The idea of a “divine mission” excites adherents and worries skeptics, and, like any religious belief, becomes more controversial the more people understand it to be other than a mere private conviction. In the recent inaugural issue of the journal American Political Thought, James Ceaser examines a uniquely American species of political thought which is, if not explicitly religious in all its manifestations, is at least tinctured with religious excitement. The idea of “American exceptionalism” has agitated American political discourse on the left and right–but unlike other American ideals, it appeared only recently and is very difficult to define.
One way to describe American exceptionalism is to observe the many ways in which the United States differs from other nations in its origins, institutions, and national character. It is, arguably, unique among liberal democracies in that it was actually self-consciously founded as a new political entity where none had existed before, at least on the national level. Most revolutions change regimes but retain old geographies and ethnic identities; America assumed its geography and national identity gradually and subsequent to its founding. America is both more liberal and more conservative than other Western nations. Its institutions more perfectly reflect a purely liberal republican structure, retaining no vestigial monarchy, hereditary ranks, or established church. At the same time it is among the most religious of Western republics and the most suspicious of socialism. Capitalism finds the fewest restraints in the United States–although we also have the world’s highest corporate income tax. These are only a few of the objective measures by which America is an exception among world powers. Continue reading Exceptionalism Symposium: The elusive American mission