Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune

American Exceptionalism in the Rearview Mirror

There’s a battle outside, and it’s raging.’

From the beginning Americans have been proud of a self-perceived national exceptionalism: intellectual, physical, and moral. While Europeans wrangled continental wars between feudal factions of themselves, our initial European explorers and settlers broke exotic (to us) ground in a New World. We eventually split from that Old World with a defining rebellion.

The global industrial revolution made us virtual rulers of an entire hemisphere. Our capitalism became a worldwide economic and political model with the Rockefellers, Du Ponts, Carnegies, Astors, and Vanderbilts as our 19th-century oligarchs.

Geographic isolation allowed us to choose our 20th-century battles and tip the outcomes of two world wars in favor of our principal forebears. With vast continental resources unscathed by war, we excelled each time and underscored our ascendancy.

Americans alive today have known an America only in recurring roles of international leadership, determinant of combat outcomes, engine of economic growth, groundbreaker in scientific advancement, model of modern democracy, contender in international sport, and a center for arts and culture. American Exceptionalism.

There are cracks in the façade, but we mostly refuse to acknowledge them. Our Civil War continues to be fought over racism that went quiet but never went away. Our religious and societal intolerances escape headlines while being reinforced in private enclaves. Our cultural stratification is ingrained on ethnic, economic and regional foundations.

Now the morally weak and intellectually vacuous Trump presidency gives tacit permission to express views, abet actions, and expose behaviors that previously were considered beneath us as a nation. We are better than this. One can only hope the extreme ugly factions now apparent in our society are mere offshoots, not the mainstream. Am I clinging to an American fable?

It’s clear now American exceptionalism may always have been a myth. It was a desperate self-congratulatory cheer to Americans in the midst of hard times. Current times force us to merge Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” with Dylan, “There’s a battle outside and it’s raging. It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle the walls.” A nation’s self-image hangs in the balance.

To submit a comment on this article, email or visit our Facebook page. To submit information to a reporter, email

Be succinct, constructive, and relevant to the story. Leaving a comment means you agree to our Discussion Guidelines. We like civilized discourse. We don't like spam, lying, profanity, harassment or personal attacks.

comments powered by Disqus
event calendar sponsored by:

Biggest Storm Since 1/9 Approaching Santa Barbara

The storm system brings increased threat of flash floods and debris flows.

Jack Johnson Tours Montecito Disaster Area Ahead of Benefit Concert

Jack and Kim Johnson met with Bucket Brigade leaders to see the destruction firsthand.

Iron Chef Caused State Street Pedestrian Death

Famous Chef Larry Forgione charged with misdemeanor for driving into Gilbert Ramirez on February 24.

Lavagnino’s Sudden Victory

5th District supervisor a shoo-in as filing window closes; Gregg Hart also unopposed for 2nd District.

One Half of Old Town Streets to Get Sidewalks

Walkways planned for one side of Goleta neighborhood streets; parking, lighting talks at community meeting March 22.