Will a Pandemic Shatter the Perception of American Exceptionalism?Historians in the News
tags: American exceptionalism, national emergency, COVID-19
Reactions to the current crisis vary widely, and are strongly inflected by partisan, generational and other divides. But interviews with more than three dozen historians, writers and Americans from all walks of life expressed a struggle to reconcile the crisis with the nation’s self-image.
David Kennedy, a historian at Stanford University and the author of “Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War,” said events had laid bare the degree to which we’ve “starved the public sector.” But he also wondered if the sheer scope and pace of the disaster defied any easy analogies from American history.
“It’s as if a lightning storm struck the country from coast to coast,” he said. “The velocity, the time scale — it’s in the category of the unprecedented.”
The idea of American exceptionalism is a squishy but durable concept, going back as far as John Winthrop’s famous 1630 sermon warning his fellow Massachusetts Bay colonists that their settlement would be a “city upon a hill,” whose success, or failures, would be seen by the world.
For the mid-20th-century scholars who developed the concept, it referred to the fact that the United States, alone among the wealthy Western nations, never had a working class party, or developed the kind of welfare state and safety net that exist in most European countries.
It was during the Cold War that it hardened into a belief of the superiority of America’s brand of free-market democracy, which would be protected by projecting American power around the world.