1. What Is Counter-Exceptionalism?
Bill O’Reilly leans in. “He’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer,” he says. Donald Trump, then the president for less than a month and giving one of his first interviews in office, barely pauses. “A lotta killers, we got a lotta killers—what, you think our country’s so innocent?”
It was a moment for which Trump was roundly lambasted. How, politicians and media figures asked, can you equate America with Russia? How can you say that we are no different, that there is no moral gulf between us? Even those uncomfortable with American exceptionalism pushed back; the problem in some circles was less that Trump had acknowledged American faults—coming from a man who has supported the existence of Confederate statues and lionized Andrew Jackson, this alone meant little—but that he did not argue forcefully for an America that sought to move past its flaws, to be better. In that idle remark—are we so innocent indeed?—was not just acknowledgment of fault, but acceptance of it as a way of life, as the way things are; also, that no new American age where our national potential—for justice and equality, for freedom, for an actualization of any of the bywords on which our country defends itself—is realized will ever be achieved.
Trump’s rise largely coincided with a push and pull over American exceptionalism that has now outlasted his presidency. Sides are not clean, are not divided by party or political orientation. The debate concerns not just what the United States is and can be, but in fact what this or any country can represent to its citizens and to the world. On the one hand are the exceptionalists—those who hold faith in an America that is unique in the world and destined for greatness. Opposing the exceptionalists are a motley crew spread across right, left, and center who argue that America is, even beyond Trump’s relatively amoral formulation, a force for ill. Let’s call this inchoate ideology counter-exceptionalism. It’s not anti-exceptionalist—that is, it is not simply an argument against American exceptionalism. Rather, it is an argument affirming exceptionalism’s inverse: an ideology that argues that America either has always been, or has become, a unique force for ill in the world.
Counter-exceptionalism has crept into our public spaces en masse—and it is a force that threatens the political and cultural integrity both of the country as a whole and, in the more immediate term, of the ideological battles of those engaged in an earnest debate about how to better it. A left that cannot conceive of an America that has even the potential to be a force for good now struggles to make a positive argument for that good and concedes the grounds of hope and reconciliation to the exceptionalist right. The counter-exceptionalist right, meanwhile, has grown convinced of American decadence and decline—it believes that the United States has become a sort of Sodom, and in that conviction has become increasingly hostile to democracy and amenable to violence as a legitimate political mechanism.
It is easy to see counter-exceptionalism as a beast only of the left—that is, certainly, the story much of the exceptionalist right tells itself, and in certain left-wing circles where “right wing” and “nationalist” go hand in hand, that narrative has gained traction, too.
Yet elements of right and left have found common cause in counter-exceptionalist thinking. Exactly what repulses different groups about today’s America—or America across its history—varies. The arguments are not always aligned—though sometimes, frighteningly, they are. But they tell an interlinked, parallel narrative about a country that is steeped in sin, likely irrevocably, one that must either excise some part of itself or cease to exist entirely, lest it spread its contagion the world over. The former is the right-wingers’ frequent choice, in the most extreme version expressed with language that calls for a cleansing or a second civil war, something to rid the country of its decadent overlords. The latter is more familiar on the left: America is beyond saving and thus must be replaced—as immediately and as completely as possible.
Neither doctrine is a healthy one for a nation, or a movement, to embrace. To realize a better future, Americans must believe one is possible—not because of American exceptionality, but because of American normalcy. We are a country, fighting along toward a better future, even if we do not agree on what that is or who should lead us toward it. We cannot expect that our country itself will be moral, that the state will act as anything but a vehicle—but we can ask and demand of ourselves and our elected leaders that we, and they, be moral. Together, we can strive for a future that is not exceptional, but is just.
2. The Left Against America
“The hour of the barbarian is at hand,” the Martiniquais writer Aimé Césaire wrote in 1950. “The modern barbarian. The American hour. Violence, excess, waste, mercantilism, bluff, conformism, stupidity, vulgarity, disorder.” It is the briefest, most apt summary of counter-exceptionalism possible: Not only is America not a force for good; it is in fact a wicked entity, one that has in its power and its wealth set out to corrupt the world, to tarnish through the imperial tread of oligarchical capitalism and mass media the beauty of other aspects of humanity or indeed all of humanity, Americans included.
