American Exceptionalism from a Jungian Perspective
“America is an exceptional country.”
“I do believe in American exceptionalism”
The topic of this essay—American exceptionalism—may not be familiar to many readers of this blog as it is not something taught in schools, but in the last Presidential election both Sarah Palin and John McCain mentioned it. As we look ahead to the future, and particularly the future of the United States, the concept of American exceptionalism is important to understand, and we will mention it in the two essays that follow this one. In this essay we will define “American exceptionalism,” then examine how it has shown up in American history, consider some of its implications and then offer a Jungian “take” on it.
What does “American exceptionalism” mean?
A concise, as well as easily accessible definition is provided by Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
American exceptionalism ... refers to the belief that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations, because of its national credo, historical evolution, distinctive political and religious institutions, ethnic origins and composition, or national ideals.
To understand what “differs qualitatively” means, we’ll consider each part of the definition:
“historical evolution” refers to the founding myth of the Puritan colonists, who felt they were charged with a special spiritual and political destiny to create in the New World a church and society that would be a model for the rest of the world. John Winthrop expressed this in his statement that he and his fellow colonists were creating a “city on a hill” that others in the future would be able to look to for inspiration on how to live an exemplary life. Believing they were chosen by God to be moral exemplars, the Puritans felt they were “blessed by Providence.” Later generations developed and extended this idea, as we shall see later, when we consider how American exceptionalism has manifested in our history.
“National credo” has been embodied or expressed in several ways: It appears in documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence (“...We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...”), the Constitution (“We, the people of the United States... do ordain and establish this Constitution...”) and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“... this nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal....”). It frequently shows up in Presidential speeches (The United States is “mankind’s last, best hope,” a “beacon on a hill,” “God’s own country,” “the indispensable nation” and a “shining city on a hill.”). Finally, American exceptionalism as a national credo got carved in stone—on the Statue of Liberty, in a stirring poem by Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:/I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Written, spoken or carved, words like these reflect the United States’ unique nature.
“Ethnic origin and composition:” Mention of the Statue of Liberty and the message carved on its base reflects another component of the definition of American exceptionalism. More perhaps than any other country in the world, the United States draws its population from everywhere. There is no single predominant cultural origin here, and America for centuries has provided “upward mobility” without rigid castes or an official noble class. Its open social structure makes it unique.
“Distinctive political and religious institutions and practices:” The official documents that established the United States separated church and state. There is no state religion in this country and such secularism is not the norm elsewhere. The absence of socialism and the failure of labor unions to organize into labor parties are also unusual. The most remarkable form of American exceptionalism is found in our diplomatic and foreign policies, in our isolationism, with our mistrust of entangling foreign commitments and the refusal of our federal judges to submit to the rulings of other jurisdictions; in our tradition of deprecating power politics and old-fashioned diplomacy; in the assumption we make that American values and practices are universally valid and appropriate for the rest of the world; and in our “exemptionalism,” in which U.S. courts exempt America from adherence to international treaties.
“National ideals:” We express our ideals in such statements as “America, land of liberty,” “The United States is the land of opportunity,” and “America, beacon of freedom.”
Clearly, American exceptionalism is a complex concept, including many aspects of our history and culture, with many facets and components. Some of these facets are positive, others negative. On the positive side, scholars of American history point to the following statements or claims:
· The United States has a special role in the world.
· The U.S. has a special destiny and mission.
· The U.S. is the only nation founded on an ideal.
· The U.S. is different from other nations in its underlying values.
· The U.S. sees diversity as a strength.
· The United States is distinctive.
· The U.S. stands outside of history.
· The U.S. is more patriotic than other lands.
American conservatives go farther in their claims, to offer a form of American exceptionalism that exalts the United States as superior to other nations, being richer, more democratic, more religious, and with the best values and institutions yet devised.
In reaction to this “triumphalism” other scholars remind us of the negative face, in such statements as:
· The United States believes the rest of the world should adapt to American ways.
· The U.S. thinks it can, and should, force its version of democracy on to others (e.g. Iraq).
· The United States is ethnocentric.
· The U.S. is hyper-nationalistic.
· The U.S. is an arrogant bully.
· The U.S. fails to listen to other countries.
