American Exceptionalism and the New American Dream

Paul Johnson's seminal work "Modern Times" opens with an astonishing statement that befits the sweeping analysis of the 20th century that follows it. "The modern era began on 29 May 1919 when photographs of a solar eclipse... confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe." Johnson was referring to pictures taken by Arthur Eddington which demonstrated that light was bent by the tremendous gravity of the sun, in precise accord with Einstein's predictions contained within The General Theory of Relativity. The limits of Newtonian physics had been defined, and the world would never be the same.

On August 5, 2011, Standard & Poor's downgraded the credit rating of United States government debt for the first time in history. An elemental cornerstone of modern economics and finance was thus destroyed. Like Eddington's photographs, the news of that downgrade made front pages around the world. And yet in both cases, observers could find little change immediately following the amazing news. The summer of 1919 and many months that followed it remained reassuringly Newtonian; apples still fell from trees in a straight line, and the smaller concerns that occupy the minds of most people on most days were utterly unaffected by Eddington's amazing discovery. Similarly, in the weeks that followed S&P's bombastic announcement, investors around the world still found US debt comfortably secure, rates actually eased a bit, and the world returned to business as usual in very short order.

Along with the Modern Era, something else began around the same time that Eddington was taking his photographs. It is generally called "the American Century," and while the Modern Era persists, the American Century ended on August 5 of 2011. Many momentous events can only be seen and judged for what they are in hindsight and over long periods of time. The inhabitants of the earth during the last Ice Age did not detect a climatic change the day after it began--they knew about it when they started freezing. But in hindsight we can date the commencement of that dramatic change far more precisely; with distance we can distinguish the forest from the trees.

This observation and the writings that follow it are not intended as lachrymose laments about the decline of American society or the end of the "American Dream." Rather, my purpose is to put into a larger context many things that are happening now that Americans find disturbing-- things that portend a century that is only depressing if it is not understood in terms of the long sweep of history. Concisely stated, the "American Dream" is alive and well, and will persist long into the future. It is simply a different kind of dream. The issue is not what can happen to an individual who strives to succeed; the issue is what that success will mean, and how it is defined, as American society shoehorns itself into the ever more crowded landscape of the future.

This raucous election year has brought to light many of the issues that many Americans find disquieting, and vaguely threatening to the life they would expect their children to lead. Runaway debt, increasing terrorism, economic dislocations that some feel are the result of bad trade agreements, and the amazing disappearance of the American middle class are some of the things that are causing many ordinary people to distrust whatever is coming next. But the real problem is not the reality of American society as much as it is the expectations that were created by the events of the second half of the 20th century-- expectations that may become very difficult to meet.

The language that is being used by the candidates and by the media that is so obsessed with their prospects is quite revealing about just how those expectations are becoming difficult to sustain. This year, much more so than in any election year in recent memory, the candidates, the news people, and the pundits are all embracing the idea of American "exceptionalism." While no one could deny that America is a "great" country, one has to think carefully about whether or not it is "exceptional."

In fact, no country is exceptional. But certain periods in the history of certain countries were indeed exceptional-- the Roman Empire being an easy example. But the exceptionalism of the Roman Empire did not make Italy an exceptional country; indeed there was no Italy as we know it today when the Roman Empire triumphed. It is in fact very easy to mistake an exceptional period in American history as meaning that the country is itself exceptional, and therefore will remain exceptional in the future. For the last 2 ½ centuries or so America has experienced that exceptional era. The reasons for it are simple and generally well understood by social scientists. Often referred to as "the first new nation," America was born without the necessity of building a culture or developing technology from the ground up, because it was a nation of immigrants who had already experienced that development in some other place. After the easy genocide of its natural inhabitants, America flourished for many of the reasons that other societies had flourished, such as tremendous natural resources and the niceties of geography between two vast oceans.

But America had, and has, one other unique characteristic: unlike virtually every other country on the planet, there is no viscosity in terms of culture or tradition here. America does not have religion, it has many religions. It does not have cultural traditions, only the traditions, or the remnants of those traditions that were brought by the immigrant groups that populated America today. In fact the only universal belief and the only defining cultural idea is that economic success can be obtained by anyone who wants it badly enough--the "American Dream."

America is great, and different, but it is becoming less exceptional, and at some point in the 21st century, it will not be exceptional at all. The point of the writings that follow is to demonstrate how that transition will happen, the effects of that transition, and most importantly to illustrate that America will be a better place if it begins to think of itself as great and different, but not exceptional.