American Exceptionalism Is a Dangerously Naive Form of Nationalism

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This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series Fascism in America

American exceptionalism is not a magic shield. In fact, the notion that a nation is special is a form of extreme nationalism. You aren’t special or immune to fascism. Trump is proof

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(10-01-2017, updated 07-11-2018)  I have said for decades that it’s dangerous to make kindergartners pledge allegiance to the flag, because it’s nationalist indoctrination and it can easily lead to fascism. The response was always a breezy “Oh, that would never happen here. We’re just proud of our country–nothing wrong with that.”

Fascism and nationalism go hand in hand, as I said in the introduction to this series about Fascism in America, and in many ways they overlap. America has always been strongly nationalistic. So what does that mean, exactly? And how is patriotism different?

NATIONALISM definition: loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially: a sense of national consciousness, exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational organizations.

Patriotism is a love for one’s country. Nationalism is a love for one’s country, but also the conviction that one’s country is the best, and that that sentiment cannot be questioned. That it can’t be questioned brings it into the undemocratic, authoritarian and fascist sphere.

American Exceptionalism Definition

Nationalism includes the belief that one’s country is the best, and that one’s people are the best. There’s even a special term for American version, which Stalin mockingly coined and which Reagan turned into a compliment: American exceptionalism. There are many definitions, but they all have several aspects in common:

  • the belief that America is unique in the world due to its history as the first democratic country;
  • the belief that America is somehow immune to the dangers of fascism and other forms of authoritarianism and dictatorship;
  • the conviction that America is the best and an example to the world as regards democracy, freedom, upward social mobility, etc.

In order to fight fascism, Americans need to address their deep-seated nationalism and their belief in American exceptionalism. Americans, you are not special. Yes, you have the oldest democracy in the world, but that doesn’t mean you can put the country on automatic pilot. Many countries have long since overtaken you in terms of democratic values and individual freedom and yes, even in upward social mobility.

Not Actually Number One

Many countries have some form of proportional representation in their government, which means that a party that gets 20% of the votes gets 20% of the seats in parliament. So everyone is heard. Which is more democratic than the American winner-take-all system, wouldn’t you agree? Also, in most democracies, some variation of America’s Supreme Court evaluates a bill and decides whether or not it’s constitutional before it goes into law, which saves a lot of frustration, money, heartache, injustice and lives.

Most western democracies don’t suffer from the level of police oppression that’s the norm in America. Just watch an episode or two of Happy Valley if you don’t believe me. In most western countries, you don’t get put in handcuffs for talking back to a cop, because freedom of speech trumps verbal respect for someone just because they wear a uniform. More on this in a later post. At the same time many countries have a more qualified freedom of speech, which enables exceptions to speech that incites or promotes hatred and violence toward others, because in many other democracies people have the constitutional right to a reasonably safe existence, without public intimidation.

And the go-to argument that is often used when all others fail: but America is still the only country where you can start off as a newspaper boy and become a millionaire? Not true. In Canada and many European countries you stand a much better chance of making more than your parents did than in America.

You’re Not Special, America

The idea that Americans are somehow special, somehow immune to undemocratic movements, is dangerously naive. I think we all know that now. So America is the oldest democracy, but that doesn’t mean you can put the country on automatic pilot. I have been telling people that I think it’s dangerous to do things like make kindergartners pledge allegiance to the flag, because that kind of nationalist indoctrination can so easily lead to fascism. The response has always been a breezy “Oh, that would never happen here. We’re just proud of our country–nothing wrong with that.”

But America is just a country, nothing less, but also nothing more. And Americans are just people, no better or worse than people anywhere. Americans are capable of the same hatred and violence as the Germans were. Don’t take my word for it–check out the Stanford Prison Experiment and the movie The Third Wave, based on a high school history experiment.

Since Trump became the Republican nominee and especially after the election, the haters became emboldened and we see the results every day. In Charlottesville, but also in public figures who say that those who don’t want to stand for the national anthem can line up and get shot. When a public figure spews fascist talk like that, it’s only one small step away from inciting government-sanctioned violence, and some folks won’t even care about that distinction; it’s just a matter of time before someone carries out that threat.

Already several schools are telling students that they will be expelled if they refuse to stand for the national anthem. That’s unconstitutional, but Trump said it, so they feel they can do it. And he’s only been president for eight months…

Things are going downhill so fast it’s making reasonable people’s heads spin. I think we all know now that America is just as vulnerable as any country that isn’t vigilant at all times against non-democratic tendencies.

This post is Part 2 in the series Fascism in America. The next post will be about nationalist and fascist language.

(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “Fascism in America 2: Exceptionalism”, 10-01-2017)

Sources:

  • Isaacs, Julia B. “International Comparisons of Economic Mobility”. Pew Economic Mobility Project, The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/02_economic_mobility_sawhill_ch3.
  • Zimbardo, Philip G. The Stanford Prison Experiment: A Simulation Study on the Psychology of Imprisonment. http://www.prisonexp.org/
  • The Third Wave. (Experiment) Wikipedia. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/The_Third_Wave_(experiment)
  • Bogage, Jacob. “Louisiana high school will kick students off team if they don’t stand for national anthem”. The Washington Post, September 28, 2017.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2017/09/28/louisiana-high-school-will-kick-students-off-team-if-they-dont-stand-for-national-anthem/?utm_term=.014bb0a3557a

Header image: In: Mann, Bonnie. “American Exceptionalism: The Gender Factor” (Articles) E-International Relations. , March 23 2014.  https://www.e-ir.info/2014/03/23/

Series Navigation<< What is Fascism and What Does American Fascism Look Like?Fascism and Its Language: America is the Greatest Country on Earth! >>

5 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism Is a Dangerously Naive Form of Nationalism

  1. I saw a good slogan the other day. It was, if you want to live somewhere where everyone has to stand for the national anthem move to N. Korea.

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