haag demonstrates that in the U.S., the gun began as “an unexceptional commodity,” contrary to the idea that gun ownership was synonymous with freedom from the penning of the second amendment. She argues that the gun industry itself established this symbolic value of American guns, targeting consumers through a shift to “emotive” advertisements in the early 20th century. By symbolically attaching the ideas of “freedom” and “American values” to gun ownership, the gun industry was ultimately able to sell guns to consumers during peacetime as well as wartime. U.S. gun culture has something in common with American Exceptionalism: its current cultural connotations are constructed on flimsy assumptions that are not necessarily accurate.
The same Pew survey additionally found that 57% of Americans disagreed that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” This is compared to a median of just 37% of Europeans disagreeing about the disproportionate role outside forces play in determining individual success.
Thus, as well as disproportionately valuing individual liberty, Americans tend to place greater emphasis on individual agency in determining success; this worldview is pervasive throughout our judicial institutions. Perhaps it is because the American judicial system is grounded in this confidence that individuals “get what they deserve” that the rates at which we incarcerate and administer the death penalty are higher than those of any country in the world.
Lack of gun control indicates a reluctance to infringe upon the individual’s right to bear arms in order to protect society, while mass incarceration and the death penalty reflect the view that an individual is responsible for their own actions. Here, strangely, it’s not society’s duty or responsibility to help them, or question the fairness of the system when they are subjected to the harshest punishments.
Defenses of the claim that individuals do, in fact, get what they deserve according to their individual merit collapse when faced with evidence of institutional racism. In 2016, black citizens constituted a higher proportion of the death sentences executed than any other ethnic group combined. And before the 2008 election, 35% of men in prison were black, despite black men composing only 12% of the “total non-incarcerated adult male population.” Individualism hinders the addressing of institutional racism in any sphere, by purporting that all citizens start out on equal footing. As a result, measures specifically intended to redress the historical attribution and withholding of ‘merit’ or entitlement to freedom based on skin color can be, and have been, disregarded.
The U.S. is grounded in the ideal of individual liberty; ironically, it currently has the most prisoners among developed countries. Laws were passed and rhetoric was sharpened in desperate efforts to curb crime, especially drug crime, beginning in the 1970s and culminating in Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, which included the Three-Strikes provision allowing life sentences after two previous violent felony convictions. Law Professor John Pfaff suggests that prosecutors drove the increase in incarceration, rather than drug crime. He states that though crime fell between 1990 and 2007, the number of prosecutors increased by 50%. So, prosecutors can be considered to occupy the same position as gun-peddling capitalists in perpetuating a brutal system.
But mass incarceration is not quite the epitome of that brutality. Amnesty International reported in 2014 that the U.S. is among just nine countries that continue to regularly execute citizens. The death penalty remains legal in 31 states as of August 2017—yet less than half of all Americans now support its use. Since the Supreme Court issued a moratorium on the death penalty in 1972 that lasted four years, judges including Tom Price of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and Cormac J. Carney in Southern California have respectively spoken out against the death penalty, and challenged it as unconstitutional for violating the ban on cruel and unusual punishments included in the Eighth Amendment (the same argument applied in 1972’s Furman v. Georgia). As of 2005, minors can no longer be sentenced to the death penalty, and in Texas, the state with the most executions consistently since 1976, the number of executions peaked back in 2000 at 40 and was down to 10 by 2014. The trend in the courts, in the news and in the gradual decrease in actual cases of exercising the death penalty all suggest that this, of the three issues, is the one where the U.S. is most likely to conform to global norms. Even so, this October, Robert Pruett, who was incarcerated at age 15, was executed by legal injection. Pruett had been given a 99-year prison sentence under the Texas “law of parties,” which condemned him as an accomplice for being present while his father murdered a neighbor outside Pruett’s home. In 2002, he was sentenced to death after being convicted of murdering a prison guard, though he pleaded innocent and no physical evidence linked him to the crime. The tenuous grounds for the conviction underscore the profoundly disturbing feasibility of the state-sanctioned execution of an innocent person up to this very moment. But stepping back from the circumstances of one case to consider general principles, the isolation of the U.S. among other countries in permitting itself to take the life of any citizen has weighty implications for the (lack of) moral acceptability of this stance in the eyes of the majority of the world.
Each of these three aspects of American policy has its own complex history, context, and issues. However, when considered together, they support the argument that individualism contributes to flawed policies. Lack of gun control indicates a reluctance to infringe upon the individual’s right to bear arms in order to protect society—while mass incarceration and the death penalty reflect the view that an individual is responsible for their own actions, and it is not society’s duty or responsibility to help them, or question the fairness of the system when they are subjected to the harshest punishments.
Any government should look to other countries with humility as examples to learn from, rather than wallowing in its own ego by trumpeting its exceptionalism. When it comes to so-called American exceptionalism, in cases of gun regulation, mass incarceration, and capital punishment, perhaps striving to be less exceptional could actually make us a better country.