Michael Kinsley unloads on “American exceptionalism”:
The theory that Americans are better than everybody else is endorsed by an overwhelming majority of U.S. voters and approximately 100 percent of all U.S. politicians, although there is less and less evidence to support it. A recent Yahoo poll (and I resist the obvious joke here) found that 75 percent of Americans believe that the United States is “the greatest country in the world.” Does any other electorate demand such constant reassurance about how wonderful it is — and how wise?
It occurs to me that there’s an obvious link here with the idea that the contemporary populist right is heavily driven by ressentiment—and that a lot of our current politics has less to do with actual policy disagreements than with resolving status anxieties. You can think of patriotism as a kind of status socialism—a collectivization of the means of self-esteem production. You don’t have to graduate from an Ivy or make a lot of money to feel proud or special about being an American; you don’t have to do a damn thing but be born here. Cultural valorization of “American-ness” relative to other status markers, then, is a kind of redistribution of psychological capital to those who lack other sources of it.
You can gin up bogus reasons why it might matter from a policy perspective when the president says something that can be construed as “apologizing for America,” or doesn’t engage in a lot of symbolism that’s supposed to signal commitment to “American values”—but none of them have ever made much sense. The conventional take is that it’s really about markers of tribal affinity, but we can go a step further: Maybe it’s more precisely that people want high-status figures to invest in building the brand of their shared identity—a sort of status redistribution as noblese oblige.
Update: Lest I I be thought to be making any claim to originality here, South Bend Seven notes that the basic idea here should be familiar enough from readers of the likes of Eric Hoffer:
The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.
— The True Believer, Section 9