University of Sydney professor leads American exceptionalism lecture

Brendon O’Connor, associate professor of American Politics at the University of Sydney in Australia, speaks during his lecture "The Ideology of American Exceptionalism" on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

American exceptionalism should be understood as a powerful strand of American nationalism, an ideology based on the belief that the United States is greater than other nations, said Brendon O’Connor, associate professor of American Politics at the University of Sydney in Australia.

“How you can claim to be the best nation in the history of the world is sort of nonsensical to me, but I’m trying to understand that idea,” O’Connor said Wednesday afternoon at "The Ideology of American Exceptionalism" lecture. “I’m seeking to sort of disprove the notion of superiority.”

American exceptionalism, a term O’Connor is investigating for an upcoming paper, is based on three core beliefs present throughout American life in everything from election debates to textbooks: exceptionalism of birth, role and opportunity. While all three points of pride can be problematic when taken to extremes, O’Connor said the belief in America’s exceptional opportunities for its citizens could be particularly damaging. 

“It creates a whole set of falsehoods about inequality and opportunity that of course some people are knocking away at, a guy from Vermont and whatnot,” O’Connor said with a nod toward presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Michael Morrel, an assistant professor of political science at UConn, said he questioned whether or not a philosophy of exceptionalism was specific to America after O’Connor’s lecture.

“That led me wonder about something, is American exceptionalism exceptional?” Morrel said. “Is the American version of exceptionalism a version of a broader sense of exceptionalism that we might find historically or contemporarily in Russia, Great Britain or other parts of the world?”

O’Connor said that while many countries possess a certain sense of superiority, the concept of American exceptionalism has a unique history. Josef Stalin, former leader of the Soviet Union, actually coined the term in 1929 in response to the suggestion that American workers wouldn’t be interested in a communist revolution, which he described as “heresy.”

“Stalin is not an exceptionalist, he’s saying that the laws of marxism are going to apply to America, and not even at a slower pace than other places,” O’Connor said.

Politicians like President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney have since adopted the term, once used to dismiss the notion that America stood apart from other nations, as a source of inspiration.

“It’s sort of up talk about a nation, to use self help terms about it,” O’Connor said. “It’s quite therapeutic in the current times so you get more of it now then ever because it’s off in the distance but there’s this specter of decline.”

Fred Lee, an assistant professor of political theory at UConn, said the concept of American exceptionalism as an ideology can be difficult to grasp because it often exists below the surface of a conversation.

“The difficulty with ideology, at least from a critical theory perspective, is that ideology is not what is implicitly said, it’s what is meant,” Lee said. “It’s the background that makes sense of the statement that America is the greatest country in the world.”

American exceptionalism should be understood not as a myth, O’Connor said, but as the flipside of anti-Americanism, an essentialized view of a complex nation.

“Ideologies shouldn’t be seen as dogmas or tokenizing systems of thought, but rather as malleable,” he said. “It’s very difficult for a national to divorce themselves from the country they were born in.”


Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.armstrong@uconn.edu.