The End of U.S. Exceptionalism?

I had intended to write a post about the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s finding about the really quite remarkable decline in the notion of U.S. exceptionalism, particularly among young Americans when Pew released it last Thursday, but I got side-tracked, and now the excellent Charles Blow at the New York Times has beaten me to it. The survey itself is about the gap between U.S. and Western European (specifically, British, German, French, and Spanish) attitudes on some basic issues, including the role of government, the use of military force, international engagement, the degree to which people believe they control their own lives, the importance of religion, etc. The survey is well worth a look.

In any event, the most interesting portion to me was the question of exceptionalism, specifically, how people answered the question whether they agreed or disagreed with the proposition that “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to the others.” As one would expect, U.S. respondents (49%) agreed with that proposition more than respondents from any other country (although, remarkably, Germany came in a very strong second at 47%). Asked the same question in 2002 — that is, after the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan and on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq — 60 percent of U.S. respondents said they agreed with the statement. By 2007, when the U.S. was trying desperately to stop Iraq from plunging into full-scale civil war, that percentage had fallen to 55. So, in the space of just nine years, the percentage had fallen 11 points.

But what was most interesting was the generational breakdown. Sixty percent of U.S. respondents 50 years and older agreed with the proposition, while 34% disagreed. Forty-four percent of respondents aged 30-49 agreed, while a 50 percent plurality disagreed. But the most remarkable number came from the 18-29-year old group: only 37% of whom agreed, while an pretty convincing 61% disagreed with the proposition. A virtual mirror image of the over 50 group. This is really a very fundamental change in worldview.

Of course, it’s important to stress that this comes amid the persistent economic crisis that has produced the highest unemployment rates for younger people since the Great Depression, although the survey was actually conducted around April 1 when the markets were much less pessimistic about the economy than they are today. I assume — although Pew did not explore this — that the decline in U.S. exceptionalism is related to how the economy is doing, how much optimism people feel about their standard of living, etc. If there is such a correlation, then there has been a further decline in the 7 months since the survey took place, particularly given the sharp decline in confidence in U.S. institutions (not to mention the risibility of the Republican presidential candidates) and the sense that the country is on the wrong course that have been documented much more recently in other polls. If the economy did in fact turn around, I would imagine the belief in U.S. exceptionalism would rise again, although perhaps not to the levels of the over-50s.

Having been born in 1949 of German-Jewish parents who found refuge in the U.S. in the 1930’s, I have always believed in American exceptionalism (in a moral sense) which, of course, is why I became so disappointed in my country as the truths I learned watching the Mickey Mouse Club and the Twentieth Century with Walter Cronkite and attending Seattle public schools through the early 1960s were severely challenged by such events as the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the 1973 coup against Allende in Chile, etc. etc. That I still feel disappointed and distressed when the country so clearly fails to live up to its ideals is, I guess, testimony to the strength of that worldview.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.