The leftist journalist Vincent Bevins quoted Césaire in his essay on the January 6 insurrection, writing that “the legend of American exceptionalism needed its imagined inverse” to survive, arguing that those talking heads and politicians who turned to analogies of coups abroad to explain the rioting and violence at the Capitol were in fact describing only the impacts of American foreign policy, and American culture, on life around the world. Bevins has made a career out of documenting atrocities abroad that have received the backing, explicit and not, of American policymakers. As Bevins tells it, America is unique not so much because it is a singularly evil country but because it is a singularly powerful one—a place that “is not normal,” as he wrote in The Baffler last year. It can be viewed as uniquely wicked because it barely functions, in his view, as a country—rather, it is a monolith.
Césaire and Bevins are both the sort of critics who are deeply informed about world affairs, aware of America’s place on the globe in large part due to their understandings of places that are far removed, at least in geography, from American shores. Other critics on the left show the same degree of interest in America’s heavy hand abroad but bring to this interest far less knowledge or understanding. They will, for instance, assume a regularity to conflict, read American debates into distant wars, and argue that one thing is equal to another thing to which, in fact, it bears little resemblance. As the journalist Matti Friedman wrote of his home, Israel, last year in a piece critical of this trend, it is often the case that problems in distant countries have “nothing to do with the demons stalking America.”
But that does not stop the uninformed. The prominent far-left podcast host Esha Krishnaswamy, for instance, went so far as to label pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, Russian dissidents agitating against Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship, anti-authoritarian campaigners in Belarus, supporters of continued Ukrainian sovereignty, the free Tibet movement, pro-Uyghur campaigners, anti-dictatorship agitators in Cuba, and far-left Syrian rebel groups “fascists” for no better reason than that they had all flown the American flag during rallies. That none of these groups are in fact fascist was irrelevant; the presence of the U.S. flag was itself condemnatory. What the American flag symbolizes is indeed fraught; it means many things to many people, not all of them good. But the idea that its mere presence is evidence of fascism is an absurdity, one that arises out of ignorance of the history of the flag, its various meanings, and the reality that it is claimed by many—for many purposes.
Krishnaswamy’s argument ignores the reality of an America that is complicated, whose image abroad is not as cloistered and monolithic as the one she herself maintains. It is not that America’s reputation is good—one has only to look at opinion polls to know that it often is not—but rather that it is complex, and that in some places, to borrow Friedman’s phrase, even the use of the U.S. flag itself has relatively little to do with America’s own demons. To a protester in Hong Kong agitating against the takeover of a fledgling democracy by China’s authoritarian government, the American flag may need to represent little more than a symbol of opposition to the Chinese Communist Party.
The image of people from far-off places conceiving of the United States as a land of liberty and opportunity, a place of refuge and hope, has lost currency on both left and right over the years. Today, an author on the right can easily tut-tut immigrants abroad experiencing hope for a better life, preferring instead closed borders, closed hearts, a closed society. Writers on the left all too often reject entirely the belief that anyone could ever see America as a bastion for hope and opportunity—but they hate us, the refrain goes, we are the oppressor. Despite that, it is a simple reality that this country still represents hope for many—those fleeing violence in Latin America, say, and those who apply for refugee visas from around the world.
The conception of America as uniquely flawed—and indeed as the foremost driver of the world’s ills—has fundamentally blinkered some observers. In late January, the Democratic Socialists of America’s International Committee released a statement on the escalating tensions in Ukraine. These tensions have clearly been fomented primarily by the 130,000 or so Russian troops, nearly a full invasion force, amassed near the borders of a sovereign country from which Russia has also recently, and illegally, annexed territory. Yet the DSA statement pinned the blame for the crisis squarely on “US brinkmanship,” “US-led Western imperialist domination,” and America’s “ongoing militarization.” At no point does the statement mention Putin; it does not even mention Russia until its second half. The statement also never criticizes Russia at all, in stark contrast to Senator Bernie Sanders’s February 10 floor speech, which criticized U.S. policies but squarely blamed Putin for the crisis.
