Biden embraces exceptionalist view of U.S.

President Biden upholds the idea that the U.S. is superior in his recent speech, which is the root of the problem.

My fellow Americans — the words that have opened President Biden’s most recent speech and many others in American history — carry a sentiment that unifies Americans across the country. It is an apt start to a speech about the periling threats facing our democracy. Former President Trump and his followers seek to divide and destroy the country’s democratic institutions because, as Biden notes, they gauge their success on the failings of others. By highlighting the fragility of democracy, Biden breaks with his predecessors in favor of a more realistic, yet eerily somber, view of the present world. For Biden, unification in the present allows for the hope of a better future. To accomplish this, Biden needs to acknowledge that merely refuting Trump is not enough. In order to truly make a difference, the rhetoric would need to address the underlying problems that gave rise to Trump and have subsequently allowed for Trumpism to be a popular form of discontent for many Americans.

After the First World War, Stefan Zweig noted that The Age of Security in which he grew up had ended. He did not live to see the world after the Second World War, but security ultimately returned to the West, only to be destroyed again by the beginning of the next century. This time, though, it was not a result of war, but a mixture of negligent practices and a willingness to accept myths as reality. Oftentimes, these two went hand in hand. The idea that liberal democracy is the best of all political systems and has no viable alternatives was made popular after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Western leaders and thinkers propagated this idea, especially to developing countries. The former communist countries of Eastern Europe, many emerging nations in the Middle East and elsewhere have adopted democratic systems in the last thirty years. Notably, though, many of these democracies have collapsed into authoritarianism or at least are much less democratic than they used to be. This is the context in which Biden is referring when he says, “For a long time we have told ourselves American democracy is guaranteed, but it is not. We have to defend it, protect it, stand up for it, each and every one of us.”

President Biden is correct to acknowledge that democracy has to be supported in order to survive. This rhetoric is welcome, but unfortunately it falls short of addressing the cause of the problem by merely critiquing its outcome. Trump is not just an anomaly; he is not even unique. Him, his ideas and their popularity are products of the blindness caused by American exceptionalism, though as Ivan Krastev notes, Trump rejects the idea of America being exceptional in favor of a view of America as the victim of today’s world. For Trump, America is not better than any other country through its democracy, freedom, opportunities or any of its other values. Quite the opposite: America is better than other nations when it quells competition in order to project American superiority. The irony of Biden finally acknowledging the failings of liberal democracy is that Trump has been speaking of it for years, except Trump speaks about it as the one who has actively weakened democratic institutions.

The prosperity of the 20th century led many Americans to embrace the idea that their nation is greater than other nations. The 20th century, however, was not as kind to other parts of the world. As a result of the death and destruction brought by the two world wars, many European countries viewed nationalism as the scourge that brought ruin to their societies. It was ubiquitously viewed as a dangerous ideology and had actively been avoided by the very same countries who supported its beliefs in the pre-war years. In the United States, though, the Second World War solidified American ideas of their own supremacy. By helping to rebuild Europe after both world wars, the United States emerged as a phoenix out of the ashes of total war.

Biden upholds this idea of American exceptionalism. He espouses that the world needs America as a place to look to for inspiration. This is another myth and it is equally ridiculous. It implies that America is the best country in the world, not based on the merits of its own society, but on the idea that every other society is inferior to America. To be the best, by definition, means that others have to be worse, but this misses the more significant point that one can always be better. Biden has been careful not to deliver this message so obviously. Instead of speaking about the glory of American exceptionalism, he speaks of the soul of the nation. These are not two separate ideas: they are one idea that is being called two different things. Through a strong liberal democracy, according to Biden, America’s soul acts as a unifier of all peoples. This is not a new idea, nor is it unique to America. In other countries where nationalism is prevalent, such as Russia, the idea of a national soul imagines that one people possess traits that make them superior to other peoples. It is important to realize that exceptionalism of any kind is part of the problem. It is not possible to be a solution. Americans are not inherently better than any other people in the world and the situation in America is not going to improve by simply including more people into the myth of a great nation.

Post Author: Dylan Moucka