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American Exceptionalism on Trial


“It can’t happen here” is an enduring refrain in American culture, a reflection of the idea — whether invoked ironically or in earnest — that the United States has a special destiny, and stands apart from the forces shaping the rest of the world.

Now, with a devastating global pandemic definitely happening here, much of the nation is asking how and why and what it means that a country that sees itself as the world’s wealthiest, most powerful and most scientifically advanced leads the world in both cases and confirmed deaths.

It’s a reckoning that has stirred intense debate about health policy, inequality and partisan politics, but also extends beyond it, touching on history, values and national identity. And for some, the severity of the crisis — and the slow, disjointed government reaction to a danger warned about for months — has also upended their conception of the country, shattering the already battered idea of American exceptionalism, if not turning it on its head.

“My perception is that we should have been able to just knock it out of the box, like a walk-off home run because this is the United States and we hold ourselves in high regard,” said Clinton Jackson, 66, a retired worker from Caterpillar in Decatur, Ill.

The government’s lack of preparedness was “embarrassing,” he said, before reaching for a metaphor right out of the more heroic story the nation tells about itself.

“We didn’t get no Paul Revere saying ‘The British are coming’ type of thing,” he said. “We got ‘Don’t worry about it, we got this under control.’”

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.”

Still, Americans have a way of turning to history as a kind of consolation, to give knowable shape to frightening, chaotic events. And since the crisis began, leaders have reached for analogies like Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, which both capture the sense of shocking suddenness, and also appeal to an idea of the American story as a series of challenges that make us stronger, better, more united.

Such analogies also underline the idea of American specialness — that we are under attack, as the post-Sept. 11, refrain went, “because of who we are.” But an attack by pathogens resists that same kind of self-flattering narrative. And for some, the coronavirus crisis, instead of affirming our distinctness, is revealing how much we have in common with the rest of the world, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.

Since the crisis began, the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen has been having regular video gatherings with friends in Moscow. And what has struck her, she said, is the similarity of what they were experiencing, starting with the feeling that “we’ve been entirely left to our own devices.”

“In the United States we have all this infrastructure, and we think that all these things are going to work the way they’re supposed to when push comes to shove,” she said. “In Russia, we always knew they wouldn’t.”

Even references to America as the “epicenter” of the crisis, when per capita death rates in many other countries, including a number in Western Europe, are higher, Ms. Gessen said, reflects a wrongheaded frame.

“It’s just another aspect of us realizing we are just as vulnerable as people in other countries — and in some ways a lot more — to a thing that doesn’t recognize national borders,” she said.

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.

The idea of American exceptionalism has long been in ill repute among critics on the left. But since 2011, there has also been a steady slide in the share of Americans who agree that “America stands above other countries,” according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. At the same time, the image of the United States has declined precipitously in a number of other countries.

Mathew McGill, 35, an Army veteran from Queens who served in Iraq, said he thought the chaotic American government response to the coronavirus crisis would further damage the country’s standing.

“Even though we’re first in a lot of things, we’re first in virus patients because we didn’t listen,” he said. “I think the world is going to look at us differently.”

To some, the crisis reveals the failure of the post-9/11 support to homeland security, with its emphasis on external threats and military solutions.

“We’ve built a national security apparatus that turns out to be irrelevant to those things that actually threaten us,” said Andrew Bacevich, a historian and the author of “The Age of Illusions: How American Squandered Its Cold War Victory.”

The novelist Jhumpa Lahiri said the pandemic has highlighted one positive characteristic that distinguishes the United States: its openness to newcomers, as exemplified by the number of immigrants and children of immigrants who are on the front lines as health care workers and scientists.

But she questioned the assumptions behind wondering why the crisis was happening “to us.”

“If you’ve grown up in Spain, in Italy, in Germany, in India, and you haven’t absorbed the reality of the blows of history,” she said, “you are a naïve person, an ignorant person.”

“When we as a world come out of this crisis,” she added, “the real danger is going to be going back to that way of thinking why is this happening to us, as opposed to them.”

And then there’s the question of just who “us” is anyway. The crisis has intensified the conversation about inequality, especially as data has emerged in some states showing that African-Americans and Hispanics account for a disproportionate share of deaths.

Alondra Nelson, a sociologist and the president of the Social Science Research Council, said the scenes like thousands of cars lining up outside food banks had pulled the rug out from under the American “ideology of middle-classness.”

“Scholars knew that so many people in the United States lived a paycheck away from economic catastrophe, and now we are seeing it,” she said. “We can no longer talk about the solid middle class.”

“It is this kind of imperfect storm of every level of inequality — in income, education, race, wealth — being brought to bear at once,” she said.

Infectious disease, and the kind of collective response required to combat it, can run up hard against the American myth of rugged individualism. It’s also a subject that has tended to get little attention in our historical narratives.

The American Revolution coincided with a devastating smallpox epidemic, which helped determine the course of the conflict while claiming five times as many lives (particularly among Native Americans, who had been besieged by imported diseases from the moment Europeans first arrived).

Even the most devastating outbreaks tend to be forgotten. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic took some 50 to 100 million lives worldwide, and nearly 700,000 in the United States (then much more protected by geographical isolation than today). But it tends to receive little more than a passing mention in textbooks, which tend to subsume it into the larger story of World War I — an event which can be seen as ushering in the American Century when the country came out of its isolation to dominate the globe.

Disease outbreaks have sometimes spurred mass collective mobilization, as when parents lined up more than a million children for trials of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine trials of 1954, a private, voluntary effort in which the federal government played virtually no role, as the medical historian David Oshinsky has noted.

The current crisis has brought out a surge in community-based mutual aid efforts, and a number of those interviewed expressed faith that Americans would take care of each other. “Here, we’ve always been proud to be Americans,” Martha Clark, 76, a retired city employee in St. Joseph, Mo., who now runs a farmers’ market there. “There are signs on the school fences that talk about, you know, we have heart and we’re proud to be working together, we’re in it together, all of this.”

But others see the crisis as the outgrowth of an exploitative system that leaves everyone fending for themselves.

Inayiah McKay, 22, a direct support professional in Queens who works with older patients, said she initially thought the virus would be handled quickly, as swine flu had been. But the panic shopping, shortages of supplies and the uncoordinated political response, she said, only confirmed her belief that American capitalism is a sham.

“I’ve never actually had faith in this country,” she said.

Wilfred McClay, a historian at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the new textbook “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story” (intended as a conservative riposte to authors like Howard Zinn), expressed skepticism about premature doomsaying about the meaning of American history.

What makes the United States distinctive, he said, is its mistrust of centralized authority, and many different levels of political organization. And it is too soon, he said, to say that has failed.

“The resulting pluralism can be messy, as we’re seeing on the national stage right now, with quarreling governors and local officials and the like. But thank goodness for that messiness and contentiousness,” he said. “It allows us to make our local leaders accountable and responsive to us.”

Mr. Kennedy, the Stanford historian, said he hoped there would be a recalibration of people’s beliefs about what does make America distinct, if not necessarily superior.

“For the last 40 years in this country, we’ve been in thrall to the kind of message Ronald Reagan delivered in first inaugural: Government is the problem, not the solution,” he said. “But there was a time when you asked Americans what they’re most proud of, and they’d say their government.”

“Look at the last line of the Gettysburg address,” he said. “What does Lincoln think is at risk? It’s government of the people, by the people, for the people. That’s what makes us distinctive.”

Nate Schweber and Nancy Coleman contributed reporting from New York City; Robert Chiarito from Chicago; Nick Madigan from South Florida; John Peragine from Davenport, Iowa; and Rebekah Zemansky from Phoenix.


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