The DSA view is even in some agreement with right-wing sympathizers of Putin’s. In early February, the provocateur Glenn Greenwald tweeted that he was “glad to see” the Democratic Socialists of America “joining Tucker Carlson and other members of the more antiwar wing of the American right” in attacking U.S. opposition to Russian imperialism. Greenwald and the DSA are often to be found arguing that imperialism is all well and good, so long as Americans don’t do it (Carlson tends to weigh in only to support autocrats like Putin).
Criticism of American policy—at home and abroad—is often a moral necessity. But when hatred of the country and its history becomes paramount, it casts blinders upon otherwise reasonable people, causing them to look away from clear facts and obvious realities in favor of fitting each and every piece of information, no matter how ill-suited, into a narrative. It is, here, a counter-exceptionalist narrative: America, the DSA’s statement suggests, is uniquely evil, responsible for the world’s ills; when another powerful country, like Russia, chooses to aggress, that is only a reflection of American imperialism, as if an abused child were aping the behavior of its parents. This ignores, of course, that Russia is a nation that has existed for centuries, that Russians—and the current Russian leadership—are agents of their own destinies, and that to invade or threaten to invade another sovereign nation is a choice, not a fait accompli of a third country’s actions.
3. America Ain’t Right
Where exceptionalist and counter-exceptionalist doctrines are today in most direct conflict with each other is within the Republican Party. Trumpism is counter-exceptionalist to its core. A doom-and-gloom national narrative can sometimes work for right-wing politicians—reclaiming America from degenerates fits well with the religious right’s ideology, and fits, too, with the populist, us-versus-them world of Trump. Yet some Republicans—those of the anti-Trump old guard, and those still hoping to win over the suburban voters who have soured on Trump—are taking avowedly exceptionalist stances. Within the Republican Party, that competition is now playing out viscerally.
Last fall, Glenn Youngkin’s campaign for Virginia’s governorship capitalized on the teaching of so-called critical race theory in public schools to argue for what he claimed was a new, balanced vision for the country. In the Republican telling, critical race theory is about indoctrinating children into a form of counter-exceptionalist thinking: a doctrine that sees the United States as inherently sinful, its history irrevocably rooted in slavery, the genocide of native peoples, and a legacy of intervention abroad that has led to untold thousands of deaths and much destruction. Critical race theory curricula teach (as such politicians see it) an American history that will inevitably, inexorably lead the country to its own self-destruction by failing to teach America’s triumphs alongside its failures, its glories alongside its shameful moments.
Youngkin made this a key point in his campaign, hoping to appeal to parents with a speech that Barack Obama could well have delivered a few years earlier. “We will teach all history, the good and the bad,” he said. “America is the greatest country on the planet. We know it. We have an amazing history, but we also have some dark and abhorrent chapters. We must teach them all.” Youngkin’s formulation was cleverly calibrated. If one’s opponents can be tarred as extremists, interested in only their own muddled interpretation of reality, then the opportunity to campaign on balance—and latterly, on hope for reconciliation—emerges.
And yet, Youngkin’s is a political agenda every bit as much as so-called critical race theory is. His is the agenda of an exceptional America, an America that is unique—and uniquely positioned to achieve good in the world. That may be Youngkin’s vision, his political project—or just his message designed to win elections—but it is not the platform of his party’s erstwhile leader. If the counter-exceptionalist left has opened up a massive opportunity for Republicans—creating a space for politicians like Youngkin to call for a new, exceptional America to rise in glory and join together, becoming wiser and stronger with each new generation—the counter-exceptionalist right threatens to slam that door closed. Youngkin’s stated goals are far less extreme than those of his Republican colleagues, of course. Many anti–critical race theory laws go far beyond Youngkin’s stated doctrine and seek to avoid any potentially negative, embarrassing things in American history altogether. A bill in Florida would ban any lesson that might cause a student to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin,” which surely would ban teaching of slavery, the genocide of America’s native peoples, and many more atrocities besides.
