Individuals Feeling Exceptional Have Destroyed American Exceptionalism

Photo by Kyle Mills on Unsplash

I was sitting at the metering light at the on-ramp this morning after I dropped my son at school. I had inched my way to the second position. There were two cars in front of me and one car to my right. As soon as the light changed, the two cars in front of me lurched forward as it was their turn to enter the highway. