Customer Reviews: The Myth of American Exceptionalism
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on July 21, 2009
Hodgson basically has two theses. One is that the US is not quite so unique as we would like to believe. He points to things like early involvement in European disputes (i.e., the French and Indian War as just a part of the Seven Years War) and ideas (the Pilgrims as simply part of the Reformation and the debt the Founding Fathers owe to the Enlightenment), increased industrialization (and the consequent laissez-faire capitalism) in the 19th century, the idea of the frontier (in Russia, for example, but also through colonialism for the rest of Europe), and (recently at least) immigration.

The second is that, these days at least, there are some things that make the US unique - but not in a good way. These include the long list of things - education, medical care, income distribution, capital punishment, incarceration rates, the decline of manufacturing - that have already been discussed in other reviews. The most interesting thing about these is Hodgson's making the point that "it wasn't always so." As an example, we actually have rather a strong history of anti-militarism. In fact, just as recently as the start of WWII, our army was similar in size to Bulgaria's!

This second idea is probably the more important one, as Hodgson does seem to be an admirer of the US and does see some real, admirable examples of exceptionalism in our early history. More than anything, he seems to be asking "where did you go wrong?" There are, of course, many factors, but exceptionalism is definitely an important one.

I am familiar with a lot of the ideas in the book, but am really impressed with how Hodgson ties them altogether, the excellent arguments he makes, and his stinging-but-never-smarmy style.

My only objections were a somewhat wandering first chapter and a rather repetitious last one. All in all, though, this is an excellent read. It really provides a lot of light on recent history.
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on March 19, 2009
In the first two-thirds of the book, Hodgson takes the reader on an entertaining and knowledgeable ride through American history, and highlights those qualities that many Americans believe set themselves apart from the rest of the world when, in fact, those qualities are found in many other countries and often even originated outside the U.S. For instance, other countries have experienced peaceful, large-scale immigration. People in other countries love freedom. People in other countries respect the rule of law. People in other countries donate money to worthy causes. People in other countries are patriotic. Those positive qualities are not unique to Americans.

In the last third of the book, Hodgson details the areas where America truly is exceptional among industrial nations: last in health care, near last in educational achievement, first in incarceration rates, first in violent crime, last in intercity train service and public transit, first in income inequality, first in the amount spent on the military, first in allowing lobbyists and money to influence the democratic process.
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VINE VOICEon May 5, 2009
In many respects this British author recognizes the uniqueness, even exceptionalness, of America, especially up to the Civil War. But that is tempered by the fact that the early settlers, whether they were religious separatists or investors, regarded themselves as Englishmen and a part of European traditions and reform movements, including, later on, Enlightenment ideas - not exceptional Americans. The author's concern is that in recent decades, American have come to believe that our superiority entitles us to spread our political and economic systems and values around the world with military force if need be. That is counterpoised to the actual fact that in several key social and economic indicators, America is not only not exceptional but actual lags behind much of the advanced industrial world.

Without really exploring the forming of the American psyche, the author credits the American Revolution as being the first of its kind. No where in the world had liberty, especially religious freedom, the right to vote, and egalitarianism been achieved to that degree. America was admired worldwide as a place of unparalleled economic opportunity. American exceptionalism had some basis in fact. The author correctly notes the lack of a feudal past and the vast Western frontier as key factors in the growth of an American "classless" society with all of its opportunities. His point of western lands being acquired as a fallout from European intrigues seems beside the point. It needs to be noted, for those inclined to idealize America's past, that dissenters in early colonial societies were dealt with very harshly.

The persistence of slavery was definitely a dissonant fact in American beliefs in exceptionalism, but the advent of thoroughgoing industrialism after the Civil War with its often deleterious effects on social and economic well-being really took the shine off of claims to exceptionalism. The formation of a working class, a "proletariat," the tenement slums in our large cities, the extravagant wealth of industrial titans - all of these developments are regarded by the author as the beginnings of the discrepancy between the myths and the realities of America. America did not stand apart from Europe: the "social problem" was highly prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic.

The author does acknowledge that beliefs in a virtuous America, obligated to do good and to contain evil, were at least part of the reason for our interventions in the two world wars of the 20th century. However, the reality of the United States being the foremost industrial nation in the world by the early 20th century, coupled with the potential for a huge breakdown of the world order, made our interventions inevitable - not a particularly moral decision.

This book really has two concerns: foremost is the newfound, American aggressiveness in foreign policy, but perhaps as important is an examination of the actual performance in several areas of American society. Is America really a superior nation?

America alone in the industrialized world has a private, for profit, health care system with serious consequences in terms of access, exclusions of treatments, longevity, infant mortality, and costs. Education systems are underperforming and becoming more exclusive and costly. Inequality in terms of income and wealth have skyrocketed with wages no longer keeping up with productivity gains. Democratic processes from elections to governing are dominated by those with money. The repair and improvement of our nation's infrastructure takes a back seat to massive defense spending that exceeds that of the entire world. Our incarceration rates are right at the highest in the world. However, if the myth of American superiority is repeated often enough, real examination of these institutions is precluded to the detriment of the American people and American credibility worldwide.

It's difficult to say whether the author's theme of inflated self-regard fully captures and explains the foreign policy aggressiveness of the neo-conservatives of the last fifteen years or for that matter our interventions to counter perceived Communistic threats since WWII. Couldn't our interventions in places like Guatemala, Chile, Grenada, and the like be explained simply as geo-political hardball that in hindsight seems excessive? There were no claims made about spreading democracy in those cases. In fact, self-determination was crushed. One wonders if the recent interventions in the Middle East, despite Messianic overtones and misrepresentation of facts, are not really more a reaction of a powerful nation that recognizes the precariousness and unsustainability of the distribution and usage of scarce natural resources, namely oil. That is not to say that there are not elements of arrogance and bullying that descend from and are a perversion of our original exceptionalism based on liberty, equality, and democracy.