In his history of American exceptionalism, City on a Hill, the Washington University professor Abram C. Van Engen draws a sharp contrast between the rhetoric of essentially every modern Republican president and Trump’s “America First” doctrine. A politician like Ronald Reagan rewrote the historical record to showcase his vision of a unique and virtuous America. George W. Bush advocated for an America that would—at least in stated principle—give democracy. Mitt Romney, like Reagan, drew heavily on John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech, the document on which Van Engen focuses his history. But Trump does not attempt to rewrite or rework history, as Van Engen tells it; rather, he “dispenses with history.” Exactly how America could be made “great again” was never elucidated; at what point was America great? As countless commentators have observed, we do not know. Trump argued, Van Engen writes, that
all countries are the same, including the United States, and all share the same fundamental goal: to win. In that sense, “greatness” has nothing to do with historic ideals or bedrock values rooted somewhere deep in the American past. It is, rather, a measure of material wealth. It amounts to having the most money, the biggest military, the best airports. And for that reason—because greatness amounts to gain—there is nothing that finally sets America apart. Trump has consistently proposed a universal purpose for all nations: every country protects itself, advances its interests, and prospers its own. That, and that alone, is the point and purpose of a nation.
Where Bush wanted to give, Trump sought to “take everything back from the world that we’ve given them.” Where even a Democrat like Obama saw “potential progress,” an America “becoming a beacon,” Trump instead saw a country that was not “so innocent.”
Perhaps Trump is right—perhaps we live in a jaded age. It is unclear that Americans even are particularly proud of their country. According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center last year, just 39 percent of Americans are “proud of their country most of the time.” Ten percent are usually ashamed of the United States—fully half say they are often both proud and ashamed, however. At least on paper, Youngkin’s constituency is large; Trump’s ambivalence is harder to place.
In a way only Trump seems fully capable of mustering, his question to O’Reilly gets at something both quite right—namely, that the United States is a country like any other, neither more moral nor less—and something quite wrong. Trump attempted to use the non-morality of nations, their lack of agency, as an excuse. In asking if we were so innocent, his implication was not that we should try to be better. It was not even that we should embrace ambivalence. No—Trump was attempting to justify cruelty, malice, and dominion to advance his view of “the point and purpose of a nation.” He sees the international order exactly as he saw the business world—as a lawless jungle where the only point is to win, and it’s a given that the United States can and should lie, cheat, steal, and worse, since everyone else does.
Naturally, Trump’s comment to O’Reilly did not fail to inspire. Tucker Carlson, the American media’s foremost right-winger, is both an exceptionalist in a sense and a Trumpian counter-exceptionalist. To Carlson, America is “a profoundly nice country; the nicest in the world” (partly because “we don’t eat dogs,” of course); yet his actual vision of an exceptional America is neither particularly American nor particularly exceptional. His inspiration, instead, comes from ethno-nationalist autocracies—Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Putin’s Russia—rather than other pluralistic, immigrant-fueled states. It is a view of the unexceptional country out for itself, fighting for its own people (as defined by Carlson, perhaps), rather than as a country seeking to achieve a brighter, more moral future for all its citizens (as defined in fact).
4. The Amoral State
In the 1978 comedy classic Animal House, the beleaguered and incompetent president of a soon-to-be-abolished fraternity rises in student court to remark, tepidly: “Delta House has a long tradition of existence—to its members and to the community at large.” Thomas Hobbes, writing more than three centuries before the release of Animal House, argued that “The finall Cause, End, or Designe of men … is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of Warre, which is necessarily consequent … to the naturall Passions of men.” In other words, the chief business of government is that it is the absence of nongovernment.
