American Exceptionsism as Newly Experienced “Good”

American exceptionalism is the American belief in an America’s collective ability to invent and produce “goods” to help foster the “common good.” First on the list: The Founding of the American Republic, which departed from monarchy and institutionalized broad-based democratic principles–in comparison to the political domination by the British against the Americans (i.e., Declaration of Independence).

Since the Founding, Americans have raised themselves, and their children, to be free and independent citizens. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. both sought to end the ability of some American citizens to deem other people second class citizens. American exceptionalism as a cultural trait guides the citizen to new and reliable experiences. Now in 2014, how “exceptional” are Americans on questions of work-ethic, redistribution of money to the poor via the welfare state, or “just war”?

Eight surprising new findings on American exceptionalism by Christopher Ingraham, May 16, 2014

The latest World Values Survey was released last month, polling 80,000 respondents in 56 countries on hundreds of social, economic and political questions. Read on for some of the most interesting findings about Americans and our place in the world.
Americans don’t fully trust their family members

69 percent of Americans report that they trust their family members “completely,” which puts us close to the bottom of the list of countries surveyed. Middle Eastern and central European countries are at the top, while the Netherlands ranks dead last, with only 59 percent of respondents trusting their families completely.

Work is low on the list of American priorities

While we have a reputation for being a country of workaholics, we actually rank the importance of work quite low (36 percent) compared to other countries. Ghanians, Filipinos and Ecuadorians are the biggest workaholics, while again the Dutch are at the bottom of the list. The most important thing, according to Americans? Family. Sure, we may not fully trust that one sketchy uncle, but we love him anyway.

No Robin Hood governing, please…

The survey asked a battery of questions on the essential ingredients of democracy. These questions asked respondents to choose how important various characteristics (free and fair elections, civil rights, etc) were on a 1-to-10 scale. Americans were middle-of-the-pack on most of these measures, but we stood out on the question of whether the government should tax the rich and give to the poor–spreading the wealth, if you will. Only 7 percent of us ranked this as a 10, or absolutely essential to democracy. This put us near the bottom of the list, just behind–you guessed–the Netherlands.

… and while we’re at it, keep the government out of business

On a similar 1-to-10 scale the survey asked whether it was better to increase private or public ownership of business. The U.S. was among the countries least likely to say that government ownership of business and industry should be increased.

The U.S. is middle-of-the-pack when it comes to how safe we feel…

83 percent of us say we feel “very” or “quite” safe in our neighborhoods, which is a healthy number, but nothing compared to Slovenia, where 99 percent of respondents report feeling secure. Egypt is a notable outlier at the bottom of the list, which isn’t surprising given the political turmoil in that country.

… which might explain why we’re more likely to pack heat than almost anyone else

One reason why Americans might report feeling safe is we are third on the list for percentage of respondents who report carrying a weapon for security reasons, at 16 percent. While this is high compared to other countries, it actually seems quite low relative to how much you hear about self-defense in debates over gun safety laws. In 2013, “protection” was the top reason cited by gun owners for why they own a gun, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Americans are big into the notion of a “just war”…

Nearly three-quarters of Americans say that war is sometimes necessary in order to “obtain justice.” This puts us behind only Pakistan on that measure. There’s a lesson for politicians here. Need to convince a war-weary public to engage in yet another military escapade? Just tell them it’s in the service of justice.

… as long as somebody else is doing the fighting

While our enthusiasm for a just war is nearly unmatched, many of us get skittish when it comes to actually carrying it out. Only 58 percent of Americans say they would be willing to fight for their country. This puts us in the bottom-middle of the pack on that measure. Apparently it’s time to update Kennedy’s famous dictate: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what someone else can do for your country.**

When thinking about American exceptionalism, to what degree to do Americans invent and produce “goods” to help foster the “common good” compared to other countries?

How did the Iraq War free up democracy in the Middle East? Did the people broadly benefit from new capitalistic systems (liberalism)? Or did the Iraqi’s prefer the institutionalization of Fair Trade (i.e., republicanism)?

TBD. These are important questions which need to be answered in order to help understand “American Exceptionalism.”

**Christopher Ingraham is a data journalist focusing primarily on issues of politics, policy and economics. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center. He’s on Twitter.


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