While for the author, the global ramifications of a distorted and justifying view of American exceptionalism are most important; for Americans, the serious shortcomings of our key institutions are more disturbing - not the myth, the reality. Perhaps both situations are two sides of the same coin. Until Americans regain control of their own political, social, and economic order, there will doubtlessly be global leakage that reflects those shortcomings.

The book is not especially original. American hubris has long been noted. The approach is basically a brief historical look that compares America with Europe since our founding, which largely undermines uniqueness or exceptionalism. The book, though short, manages to be somewhat repetitious, perhaps reflecting that exceptionalism and/or its myth is really just a part of more complete histories. Nonetheless, an interesting take on American thought.
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on December 17, 2013
Disappointing, after all the references I had seen to it. That may be because I took references to the phenomenon as references to the book. In any case, Hodgson's two key points -- that U.S. citizens and policy makers tend to see us as "special" with high motives and ideals and a mission to share these, and that this conviction has had pernicious effects -- is not entirely new news. Bachevich's "Limits of Power" and "Washington Rules" are more challenging and perceptive works, I think.

Also, it should be noted out of fairness to us that most countries have or have had their periods of exceptionalism, at least those that were big and powerful enough to get away with it for a while. Consider the Whig version of history so brilliantly satirized in "1066 and All That", or la gloire francaise, or German Kultur --- or go all the way back to the Greeks, who used the word "barbaros" for anyone who did not speak Greek. Exceptionalism may be some sort of human instinct, as pernicious as it is in the modern world.
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VINE VOICEon January 9, 2014
Terrific summary of American History by a sympathetic but honest intelligent British Journalist. Accurate description of America and Americans over time. Spares no punches. Should be assigned reading in all High Schools.
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on September 1, 2015
Godfrey is a must read in a survey of the important topic of American exceptionalism. I didn't agree with him on many points but I deeply appreciate his thorough examination of an essential topic of the 21st century.
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on June 26, 2016
Not so much a myth as a now obsolete ideology, the book describes the rise and fall of American exceptionalism with public and governmental misconceptions. The book suggests that American exceptionalism, starting with Jeffersonian missionary zeal, has been overstated since the Revolutionary war taking essentially DeToqueville's viewpoint. Manifest destiny was American hubris working because of military might relative to Mexico and Spain. Hodgeson quaintly cites that Canada escaped the blessings of liberty.
Each world war enhanced economic superiority of the USA relative to Europe. After WWII we exhibited economic success along with pseudo moral superiority exemplified by the Marshall Plan and aid to Greece, Turkey and Israel. After calling 1945-75 “the glorious 30 years” Hodgeson cites Madeline Albright saying “something went wrong.” That something was LBJ with the Vietnam war, and Great Society expenditures resulting in the gold outflow that obviated the Bretton Woods agreement. Oil assumed great importance after 1973. Since then American exceptionalism has been an illusion only of the thoughtless. It still behooves foreigners, especially in trade and travel industry, to view us as rich, which is not the same as exceptional. Though still a nation of innovators, we have lost the ability to capitalize on innovation. Our leading position in technology, medicine and higher education is dissipating fast along with living standards.
Hodgeson mistakenly thinks the demise is due to a continuation of Nixon and Reagan era conservatism. He witnessed the generation of the RE bubble under Clinton's Great American Dream of home ownership but the book was just slightly too early to see the accelerated decline in living standards under egalitarian progressive movement of the current administration showing that the Reagan era was merely a temporary push back against the prevailing egalitarian flow in American politics. Starting in 2008 the prevailing hubris of exceptionalistic policy is exemplified by Secretary of State Clinton lecturing the Arab states on American democracy. Since the collapse of the USSR it's been the perceived duty of US foreign policy to spread American democracy, if necessary, at the point of a gun. That's a continuation of Hodgeson's depiction of exporting ideology in their time of preeminence by the Spanish, British, Nazi and communist nationalities.
In my view the US budget deficit is a measure of the deficit in perception of exceptionalism. Another good proxy, not considered here, is the value of the dollar. The book is a polemic against an ignorant straw-man argument. Where it's accurate, it's largely trivial.
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on July 22, 2015
Some surprising facts to support a theory many of us are familiar with: we have always been a part of the world, not separate from it, and our good fortune has more to do with our natural resources and the fact that Europe spent the first half of the twentieth century destroying itself, making us more conspicuously successful in the aftermath. These trends led our establishment into Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, all of which contributed to losing many of the advantages we had been given.
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on April 9, 2012
An eye opener about what we believe as Americans and how that stacks up against the facts. Not condescending or insulting but an exploration into the mind, and behavior, of Americans. A good read.
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HALL OF FAMEon February 4, 2009
American patriotism has grown to the point that it blinds us to obvious opportunities for improvement - whether they be health care (a government-funded system that neither affects business hiring or competitiveness, nor leaves 45+ million vulnerable to treatable illnesses and/or financial ruin), education (we continue spending more, despite a lack of improved pupil achievement and already spending 2X/pupil that of other industrialized nations), military spending (equal that of the rest of the world combined), incarceration rates, illegal drug use, legal drug prices, never-ending threats of terrorism (vs. other nations' taking a more balanced approach to Israel - the origin of the problem), steadfast support for "Free Trade" (vs. every other nation with a growing GDP), etc. Somehow, we're the best - at everything, and our financial, economic, political, etc. approaches should be adopted by all.

Hodgson reminds us that we've had at least our share of class conflict, and institutional dysfunction (eg. the federal government). Our record does not stack up well against others - be it educational achievement, wage rates, longevity, access to health care, economic growth, and poverty rates. It's long past time we start learning from others.
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