Does America have an exceptionalism problem?

Barack Obama, Mitt Romney,
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama walk past each other on stage at the end of the last debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Why can't politicians give Americans the facts? Why can't the presidential candidates tell it like it is? These are the questions New York Times reporter Scott Shane asks in his recent opinion piece, "The Opiate of Exceptionalism."

Shane joined The Daily Circuit Monday to talk about American exceptionalism.

From his piece:

How far would this truth-telling candidate get? Nowhere fast. Such a candidate is, in fact, all but unimaginable in our political culture. Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary...

This national characteristic, often labeled American exceptionalism, may inspire some people and politicians to perform heroically, rising to the level of our self-image. But during a presidential campaign, it can be deeply dysfunctional, ensuring that many major issues are barely discussed.

"Politicians who are running for president and presidents themselves to a considerable degree, are reluctant, it seems to me, to be very candid about big chronic, difficult problems," he said. "It's fine to say, 'Unemployment is too high and I will create millions of jobs and put people back to work' because that's a problem instantly followed by a solution."

But bigger issues like poverty are largely ignored by politicians because there isn't an easy solution or talking point, Shane said.

He cited a ranking of the 35 most economically advanced countries in the world where the United States is 34th for child poverty. The only country behind America is Romania, he said.

"I would like to think there are a lot of extraordinary things about our country, but I think this insistence on thinking of America as No. 1 in every respect gets in the way of one of the strengths of the country, which historically has been a sort of willingness to face facts, be realists," Shane said. "That can be lost when we're just sort of focused on insisting everything is fine, that we're doing very well."

Clifford D. May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and political Islam, also joined the discussion. He said Shane's discussion is misdirected.

"I think this is a matter of misunderstanding the concept of exceptionalism," he said. "American exceptionalism is not, as Scott is arguing, an assertion of American greatness. It doesn't mean we're any better in any particular category or that we're better at all. It's something simpler and it's something humbler. It's recognition that America is different from other nations, that it is not ordinary in ways that are significant and consequential."

May said our country was founded on ideas, rather than blood and soil, and we have a duty to lead the world on those ideas.

On the live chat, Poebel backed up May's argument that exceptionalism and American arrogance are different discussions.

"The 'norm' definition of exceptionalism is wrong, as can be historically demonstrated ad nauseum," Poebel wrote. "I would challenge anyone on the other side to point us to the philosophical underpinnings of the view that 'exceptionalists' are talking about health care policy, poverty or any of these other issues."

JustAnotherSkippy said America is exceptional based on the democracy it was built on.

"America is exceptional because it remains a land of opportunity and personal responsibility and because even though we have the power to build an empire we as a people reject it," JustAnotherSkippy wrote. "We are also the first modern democracy to enshrine those values that nearly everyone holds dear in our Billl of Rights. Even today in Europe's de facto free speech environment their laws permit far more restriction of dissenting speech than here in the US."

Kris agrees, but said American exceptionalism is now hurting the country's ability to solve problems.

"It is true in some ways that America, at its best, is exceptional," Kris wrote. "However, our collective sense of exceptionalism has blinded us as a culture to many of our most pressing problems, and hindered our ability to look logically and with open eyes to find solutions. We are becoming less exceptional because we are less able to recognize the exceptional ideas of others."

MPR News' Alex DiPalma contributed to this report.

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