The idea of American exceptionalism relative to foreign nations was explored during the University Series event “American Exceptionalism: A Comparative Approach” with Associate Professor of History and Political Science Milind Thakar on Feb. 9.
The origin of the patriotic American mindset as well as its role in society, politics and foreign policy were the focus of the event, beginning with the independence of the United States from Great Britain to the present day.
The discussion began with the conception of America’s identity as “exceptional,” a phrase coined by Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1840 text “Democracy in America.”
“The idea of American exceptionalism is many-fold. It is the understanding of America as something special, something different, and there are many origins,” Thakar said. “The word ‘exceptional’ was used for America way back around 1840 when Tocqueville wrote his book, and he referred to America as being ‘exceptional’ in terms of being settled. Rather than being a country settled for a long time, like many European countries … people came from elsewhere to settle in America.”
This idea, Thakar explained, was reinforced over time and incorporated into the most basic fabric of American identity because of advantages enjoyed by the United States, including a wealth of resources, industry, geography and cultural influxes from abroad.
“The United States saw itself as a country with a mission; we were here to make something special,” Thakar said. “Why did all of us come here? How did we get started? Isn’t it amazing how we have progressed? This seems to be the sentiment within the United States, and other people shared it and observed it.”
According to Thakar, following World War II, the United States experienced an economic and cultural boom that contributed greatly to the idea of American exceptionalism as it exists today. This “artificial high,” Thakar said, was made possible by the destruction of Europe and many other regions by war.
Once he explained the origins of American exceptionalism, Thakar provided statistics illustrating ways in which America is exceptional in a positive way in comparison to other countries, such as in entrepreneurial opportunity, versus deficient such as in health care availability.
“I like how he showed us so many statistics comparing different countries,” said freshman psychology major Abby Yochum. “He used multiple comparisons on different things instead of just comparing GDP [Gross Domestic Product].”
Global rankings of the United States in such areas as welfare assistance, literacy, and overall competitiveness were examined. This viewpoint captured the interest of freshman marketing major Jordan Nussear, who attended the lecture.
“The speaker [Thakar] was very clever and engaging,” Nussear said. “The global context the presentation provided really showcased how rapidly the rest of the world is progressing compared to the United States.”
Thakar emphasized that rather than America’s exceptionalism declining, other countries are increasing in sophistication and becoming exceptional in their own ways. This shift, according to Thakar, is beneficial for the United States and other nations across the globe.
“A world where everyone is exceptional in a good way is a good thing,” Thakar said. “The United States will have similar societies as the world becomes wealthier … and I’m talking in a time where everything seems bleak globally. Hopefully, if this passes and other societies get closer, we will all be in a better-off place.”