Some food for thought. More below the break:
Some interpret the term to indicate a moral superiority of Americans, while others use it to refer to the American concept as itself an exceptional ideal, which may or may not always be upheld by the actual people and government of the nation. Dissenters claim “American exceptionalism” is little more than crude propaganda, that in essence is a justification for a America-centered view of the world that is inherently chauvinistic and jingoistic in nature. Historians and political scientists may use the term to simply refer to some case of American uniqueness without implying that an innate superiority of Americans resulted in the development of that uniqueness.
Basically I think of exceptionalism as a paradigm. A paradigm is a framework of assumptions and values that guides our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes as well as delineating the acceptable methods of inquiry and topics of discourse. As long as one stays within the bounds of the dominant paradigm, one’s ideas will be considered by their peers. However, those whose views fall outside of the dominant paradigm are likely to be viewed as crackpots, heretics, traitors, etc.
I believe that as a framework American exceptionalism – in the sense that America is somehow morally superior or that it is somehow an exceptional ideal (albeit one that is not always lived up to) has a number of serious limitations. One major problem is cognitive. From the research on motivated cognition, we know that people tend to 1) tend to actively seek out information that confirms their beliefs and 2) ignore or discount information that is contrary to their beliefs. Exceptionalists, when confronted with those stubborn facts regarding American-induced genocide, support of brutal dictators, use of torture, and so forth will tend to either minimize the severity and scope of those details or will find some way of interpreting those details to conform to their beliefs. Another problem will arise with regard to self-perception. To the extent that we tend to identify ourselves with our nation, we are motivated to think well of our nation as it is a reflection of who we are as individuals. The exceptionalist is motivated then to seek out the data that make them feel good about their nations and by extension themselves. Bringing up those stubborn contrary facts will make exceptionalists rather unhappy to the extent that they view mention of those facts as a threat to self.
Thus, what I see happening in America that we dissidents must face is the enormous task of 1) presenting facts contrary to the paradigm of exceptionalism in the face of a motivated cognitive system that is not disposed to handle such facts, and 2) presenting those facts in the face of a great deal of pressure not to in order to preserve the self-esteem of the exceptionalists.
This is obviously a very overly-simplistic presentation, but hopefully you get the idea. I’m willing to flesh out these ideas further as time permits.