We are perpetually being told that President Obama is destroying “American exceptionalism.” When conservatives talk about the concept, they don’t simply mean that America is different than other countries — an unobjectionable claim — and that there are some great things about this country — also unobjectionable. They mean that America is not just different, but better. And better in special ways that give it a special mission on the planet.
The features of American exceptionalism conservatives love are going way. The culprit, however, is neither President Obama nor his party. Rather, the American public and the world economy are changing in fundamental ways. These changes, far from undermining America as a country, will allow us to be a better country in a better world. If that means the end of “American exceptionalism,” than that’s a small price to pay.
In a recent essay, Peter Beinart identified three key features of American exceptionalism: our extremely high religiosity, our belief that America can and should act unilaterally to promote freedom in the world, and our belief that social mobility in America is so strong that class distinctions are not a barrier to success. All of these have eroded significantly in recent decades.
Start with religiosity. Every year there are increasing numbers of Americans who are secular or unaffiliated with any religion. According to recent data from both the Pew Center and the General Social Survey (GSS), the unaffiliated now clock in at around 20 percent of adults. This is an impressive figure considering that, until recently, projections of religious affiliation did not see the unaffiliated hitting 20 percent until the mid-2020’s. Percentages of unaffiliated adults are now comparable — in fact, lower — than in European countries like Denmark and Italy:
Part of the reason for this rapid growth is generational. Both Pew and the GSS indicate that among the youngest Millennial adults — those born 1990-1994 — around a third have no religious affiliation. Another reason is dissatisfaction with the political activities and conservative social stance associated with much of organized Christianity. This is driving many liberals and moderates toward a more personal approach to worship and spirituality. It is also helping to fuel the move away from formal church attendance. According to the GSS, the proportion of the population attending services only once a year or less has increased from 29 percent in 1972 to 44 percent today.
So much for being on a mission from God—particularly from a Christian God. Even today, only about 55 percent of adults are white Christians. By 2024, that figure will be down to 45 percent. That means that by the election of 2016 (or 2020 at the outside), the United States will have ceased to be a white Christian nation. Looking even farther down the road, by 2040 white Christians will be only around 35 percent of the population and conservative white Christians, who have been such a critical part of the GOP base, only about a third of that—a minority within a minority.
But are we even on a mission? This is another change. Once, Americans saw their country as freedom’s apostle, burdened with a duty to set the rest of the world on the path to righteousness. No more. Most Americans now believe that we should “take allies’ interests into account even if it means making compromises”, that the best way to ensure peace is through good diplomacy, and that “relying too much on military force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism”. These and other non-interventionist beliefs are particularly strong among the younger generation, who are bailing en masse on the idea of a special mission dear to the hearts of today’s conservatives.
Finally, what of belief in America’s exceptional social mobility? This too is going the way of the dodo. The not-so-pleasant facts about mobility in America have now sunk in with the broad public. In a recent Pew poll, 65 percent of Americans said the gap between the rich and everyone else in the US has been increasing the last 10 years, and by a 60-36 margin, respondents said the economic system in the country unfairly favors the wealthy, as opposed to being fair to most Americans. In the same poll, more than half (51 percent) thought getting rich was more attributable to a person’s having extra advantages than to working harder (38 percent). And in recent Center for American Progress Action Fund/Hart Research poll, 71 percent said that “the deck is stacked against middle class people and in favor of the rich.” In the same poll, 78 percent agreed that “no one is guaranteed success in America, but everyone deserves a fair shot to succeed, and today that just isn’t happening for too many Americans.” These sentiments are of course widely shared among the Millennial generation where economic mobility has been particularly vexed. So much for America as an exceptional country where nobody worries about class!
If America is less exceptional as a country in these ways, does that make us a worse country? Hardly. On the contrary, it is better that Americans are losing their illusions about social mobility and are therefore more likely to demand policies that actually produce mobility; it is better that Americans no longer want to reshape the world in their image, with our without the deity’s imprimatur; and it is better that more Americans are seeking their own spiritual path and rejecting systems of thought that promote intolerance and reject science.
But it isn’t just Americans’ beliefs about America’s exceptionalism that are changing. It’s also cold economic reality.
America’s relative position in the world is changing drastically. While once it was not unreasonable to regard America as the richest, the biggest, the dominant force on the planet, that is increasingly untrue. As much of the rest of the world treads a path to development, high living standards and democracy, we are becoming less exceptional every day.
These realities are laid out in detail in a groundbreaking new book by development economist Charles Kenny, The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest Is Good for the West. It is of course already true that a number of countries in the advanced world approach or even exceed the US in metrics like GDP per capita. But in the future, the continuing rapid advance of many developing countries will narrow the gap between America and the rest of the world. This convergence will produce many changes in America’s relative position in the world.
By 2030, China may well account for 24 percent of world GDP, double what America is projected to account for. Countries like India, Indonesia and Brazil will also rocket forward. We can be assured of no longer standing out as the biggest on the world economic stage.
Nor will we stand out as the country where a high living standard is available to massive numbers of people. On the contrary, continued economic advance will likely make high living standards commonplace. The average Mexican in 2050, Kenny’s book argues, will likely be richer than the average American today.
Our democratic form of government is similarly less likely to distinguish us in the future. As Kenny notes: “Democracy is now the default for political systems worldwide” (p. 84). The number of countries that are broadly democratic has doubled since the 1980s. And the number of democratic countries that do not grant full suffrage to all adult citizens has dropped from 30 in 1970 to 4 today. Similar trends hold true for education levels, social tolerance and life expectancy: we’re seeing convergence big-time.
These developments will make us less exceptional. But they are all good things! Even leaving aside the undeniable and extremely important fact that more citizens of the planet will be able to lead a decent life, these developments will also help us as Americans lead better lives. The expansion of the global middle class will create tremendous opportunities for American exports, as well as broadening the worldwide base for innovation and technological breakthroughs that will enrich America as our breakthroughs have enriched the rest of the world. We are therefore likely to become much richer (on average twice as well-off by 2050) than we are today even as high living standards become commonplace.
And the spread of democracy, tolerance and high education levels should lead to a more peaceful global neighborhood. There will be much less need for a special mission from God to keep the world in line — and that’s a very good thing. American exceptionalism may be on the way out but, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship with the rest of the world.