The United States in Decline? Assessing the Impact of International Challenges to American Exceptionalism

Jason Gilmore, Charles M. Rowling


The idea of American exceptionalism has lived a long and vibrant life in U.S. politics. In recent years, however, many have suggested that the United States might be losing its edge in world affairs. Little research has sought to examine the effects that these explicit challenges to American exceptionalism might have on U.S. public opinion. With this in mind, we conducted an experiment in which a large sample of U.S. adults was exposed to such messages. Specifically, drawing on social identity theory, we explore the psychological dynamics that shape how U.S. adults might respond to messages that directly challenge the idea of American exceptionalism depending on whether these challenges come from competitor countries (e.g., China and Britain) or noncompetitor countries (e.g., Australia and Mexico). Our findings suggest that challenges to this idea have a significant impact on (1) U.S. adults’ sense of American exceptionalism, (2) their willingness to actively degrade other countries, and (3) their attributions of responsibility for the United States’ perceived decline. We reflect on the theoretical and practical implications of these findings.


American exceptionalism, international discourse, national identity, media effects, patriotism, U.S. public opinion

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