This could be misread as a case for moral disinterest—for rejecting not just the idea of countries as moral agents, but indeed the attempt of government to do good. That is Trump’s argument. If a state cannot be good, to attempt to make it good is futile. We either live in the mire of immorality, embracing it—as Trump would have us do—or we embark upon a project to tear down what exists entirely and rebuild from scratch, as many on the left would have it. What government needs, instead, is merely to exist, as Hobbes and the feckless fraternity president put it—it needs to function as a repository for the decisions of the individuals who make it up and govern it, and—through their belief in a better future—it may, for a time, be possible to realize something more attuned to goodness than any amoral hulk by right should be. The conservative intellectual Helen Andrews once wrote in First Things that “loving ambivalence is the best we could hope for.” I disagree: We must acknowledge the amoral ambivalence of the country as an institution, but seek ever to apply our own best moral impulses upon it.
In part, the amorality of the state is an intellectual necessity. Government may not ever be truly good; to govern is to choose, and to choose is to choose imperfectly. An arbiter of disputes between individuals could not work very long before coming to a decision that was, in one way or another, unjust. Governing is the act of attempting to find the lesser of evils—and it is itself a lesser evil, one put in place on the assumption that an ungoverned people would commit more base immoralities than a governed people. But when the leaders of a state choose to commit immoralities, clothed in the power of government, those immoralities are magnified, intensified through the authority of structures beyond the individual.
The amorality of the state is also a function of history. The “great game”—the long rivalry between Britain and Russia for dominion in Central Asia and for global influence—is an illustrative example. We could reasonably say that Russia emerged in the ninth century as Kievan Rus’. So, too, we could say it emerged in the thirteenth, on the formation of the Muscovy, or three centuries later, with the czars—or another couple of centuries after that, as it consolidated into the Russian Empire, or when communism swept across the country in the twentieth century, or when the current Russian Federation formed in the 1990s. Or take Britain, a country that in that same period was reconquered from the Norse, then conquered again by them, then reconquered again; then we find the Normans, the Angevin empire, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the Commonwealth, the Acts of Union, the Great Reform Act, the abolition of empire. Today, the United Kingdom has a defense agreement with Ukraine against the Russian Federation—the continuation of the “great game.”
But while the “great game” plays on, we cannot—indeed, would be insane to—claim that these countries have remained meaningfully the same throughout their histories, just as the United States arguably became a new nation entirely as it reconstituted itself—abortively, yet critically—after the Civil War, and again as it finally edged toward full democracy in the 1960s. Just as leaders come and go, so, too, do the basic institutions they lead; states are fickle, ever-shifting, more sandbars than rock mounts. By necessity, their moral agency is nonexistent. By necessity, they themselves are fictional: Ideas and narratives that control territory, but still, at their core, merely ideas, stories we tell ourselves so that we might, for a little while, avoid Hobbes’s state of nature.
The brutality of human history can never excuse the brutality of American history—we cannot simply say that because others have committed atrocities, we should forgive ourselves for our sins. Yet it can remind us that we are not unique, not special, not singular: We are not, in Trump’s words, “so innocent,” but nor are our peers. Countries, at their core, owe their people only their existence—it is their citizens who must live, improve, and carry on, for themselves and for their fellows.
James Baldwin, in his essay “Down at the Cross,” essentially agreed. American society, he wrote, is “menaced more than ever, by the vacuum that succeeds all violent upheavals.” It was not, in Baldwin’s view, that America deserved to exist—does any country?—but that its destruction might bring about a worse end; the United States was built in sin, but was still—for those willing to attempt it—a country that could be built anew upon its own foundations. “We should certainly know by now that it is one thing to overthrow a dictator or repel an invader and quite another thing really to achieve a revolution,” he went on. “Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves into the hands of yet another Pharaoh, who, since he was necessary to put the broken country together, will not let them go.”
