Robert J. Samuelson: American exceptionalism still alive, sort of

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 24 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Murray thinks American exceptionalism is eroding. In part, American values -- equality, democracy -- have spread abroad. In part, foreign ideas have spread here. Americans distrust government, but the Founders' preference for limited government is gone. For the nation's first 140 years, federal spending never, except in wartime, exceeded 4 percent of the economy, says Murray. Now, it regularly tops 20 percent. The U.S. welfare state resembles the European.

There's also a widespread understanding that national ideals were often violated (slavery and racial discrimination being the most glaring examples). Indeed, Americans themselves seem increasingly skeptical of exceptionalism. The 2011 Pew survey asked respondents to react to this statement: "Our people are not perfect but our culture is superior." Only about half of Americans agreed, roughly the same as Germans and Spaniards. Significantly, 60 percent of Americans 50 and over agreed, while only 37 percent of those aged 18 to 29 did.

Still, these portents can be overdone. Compared to many, Americans are more optimistic, more individualistic, more confident of progress. What the late historian Richard Hofstadter once said remains true: "It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one."

Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.

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