Shelf Life

On the waning of American exceptionalism

Kai Ryssdal Aug 13, 2013
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Shelf Life

On the waning of American exceptionalism

Kai Ryssdal Aug 13, 2013
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Say what you want about Congress today, or how lazy the younger generations are, or even how we don’t really make anything in this country anymore. But the fact is that for centuries, America has thought of itself as exceptional.

‘American exceptionalism’ is the phrase you always hear. In his new book, “American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History,” Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute puts that characteristic into historical context. The idea took hold in part, he says, because of how hard Americans work.

While Americans might moan and groan about their work schedules compared to other nations, “we’re a shadow of our former selves,” says Murray.

“We work less than we did in the 20th century and way less than we did in the 19th century. I think there has been a cultural change in the way that we look at this constant activity that used to be such a central part of American life,” he adds.

Murray says industriousness was an essential characteristic of early Americans. “[Europeans] all agreed that Americans were caught up in work and getting ahead unlike any other people in Europe.”

But that wasn’t the only characteristic that made Americans unique. Murray says that other economic factors — like a strong belief in the invisible hand and the ability to expand westward — as well as cultural similarities like religion, helped to also push America forward. He says we should remember those things, even as we see their faults.

“[There are people] who criticize American exceptionalism,” admits Murray. “They say, look, you’re ignoring slavery. You are overlooking sexism, all sorts of ways in which the United States acted just like any other empire. All of these are points that are reasonable to make. They should not overshadow the historical reality of the uniqueness of the United States.”

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