New Book Explores The Problem Of American Exceptionalism

Source Organization: Pew Research Center

05/15/2006 - Why is anti-Americanism on the rise? In their new book, America Against the World, Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut and journalist Bruce Stokes explore findings from the Pew Global Attitudes Project's series of international surveys that highlight the role American values play in the worldwide rise in anti-Americanism in the 21st century. In the following excerpt, the authors examine the major factors, real and imagined, that contribute to this growing alienation between America and other countries, both friends and foes, around the globe.

Differences in American values and attitudes, modest as many may be, do matter in the daily relations between nations because of the status of the United States as an unprecedented superpower and the driving influence of American business and culture. While other publics hold exceptional views, Argentine, Czech, and Japanese exceptionalism do not face such resistance because Argentina, the Czech Republic, and Japan do not dominate the globe the way that the United States does. Americans' exceptionalism is America's problem, not so much because Americans are that different from others, but because any dissimilarity in attitudes or values is magnified by the United States' place in the world, and others often resent those differences.

In pursuing these differences, it is helpful to differentiate between three types of American exceptionalism that shape both the ways that U.S. citizens look at the world and the ways that the world looks at them:

  • Misunderstood exceptionalism -- American values and attitudes that many in the United States as well as abroad regard as part of the problem, though there is little evidence to support this contention.
  • Conditional exceptionalism -- Aspects of the American character that are distinctive, but not so much that they are destined to consistently divide the American people from the rest of the world. These include values and attitudes that are products of the times or subject to the course of events and the influence of American leadership.
  • Problematic exceptionalism -- How Americans view themselves, their country, and the world in ways that reflect potentially unbridgeable, persistent gaps in opinions on important issues.
Not all characteristics that distinguish Americans fall neatly into one or another of these categories, of course. And it is important to emphasize that we use the term exceptionalism without the normative judgments -- specifically, the implication of superiority--often associated with it. Whether the special qualities of American attitudes and values have encouraged a sense of American superiority is an issue to be explored.

Read the full excerpt The Problem Of American Exceptionalism on the Pew Research Center Web site.

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