· The U.S. falls into a “double standard:” criticizing others while ignoring its critics.
· The United States suffers from a “disease of conceit.”
· The U.S. is blind to the misery its global crusades have caused others (e.g. Vietnam, Iraq).
The Vietnam and Iraq wars are only two of the many ways American exceptionalism has manifested in our history. We turn now to consider others.
How American Exceptionalism has manifested in U.S. history
From the 17th to the 21st centuries, American exceptionalism has appeared in every era of U.S. history. The Puritans in the 1630’s brought an “exceptionalist logic” to the New World. Feeling they were making a clear break with the corruption of Europe, they saw themselves in a covenantal relationship with God, charged with the special spiritual duty to lead other nations.
While the tradition of republicanism died out in Britain, it was taken up by the revolutionaries in America in 1776. The revolutionary pamphleteer, Thomas Paine, spoke of America as a “new land” with nearly unlimited potential. The Declaration of Independence abrogated the power of monarchy and described human beings as having inalienable rights. Twenty years later, the Constitution vested sovereignty in the people and put strict limits on ecclesiastical power in separating church and state. All of these served to make the United States unusual.
Fifty years later, the country’s uniqueness was obvious to foreign visitors. The astute Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to use the term “exceptional” in describing America and its society:
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly occurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people, and attempt to survey them at length with their own features.
With his French background, inquiring mind and perspicacity, Tocqueville was well placed to observe the American experience with more objectivity than any native. In this succinct summary he identifies several ways in which America was/is exceptional: our Puritanical origins; our focus on commerce (i.e. our penchant for making money—a quality that Jung also noted a century later); the practical bent of the American mind; our educational tradition oriented to problem-solving (praxis, not theory); and the “transient” diversion of religion. He concluded that America was incomparable and had to be taken on its own terms.
A few years after Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, an American journalist, John O’Sullivan, coined another key term in the history of American exceptionalism: “Manifest Destiny.” Soon taken up by Jacksonian Democrats, the concept of manifest destiny was used as a rationale to acquire Texas, the Gadsen Purchase and the Mexican cession. What does “manifest destiny” mean? Essentially it was an extension of the Puritans’ original idea of being destined by God to create a better world in the new land. Now that they were here, with a growing population, there was a clear (i.e. obvious or “manifest”) destiny to expand geographically into the rest of the American continent. Some scholars suggested that the American spirit was created by the frontier, so it was divinely ordained that we were meant to push westward and bring the blessings of Providence to the “wilderness.”
In 1899 the Republican Party took up the idea of manifest destiny to justify the Spanish American War and the annexation of Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines and Panama. President William McKinley claimed that he had been told by God to go to war to free these lands from the yoke of Spain. The Secretary of War, Elihu Root, reflected the idea of American exceptionalism in his touting of the American soldier as the “advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.”
All this while, millions of immigrants were on the move. From the 1860’s on, the United States had become the goal for many of them. It was the land of freedom—freedom to choose an occupation; freedom to move around and relocate wherever one wanted; freedom to rise in social status; freedom to aspire socially, politically, economically. Successful immigrants like Carl Schurz and Andrew Carnegie offered examples of how America fostered social mobility. In gifting the United States with the Statue of Liberty France was recognizing how this country had become a magnet for dissidents, malcontents, persecuted, oppressed, beleaguered and restive peoples.
World War I and its aftermath revealed the streak of isolationism inherent in American exceptionalism. It took the sinking of American ships to get the country into the war, and afterwards the U.S. Senate refused to support Wilson’s internationalism, in its repudiation of the League of Nations. In the interwar years a growing “America First” movement sought to keep the United States out of involvement with Europe. Once again, it was only Pearl Harbor that overcame the isolationists’ reluctance to get involved in World War II. American exceptionalism became the subject of scholarly studies in the interwar years, and the focus of academic controversy between conservatives (who touted the country’s special nature) and liberals (who pointed up the darker side of the American experience).
After World War II, when the United States had emerged as the clear global leader, men like Henry Luce (the publisher of Time, Life and other major periodicals) declared the 20th century the “American century.” Luce suggested that the United States had the right to use its influence however it saw fit. Colleges and universities set up American Studies programs and the term “American exceptionalism” emerged, to reflect the uniqueness of the American experience and American culture.
