US Identity & Exceptionalism

“U.S. Identity & ‘Exceptionalism’,” presented at the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, Australian Defence College, Canberra, March 22, 2012

This presentation addresses the social and cultural factors that have played defining roles in shaping the political culture of the US.  The founding documents of the US – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – have enduring cultural as well as political meaning.  They encapsulate key American ideas such as the combination of diversity and unity, the belief in the individual rather than government, a commitment to equality long compromised by slavery and its legacy of racism, and a vision of the US as a model, necessarily apart from the world.  Animated by these ideas, the US developed as a nation of immigrants, a culture that prized opportunity as the key to equality and prosperity, and a society that allowed individuals to express themselves and their faith, and to fail, free of government intervention.  Preserving these aspects of American identity have always provoked anxiety, as they do now, when Americans face Hispanic immigrants they are not sure can be assimilated and fitted into the nation’s racial order, an economy in crisis and dominated by Wall Street that threatens to deny individuals the opportunity for success, and questions about what role religion should play in American life.  The presentation will consider the implications for contemporary American politics of the ideas that underpin American identity and the anxieties that attend them.

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