State of the Union January/February 2006

Misfit America

Many of the values and cultural attributes that once made the United States unique have eroded; those that remain look increasingly ugly to some foreigners. Is our evolving national character a liability in our foreign relations?

Let's try to think of an original American tableau—the sort of scene, not happening elsewhere, that shows just how very different we are from all others. We might point to the wide-bottomed twelve-year-old, fresh from his double cheeseburger with fries, plunging into the neighborhood pool. Or to the pasty-faced workaholic, hunched over his computer in a lonely cubicle late at night. Death row comes to mind (few other countries routinely execute criminals), and so do images of people freely doing things that would land them in jail elsewhere. No other nation is as legally tolerant of Holocaust deniers, flag burners, and users of the N-word—not even our progenitor the United Kingdom.

But in a shrinking world it is getting harder to think of distinctive American scenes without invoking the Grand Canyon or Maine lobster. It is particularly striking how few of the cutting-edge things in American society are uniquely American. Male teenagers the world over ogle the same pornographic images on the Internet. Circles of friends swap digital photos on their mobile phones in London, Moscow, and Hong Kong just as they do in Los Angeles. Worried about our video-game addicts? It was a South Korean who recently dropped dead after playing the battle-simulation game StarCraft for nearly fifty hours straight. Much of what Americans may now think of as culturally or technologically novel has already happened elsewhere: the kind of WiFi system that San Francisco aims to establish in its public places already exists in Tokyo.

As for the things the United States did invent, such as the melting pot and popular democracy, they are being widely (if not always successfully) imitated. Consider, for example, Australia—a fast-growing democracy that has a higher percentage of immigrants than America, and is emerging as an important experiment in multiculturalism. The pro-democracy group Freedom House rates fifty-eight countries as comparable to the United States in political freedom.

If American culture and society are losing their historically distinctive cast, perhaps it is good news—at least for our foreign relations. America has long stood out from the crowd, in ways that seem to have complicated as much as helped our relationships with other states. If a global culture is slowly emerging—if our values have blended with others through some subtle osmosis—we might expect our international relations to become less fractious.

And yet, as a bruised Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, can attest, many foreigners not only view Americans as fundamentally different from themselves but also seem to despise the United States. And even though much of that antipathy stems from unpopular U.S. foreign policies, misgivings about America's culture figure prominently too—even among Europeans.

If American culture is less distinctive than it once was, it nevertheless remains unusual in several fundamental respects. Unfortunately, those unique qualities that have faded were usually attractive to foreigners; and many of those that remain are viewed today with discomfort or even disdain.

American exceptionalism, the idea (and the reality) that America is unique, is rooted in part in the populist values arising from the Jacksonian revolution of the 1820s. Frontiersmen battling both the Cherokee and the Boston banker, in a revolt of the muddy boots, drove the country westward and seemed to permanently dispel the Old World vision of America held by Alexander Hamilton and other Founding Fathers. In a speech extolling the wisdom of the "rich and well-born" in matters of governance Hamilton said, "The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right."

The Jacksonian spirit, the notion that every man is a king, still helps to set America apart. It is evident in the continuing popularity of referenda for settling contentious political issues in a number of states; in many Americans' devotion to gun ownership; and in the particular brand of kick-ass patriotism—sometimes accompanied by Confederate-flag waving—on display in the South, Andrew Jackson's home turf.

But much of the Jacksonian ethos has been lost, especially when it comes to the idea of America as an equal-opportunity society—a basic tenet of this creedand, for that matter, of the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence.Economic mobility has been declining for three decades: a study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 2002 found that since the 1970s U.S. families have been significantly less likely to move up the income ladder, prompting questions that "go to the heart of our identity as a nation." (Indeed, by some measurements income mobility is now higher in Canada, France, and the United Kingdom.) One reason is that the children of better-off families begin their schooling with huge advantages over everyone else. The melting pot may still dissolve ethnic differences, but it has accommodated itself to class-based divisions.

These divisions are getting harder to overlook. In luxury-box America an afternoon at the ballpark is less often the class mixer it used to be. Jury duty may be the only experience left in which America's starched shirts and blue collars sit and sweat together—and it's mandatory. Just ask the have-not victims of Hurricane Katrina—the ones who were left to fend for themselves in the New Orleans Superdome—about a classless America. The disaster exposed the kind of squalid lives familiar to travelers to Haiti and readers of Graham Greene's harrowing tales of the Third World.

At the same time, Hamilton's ghost has returned in the form of a fixation on status and privilege. Although conspicuous consumption is not new in American life (we've long had our robber barons), it has spread to sectors of society that are supposed to embody an elevated public-spiritedness. Thus the Louis XIV—type behavior of American University's president Benjamin Ladner. At a New Year's dinner to celebrate the engagement of his son, paid for by the university, guests enjoyed truffles and caviar washed down by Cuvée Palmes d'Or champagne. The appalled trustees eventually ousted Ladner, but his actions speak to a larger phenomenon: as the late social critic Christopher Lasch wrote in the mid-1990s, a new and dandified aristocracy of talent has arisen in America. Its members are continuing to remove themselves from common life.

To appreciate the arc we have traveled, just recall the "secular Scripture of the United States," as the critic Harold Bloom has called Leaves of Grass. In 1855 Walt Whitman used the first poem in the collection, "Song of Myself," to celebrate America as a Jacksonian jumble of disparate types sharing the same adventure.

Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.
I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.
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Paul Starobin is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His profile of Nursultan Nazarbayev appeared in the December issue.

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