The Cold War of the 1950’s-1980’s provoked lots of rhetoric about the freedom of the American way of life, in contrast to the tyranny of Communism. Many scholars and social analysts described the “American dream” of owning a home and becoming well off. During the Reagan/Bush years of the 1980’s American exceptionalism got more polished. Reagan, for example, added to the Puritans’ claim, talking in speeches of “the shining city on a hill.” By the 1990’s American exceptionalism had become a popular subject in scholarly circles, with more than 10 books on the subject appearing in that decade.
Which brings us to our own era. The election of 2000 saw another conservative in the Oval Office. Chosen by the Supreme Court, George W. Bush sparked a resurgence of the conservative form of American exceptionalism. The “neo-cons” trumpeted the United States “going it alone” in foreign policy. Following the principle of exemptionalism, we refused to join other nations in a host of treaties. We refused to submit to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. The Bush Administration articulated the doctrine of preemptive war, in the name of safeguarding our way of life and the spreading of liberty and democracy around the world—all with the unspoken assumption that the “American way” is better and appropriate for everyone in the world. The experience of 9/11 produced rampant hyper-nationalism, with a surge in sales of American flags, men joining the military to fight for our freedom, and ubiquitous bumper stickers extolling “pride in America,” “support the troops” etc.
In sum, American exceptionalism has manifested historically as:
· national pride, with a sense of being chosen by God
· a strong moral strain in the American character and political rhetoric
· a colonizing attitude, in our expansion into the interior of North America
· imperialism, in our overseas adventures in various wars chauvinism, in the belief that ours is the best nation
· attempts to remake the world in our image
Over the 400 years of our history the various facets of American exceptionalism have grown and developed. Now we will shift our focus from history to analysis, to consider what American exceptionalism implies.
The implications of American exceptionalism
For the sake of clarity, we can distinguish two types or classes of implications: domestic and international. Let’s consider the international implications first.
Ethnocentricism: national chauvinism, with a strong sense of the superiority of our values and way of life, along with claims of the universality of our values and moralistic judgments of other nations.
Imperialism: Teddy Roosevelt said “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” And we have often carried our “big stick” into other countries in the name of liberating them from dictators, Communists, tyranny—the list is long, the rhetoric always the same.
Exemptionalism: we claim the right to opt out of treaties and conventions and, in our “legal isolationism,” our judges refuse to recognize the decisions of other courts.
unilateralism: the U.S. is willing to “go it alone” and invokes its divine mission to justify its actions, while, at the same time, wanting to have it both ways: we want to be able to drive our gas-guzzling cars with cheap gas, even though that gas comes from other countries.
The domestic implications are those internal habits, practices and behaviors that mark our country in an unusual way. These include: character traits, e.g. optimism, self-reliance, independence, egalitarianism and individualism (which, in its stress on individual rights, breeds a tendency toward litigiousness).
A set of myths, e.g. that the United States lacks a class system: this is a “myth,” in that, while classes are not as obvious as in Europe, Americans certainly recognize social distinctions in background, education, tastes and lifestyle).
Greater religiosity than in other nations: our Presidents invoke God as the guide for their actions; “God bless America” signs appear on buildings and the Kate Smith recording of the song plays at Yankee games, and polls consistently indicate that more Americans are regular church-goers than in most other countries.
Normative assumptions and judgments: commentators regularly note the moralistic streak in American values, the moralistic judgments we make of other nations, the double standard and hypocrisy in the disconnect between what we do and what we say.
materialism: Tocqueville noted this nearly 200 years ago; it is no less a feature of our way of life now. We interpret the “American dream” in material terms. We have, as a society, a strong sense of entitlement. Our economy is built on consumerism and there is massive inequality in the distribution of our national wealth.
Perceptual problems: We have a self-perception of uniqueness and moral superiority, along with “willful nationalistic ignorance of the faults committed by the American government.” Conservatives feel nostalgia for earlier times, while some analysts of the American character note how we deceive ourselves, blinded by our “conceit.”
