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The Myth Of American Exceptionalism


SPENCER COX: We are better than this in America.

KEVIN MCCARTHY: This is not the American way.

JOE BIDEN: The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.


That was Utah Governor Spencer Cox, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and President-elect Joe Biden. And the sentiment they were expressing that what happened on Capitol Hill last week was not America was echoed by TV pundits and on social media. Is that idea of American exceptionalism that bad things happen out there in unstable countries and not here, in our shining city on the hill, perhaps partially what got us to this fractured place? Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times joins us now to explore that.

Welcome to the program.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Thank you for having me on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've been very outspoken against the sentiment that this is not who we are. Can you explain?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, I think when people are saying that, they are really talking about this idea of American exceptionalism and this idea that in this country, we are a democracy, and in this country, you would never see kind of authoritarian tendencies, that you would never see violence around elections. And in fact, we have a long history of violence around elections, of trying to subvert the democratic will of multiracial communities in a multiracial country. This happened many, many times at the end of Reconstruction when federal troops were pulled out in order to allow Rutherford B. Hayes to ascend to the presidency. And even though Black Americans were the majority in many places across the South, they were purged from government, and legitimate governments were overthrown for white supremacy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I will say, I compared the storming of the Capitol to things I saw in Libya during the uprising there in 2011. Hearing U.S. elected officials begging the president on TV to call off the mob reminded me of how politicians and dictatorships talk to their, you know, great leaders. That was directly tied to my experience watching societies collapse. And we haven't seen anything quite like this before here in recent memory. I mean, while what you're saying is true, this marks an escalation, does it not?

HANNAH-JONES: Oh, absolutely. So we can certainly argue that people saying this is not who we are is false and also acknowledge that what happened this week was absolutely shocking. To see armed Americans overtake the Capitol building and really subvert the democratic process in an effort to overturn an election in the United States - that is unprecedented.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nikole Hannah-Jones, where do you think we are now in this country?

HANNAH-JONES: Oh, God. This is a very, I think, dangerous and frightening period. I don't know that what we saw this week is going to be easily resolved. In fact, I doubt that it will be. And those tensions, those divisions that have been stoked are not simply going to go away. They're going to have to be dealt with. And the dealing with that is going to be very hard and very challenging. And we certainly will not be able to do that if we are in denial about what caused them and the ideology behind them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the events of the last week, if not the last four years, have really shattered, certainly, the world's idea of the United States' exceptionalism because, certainly, in terms of the peaceful transfer of power, of the ascendancy of institutions and of a professional bureaucracy, America has been stable. You know, I'm a immigrant whose family fled political instability, and many people fleeing instability do come to the United States. They see the United States as something different. I suppose my question is, do you think that this shock will have changed our view of ourselves in American society? And might that prove to be an opening to change what is wrong here?

HANNAH-JONES: So I certainly think that we have, as Americans, almost had this religious belief in our Constitution and the ability of our institutions to withstand any internal enemy or external enemy. And so you saw, even leading up to this moment, amongst people who should know better this really almost blind belief that, OK, no matter what we've seen, no matter that every norm in the last four years has been broken, that our government would withstand this, that we would withstand this.

And what we saw this week was that we are actually a very young democracy. We are actually a country where, in the past, when our institutions were tested, we had a civil war. So it is not out of the realm of possibility that our institutions cannot withstand this type of assault. And the Constitution - our values as a country are not self-enforcing. It is up to the people to enforce them. It is up to the people to live up to them.

And yes, it is my hope that when you see that our democracy, that our Constitution, that our values cannot just withstand attack without protection, that we will as a people decide that racism, that caste, that class, that all of these other things - that party - are not more important than our country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nikole Hannah-Jones covers racial injustice for The New York Times.

Thank you very much.

HANNAH-JONES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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