Only in America?

American exceptionalism is an article of faith in the US. A surefire applause line for a pandering politician is to take some fairly humdrum achievement and tack on the phrase “only in America”. Audiences seem to delight in thinking that achievements that are commonplace the world over are somehow only possible here because of the unique conditions in the US.

Just last week in a speech Mitt Romney said, “Only in America could a man like my dad become governor of a state where he once sold paint from the trunk of his car.”

Really? He thinks that it never happens in other countries that people achieve high public office despite humble beginnings?

Author E. L. Doctorow describes what it would take for the US to achieve the opposite state of ‘unexceptionalism’, which he defines as being “indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world.”

It looks like we made it easily.


  1. says

    Just last week in a speech Mitt Romney said, “Only in America could a man like my dad become governor of a state where he once sold paint from the trunk of his car.”

    To be fair now it’s true that he couldn’t become governor of a state in Canada or any other country I can think of off-hand.

    Perhaps that’s what he meant? “We have governors and states, not un-American ‘provinces’ or ‘premiers’! USA! USA! USA!”

  2. left0ver1under says

    I always thought “American exceptionalism” referred to the hypocrisy of the US, that it can do things but no one else can. For example:

    * violate other countries’ sovereignty to arrest non-political criminals

    * oppose and (try to) overthrow democratically elected governments (e.g. Palestine, Iran in 1953 and today, Chile, Nicaragua, Greece, etc.)

    * demand and control the resources of other countries for the US’s benefit, and countries are NOT allowed the benefit from their own resources (e.g. invading countries for oil, multinational corporations supporting corrupt regimes like Exxon and United Fruit/Chiquita, etc.)

    * the US supporting terrorism against certain nations (e.g. Nicaragua, Iran, Cuba, etc.) while claiming to be against when perpetrated by other nations

    This famous quote best exemplifies what I mean about the attitudes of wall street and the far right to other nations’ sovereignty and human rights:

    “Every now and again the United States has to pick up a crappy little country and throw it against a wall just to prove we are serious.”

    – Michael Ledeen, of the fascist group, the American Enterprise Institute

  3. says

    Sorry, but we are different from other countries. But most every other country can make that same claim.

    Example: we have a high level of free speech (else Mano would have been sent to jail a long time ago 🙂 ) and a high level of economic inequity.

    But yeah, I hear you; too many Americans want to believe that we are better than everyone else. We do some things well; other things: not so much.

    But any candidate that admits this wouldn’t stand a chance of winning an election.

  4. Kevin says

    Hitler was an illegitimate child, a bad soldier, and a failed painter. Seems to me he rose pretty high up the food chain.

    Stalin was the son of an alcoholic shoemaker. Seems to me he did pretty well, too.

    Mussolini was a poor student who was expelled from school for fighting. His father was a poor blacksmith.

    Mao left school at age 13 to work his family’s farm. Did OK after that.

    Fidel Castro’s family didn’t even want him to go to school, because they needed him to work the sugar plantation.

    Juan Peron’s father was a failed sheep rancher, who sent him to military school.

    Just about everywhere you look, you see successful dictators arising from circumstance of poverty.

    Far from being “only in America”, it’s as common as fleas on a stray dog.

    Gad, how I hate the exceptionalism meme.

  5. mnb0 says

    Sounds very much like England before WW-2. Our the Netherlands in their Golden Age, for that matter.

  6. says

    Even democracy isn’t exceptional. It was borrowed from the Greeks. But Americans like to think they’re exceptional as a nation. It allows us to sleep at night knowing that we’ve all but wiped out Native Americans and invaded & overthrown other nations at the request of multinational corporations.

  7. Sigmund says

    My favorite use of the phrase was by Yogi Berra when he was told that a Dublin had elected a Jewish Lord Mayor.

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