A Jungian Perspective on American Exceptionalism
In our survey so far, we have spoken of pride, a sense of superiority, a sense of specialness, moralism, materialism, ethnocentricism, a sense of divine mission, blindness to our faults, deception and conceit. What do all these point to, from a Jungian point of view? Inflation.
What do Jungians mean by “inflation”? Daryl Sharp defines “inflation” as “a state of mind characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, often compensated by feelings of inferiority.” Jung spoke of inflation as “a puffed-up attitude.” Certainly when our political leaders appeal to our patriotism, speak of our specialness, call upon our unique responsibilities, refuse to cooperate with other countries, and ignore treaty responsibilities, we are displaying a collective attitude of inflation.
Why such inflation? The Jungian analyst Edward Edinger provides us with an insightful list of causes: The American mind has been shaped by the American past, a past in which all but the indigenous natives have been immigrants. The experience of being uprooted is part of the psychic experience of all Americans. Most of us, in other words, go back to dissidents, malcontents, outcasts, or the rejected, persecuted and enslaved. The result in our deep unconscious psyche? We all have feelings of cultural inferiority, with a lack of the deep rootedness to a place that Europeans have. Edinger feels we compensate for these feelings of inferiority with arrogance, especially technological arrogance. This arrogance is a form of pride.
What follows pride? The Bible reminds us that “Pride goeth before a fall.” In collective terms, a “fall” would be “... a violent breakdown of the social order.”
Jungians would regard American exceptionalism, or at least the conservatives’ triumphalist form of it, as a dangerous feature of American life. It, and its implications, are things we must become aware of now. Jung was quite explicit about this:
An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own presence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead.
Our situation sounds pretty grim. But Jung was not a fatalist: he offered a way to avoid the destruction of the American polity:
... this state of unconscious possession will continue undeterred until we...become scared of our “god-almightiness.” Such a change can begin only with individuals, for the masses are blind brutes, as we know to our cost. It seems to me of some importance, therefore, that a few individuals, or people individually, should begin to understand that there are contents which do not belong to the ego-personality, but must be ascribed to a psychic non-ego.... Very few people care to know anything about this; it is so much easier to preach the universal panacea to everybody else than to take it oneself, and, as we all know, things are never so bad when everybody is in the same boat. No doubts can exist in the herd; the bigger the crowd the better the truth—and the greater the catastrophe.
The way out is through us: the “very few.” Jung is speaking to us. If you are reading this blog essay, you are hereby put on notice that you are one of the “few” he is speaking about. The change has to begin with us, with you. You need to be aware of American exceptionalism and the dangers it holds. You need to take up the task of creating more consciousness in the world. And Jung warns us that we must not, cannot look to political leaders (however much we might like and have high hopes for Obama). Our leaders are caught up in the mass movement; they have to be, to get elected. So we cannot expect them to see the reality of our situation. If we are to have a cooperative, humble, viable society, we have to take up the task of becoming conscious ourselves, working on ourselves, so we can be the “makeweight” that will tip the scales into a future world that works for everyone.
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Carman, Harry, Harold Syrett & Bernard Wishy (1961), A History of the American People, 2nd ed., 2 v. New York: Alfred Knopf.
Economist, The (2008), ”Only in America;” available on the Web: URL: http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/PrinterFriendly.
Edinger, Edward (1984), The Creation of Consciousness. Toronto: Inner City Books.
________ (1995), Melville’s Moby-Dick: An American Nekyia. Toronto: Inner City Books.
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Ignatieff, Michael, ed. (2005), American Exceptionalism and Human Rights; abstract available on the Web: URL: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8080.html
Jacobs, Ron (2004), “American Exceptionalism: A Disease of Conceit,” Counterpunch (July20,2004);availableontheWeb:URL: http://www.counterpunch.org/jacobs07212004.html
Jung, C.G. (1953), ”Psychology and Alchemy,” Collected Works, 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press (identified in the notes as CW 12)
________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” Collected Works, 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press (identified in the notes as CW 7).
Kohut, Andrew & Bruce Stokes (2008), “The Problem of American Exceptionalism,” Pew Research Center Publications (May 9, 2008); available on the Web: URL: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/23/the-problem-of-american-exceptionalism
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Madsen,” The Journal of American History, 87, 3; available on the Web: URL: http://www.historycooperative.org/cgi-bin/printpage.cgi
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Sharp, Daryl (1991), C.G. Jung Lexicon: A Primer of Terms & Concepts. Toronto: Inner City Books.
