The U.S. Is Obsessed With Its Own Exceptionalism. So Why Are its Presidential Candidates So Unexceptional?

According to Stephen Walt, “Most statements of “American exceptionalism” presume that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage”. Although often denounced as a mere patriotic fallacy, American exceptionalism holds true currency in the U.S. According to a Pew Research poll from September 2019, almost a quarter (24%) of Americans believe that the US “stands above all other countries” and a further 55% consider it to be “one of the greatest countries, along with some other”. Yet, despite this preoccupation with exceptionalism and uniqueness, the two remaining 2020 presidential candidates who could plausibly win November’s presidential election are the opposite. Both are white men in their seventies and although some of their policies may be exceptional in the American context, even the most revolutionary policies (e.g. Medicare for all and a buy-back scheme for assault weapons) are hardly new ideas. Aside from the obvious lack of representation (both in terms of gender and race), there are age and lifestyle issues which render all of the candidates less than ideal. So why hasn’t the idea of American exceptionalism extended itself to these candidates? Perhaps the two main reasons for this are the concept of electability and (ironically) the theory of American exceptionalism itself.

The 2020 presidential primaries have been ravaged by considerations of electability. This is especially true for Democratic voters who are desperate to remove President Trump from office. The Democrats’ wish for a candidate who can beat Trump at the ballot box, more than their affinity for any one candidate or policy, has been widely publicised and criticized. Yet, as pointed out by many of the same publications, electability is largely based upon historical norms. Therefore, it benefits exactly the sort of candidate who has been successful in this election cycle: older white men. The status quo of American politics is maintained through this idea of electability, and the potential of any truly unique or exceptional candidate is ignored. The Democratic primary race was particularly diverse at the beginning of the election cycle, with men and women with different racial heritage, sexualities and political backgrounds. Yet, as of the 6 March 2020, this field has been effectively narrowed down to two old white men, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, both of whom have a longstanding history in mainstream federal politics. For Republicans, Trump is really the only viable option, despite acting contrary to many values traditional to the Republican voter base (e.g. he is scarcely socially conservative in terms of his comments about women or having had multiple wives).

Another contributing factor to the prominence of this type of candidate is American exceptionalism itself. For those who believe that they are already the greatest, as so many Americans do, there is simply no need to change. Trump’s slogan for the 2020 election is representative of this. To “Keep America Great” it merely needs to remain the same, and there is no scope (nor need) for improvement. This is despite the many issues within American politics, and the broader negative influence this has upon American life (e.g. a lack of affordable health care or the number of mass shootings within the U.S.). For truly different or exceptional candidates to ascend to power, there needs to be clear motivation to vote for them, and this motivation is simply lacking in a society that does not acknowledge its need to evolve.

For the US to solve its societal issues, there need to be new candidates with new solutions. Although running on different platforms, the current presidential candidates are hardly exceptional in either the American or the international context. For the next election, Americans need to consider factors other than electability and distance themselves from delusions of American grandeur in order to elect a candidate who is truly worthy of being called exceptional.