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Is America Out of Gas?

Is American Exceptionalism “the old whiskey bottle we pull off the shelf when we’re feeling down?”

There is a widely perceived “hiccup” in the American story today. While we once saw ourselves as “exceptional,” is America now out of gas?

This is the question Tom Ashbrook raised to a panel at The Nantucket Project, a festival of ideas on Nantucket, Massachusetts. Ashbrook tapped the perspectives of Lisa New, Chris Matthews and David Gergen on American literature, history and political culture. After all, is the notion that we “look back in awe, look forward in gloom” (as the economist Matt Ridley put it) a defining feature of the American psyche? 

“Americans have always loved doom,” said Lisa New, professor of English at Harvard University. “Doom is inspiring.” While Americans have always taken deep pride in the idea that ours is a self-created country, New says that Americans have also “derived part of their identity from the sense that their specialness was in peril.” In fact, it’s hard to find a work of American literature that doesn’t involve the question of our specialness played out.

Henry James’s, Portrait of a Lady, for instance, involves a character who believes she can have “an original relation to the Universe,” as Emerson put it. And yet, despite her earnest belief in her liberty, “her can-do spirit,” New explains that we watch her make fatally bad choices. 

In other words, freedom doesn’t necessarily make you happy. This condition is no different to what many Americans are feeling today. People are bereft and uncertain. And so is this notion of American Exceptionalism “the old whiskey bottle we pull off the shelf when we’re feeling down?” 

According to NBC’s Chris Matthews, the danger of seeing ourselves as special is the notion that we have to be “the world’s policeman, saving the day all the time.” David Gergen, who has advised five U.S. Presidents, agrees. Exceptionalism, as it was understood by American pioneers and European observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, meant the country was “different, not better.” Americans had certain historic differences, such as a lack of a feudalism structure. Instead, it was  the individual that mattered, or “the need to be self-reliant.”

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Images courtesy of ShutterstockMeghan Brosnan

To learn more about The Nantucket Project and how to attend the 2013 event visit


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