The idea that America is a uniquely awful, sinful country is every bit as navel-gazing, self-centered, and harmful to the national polity as the conception of the United States as a uniquely good—or even Godly—nation. To be an exceptionalist or a counter-exceptionalist is, fundamentally, to put stock in a fiction, in the idea that an imagined agglomeration built first and foremost to keep things running is in fact a moral arbiter. Such a system of reasoning, by its very nature, absolves the officials (elected or otherwise) currently running a nation from moral judgment; a predetermined course of sin or of glory cannot reflect too harshly, or too well, on those who are merely in the carriage as it trundles along its set route. It gives, too, leeway to citizens; in an exceptionalist or counter-exceptionalist polity, we each become not actors capable of altering our own destiny, but observers who can do only two things: witness or leave.
“National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement,” wrote Richard Rorty, the noted leftist philosopher, in his lecture “American National Pride,” given at Harvard toward the end of the twentieth century. To Rorty, “just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.”
Rorty’s view is, I think, broadly the right one. A country may be only a necessary fiction—an ideological myth, to borrow from Rorty—but to believe insufficiently in that myth is to abandon the potentiality for improvement. In his lecture, Rorty was concerned first and foremost with counter-exceptionalism—though he does not call it that—on the left. By the late twentieth century, he saw a “rueful acquiescence in the end of American hopes” in leftist political thought, believing that young leftists had essentially joined the right in fighting cultural rather than political fights and had, in effect, surrendered a left-inflected vision for the American future by assuming the country could not be “achieved” at all. Young intellectuals on the left, writes Rorty, often view the United States “as something we must hope will be replaced, as soon as possible, by something utterly different.”
Rorty’s critique of intellectual culture—partly couched in a discussion of novels that were current and are now largely forgotten, in which a vision of a rotted, irredeemable America was advanced—rings true today. As I wrote in 2020, much of the current trendy literary milieu is filled by autofictionists who seem ashamed to organize, to be active, to be—as Rorty would put it—agents in their political communities. They would prefer to engage in a “sort of detached spectatorship,” a “decadent and cowardly” removal from political life. In his novel The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s protagonist—a thinly veiled version of himself—attends a protest about immigration during the Trump era. He feels embarrassment more than anything else. So, too, Jenny Offill’s Weather, where insomnia is a “badge of honor. Proof that you are paying attention.” Not working to change anything, just paying attention—spectating.
On the right and, especially, the left, there is a need for (to borrow again from Rorty) an “American civic religion” that is capable of rising above “narrow-minded and obsolete nationalism.” Exceptionalism is easily misused, the seedbed upon which hate and maleficence can grow. But counter-exceptionalism can indeed be worse—it can root out hope for any growth, any change by imbuing our political thought with a conception of an inescapable original sin. It can lead to the ideology of resignation—to a mimicry of that position William T. Vollmann laid out on the climate crisis: “Nothing can be done to save [the world]; therefore, nothing need be done.”
Rorty took as his inspiration, in matters of national pride, John Dewey and Walt Whitman. Their conception of America, he wrote, “is compatible with remembering that we expanded our boundaries by massacring the tribes which blocked our way, that we broke the word we had pledged in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and that we caused the death of a million Vietnamese out of sheer macho arrogance.” We do not have to forget our sins—we only have to strive to be better than them. The 1619 Project—and the debates that have flowed from it—are part of this reckoning, as is the work of numerous historians and thinkers. The project specifies a belief that America’s founding ideas were false, but that they can be made true, a rejection of both exceptionalist and counter-exceptionalist thought that is essential for a healthy polity. Those who believe, as Rorty put it, that “it is a fundamental moral fact that the commission of certain acts—acts which can be specified without regard for historical changes or cultural differences—is incompatible with further self-respect” are incorrect, not because the acts themselves can be forgiven but because they do not exist in a vacuum. Original sin does not apply on a national scale; though Rorty did not claim as much, this is in large part because countries themselves are not moral agents. Only we—their citizens—are. Countries cannot choose; they can only be made, like great ships floundering at sea, to right themselves and sail on. The past is not determinative of the future. It informs it. It shapes it. But does not dictate it.