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Thimm, Johannes (n.d.), “American Exceptionalism—Conceptual Thoughts and Empirical Evidence,” available online.
Tocqueville, Alexis de (1945), Democracy in America, 2 v., ed. Phillips Bradley. New York: Vintage Books.
Turner, Frederick Jackson (1890/1920), The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt; also available in digital form on the Internet
Zinn, Howard (1993-2006), “The Power and the Glory: Myths of American exceptionalism,” Boston Review; available on the Web: URL: http://bostonreview.net/BR30.3/zinn.html
 Zinn (1993-2006), 6 (in my print-out of the Web site).
 Both are quoted in Monkerud (2008), 1 (in my print-out of the Web site)
 Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, quoting Koh (2005), 225.
 “Myth,” in the sense of a story that has become part of a nation’s collective experience.
 Cf. Zinn (1993-2006), 1; Jacobs (2004), 2 (in my print-out of the Web site); Wikipedia, 3; and Seis (2003), 3 (in my print-out of the Web site).
 Lipset (2000), 1 (in my print-out of the Web site).
 Thimm (n.d.), 3 note. This last was Ronald Reagan’s embellishment of John Winthrop’s original 1630 statement; Zinn (1993-2006), 1.
 Cf. Lipset (2000), 1; and Wikipedia, 3.
 All the nations of Europe have a history of state churches. Colonized by Spain and Portugal, Latin America is Roman Catholic. The countries of Asia have been Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian and Shinto.
 Seis (2003), 1.
 Cf. ibid., 2; Monkerud (2008), 2; Zinn (1993-2006), 7; and Ignatieff (2005), 3.
 Quoted in Eland (2004), 1 (in my print-out of the Web site).
 Seis (2003), 1.
Jacobs (2004), 1.
 The Economist (2008), 2.
 Jacobs (2004), 1.
 For all these statements, see Wikipedia, 2; Jacobs (2004), 1-2; Anderson (2008), 1; Seis (2003), 3; and Monkerud (2008), 2.
 Lipset (2000), 1.
 Wikipedia, 2.
 Ibid., 1.
 Tocqueville (1945), II, 38.
 Zinn (1993-2006), 2.
 Wikipedia, 1.
 E.g. Frederick Jackson Turner produced a seminal work in 1890 reporting on the “closing” of the American frontier and analyzing the impact the concept on a open frontier had on the American psyche; his The Frontier in American History is now available on the Web.
 Zinn (1993-2006), 2.
 Quoted in ibid., 3.
 Wikipedia, 4.
 E.g. the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, 1898.
 Carman, Syrett & Wishy (1961), II, 517.
 Ibid., 677-678.
 The historiography on American exceptionalism is reviewed by Seis (2003), 3-8.
 Zinn (1993-2006), 2.
 Seis (2003), 4.
 Zinn (1993-2006), 4; cf. Wikipedia, 2.
 Zinn (1993-2006), 1.
 Cf. Seis (2003), 4-7 and Lipset (2000), 1.
 Lipset (2000), 1.
 Monkerud (2008), 2.
 E.g. the Kyoto protocol on climate change; the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; the Land Mines Convention; the Rome Treaty; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Spiro (2000), 1; cf. Monkerud (2008), 2; and Zinn (1993-2006), 7.
 Bacevich (2008), 119-121, 163-165.
Monkerud (2008), 2.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ignatieff (2005), 1.
 Kohut & Stokes (2006), 5.
 Seis (2003), 2.
 Zinn (1993-2006), 2.
 Cf. Thimm (n.d.), 2 and note 7; and Eland (2004), 1.
 Cf. Monkerud (2008), 2; and Bacevich (2008), 15-66.
 Wikipedia, 1, quoting Frel (2006-2007), 10.
 Jacobs (2004), 1.
 Sharp (1991), 72.
 CW 7, ¶110.
 Edinger (1995), 28.
 Proverbs 16:18.
 Edinger (1995), 68.
 CW 12, ¶563.
 For what the process of creating more consciousness entails, see Edinger (1984).