Baldwin put it a different way. “The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace.” But in not embracing that myth—in knowing that “(t)ime catches up with kingdoms and crushes them, gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them; time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats at those foundations, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue”—Black Americans were, in Baldwin’s reckoning, the essential building block upon which a new, better national myth could be built; not a revisionist one, but a more complete one that accompanied, as he put it, “total liberation.”
Rorty’s discussion of Whitman and Dewey is notable in one other way: He knows that they are exceptionalists. That Whitman, for instance, held that the United States is “the greatest poem because we put ourselves in the place of God: our essence is our existence, and our existence is in the future. Other nations thought of themselves as hymns to the glory of God. We redefine God as our future selves.” While Rorty is summarizing Whitman approvingly, he is not necessarily accepting his mythmaking entirely, because he sees it as mythmaking. Here is an ideological story he is choosing to accept, not one he accepts as truth in its own terms. “Stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity,” Rorty wrote. Arguments “about which episodes in our history we Americans should pride ourselves on” are not, in Rorty’s view, “a contest between a true and a false account of our country’s history and its identity,” but rather “an argument about which hopes to allow ourselves and which to forgo.”
This is, I think, the best way to understand ourselves as a country. We are unexceptional. We are another country just muddling along. It has often been observed that the late twentieth century’s great clash was unusual because it existed between the two largest credal nations—the United States and the Soviet Union—the world has ever known, nations ostensibly built primarily upon a central idea rather than upon a shared ethnicity or culture. Whether America’s founding ideals were ever truly meant—whether they were, as some historians now argue, essentially just an excuse to promote the interests of a wealthy merchant class—is almost immaterial insofar as today’s Americans are concerned. It is the duty of citizens to strive to better their country, no matter which set of ideals they happen to espouse.
This is not to say any such ideals can be realized. That belief in an idea, the idea of America, is a belief not in what America is, nor even what it can be, but in an unachievable goal. America’s better angels may win battles, they may even be ascendant someday, but they will never be first and foremost what a country is, and they will never entirely drown out our worst impulses, no matter how successful they become. Countries are flawed, inhuman things—they are not perfectible. Even if the pursuit of their perfection is worthy in itself—and it is—it is a pursuit that will, at best, approach its goal, but cannot ever reach it, as surely as an equation’s long line can infinitely approach a number but never touch it. Where both exceptionalists and counter-exceptionalists err, of course, is in believing in the primacy of good or evil, rather than in the reality of morally flawed, ever-changing, and fundamentally alterable countries that exist first and foremost as mechanisms for social organization, not as moral agents. But the fact of the country itself as a fundamentally amoral entity does not excuse amorality on the part of those inhabiting, and governing, it.
There is nothing evil in a country in itself, nor anything inherently good. Instead, we have only an amoral nothing, a blank canvas, upon which we can choose to act—or choose only to allow others to act. Rorty believed that a better America can be achieved through agency, through conscious choice to accept a narrative of national pride—and to accept as well the worst of American history. To sit back and watch ourselves follow along a supposedly predetermined path is not citizenship; it is spectatorship. We do not need to be exceptionalists in order to work to better our country; it is better that we not be, precisely because there is nothing so unique about us. But to be counter-exceptionalists is, if anything, worse: It allows complacency and lack of interest in our own future, or worse, it builds upon the impulse to tear down, to rend and gut for its own sake.
It takes more than a belief in an America that is good for America to become good. We cannot imagine righteousness and thus live it. But—and this is the tricky part—we cannot make America a force for good if we believe it is fundamentally incapable of goodness. We cannot create justice in soil where we see no place for it to take root. Whether America is considered exceptionally good, exceptionally bad, or simply exceptional, we lose something when we see in ourselves not a country like any other—possessed of better angels and lesser demons, with a winding history in which glory stands alongside shame—but a beast unique, walking its own preordained path upon a fated course. This new generation of Americans should seek not to tear down the country entirely, nor to embrace a sort of national amorality, but to strive to live its values, and so—for a little while—to build a better country, and to do the work of, in Baldwin’s terminology, “achieving” a better kind of America, not for the sake of exceptionality, but for decency.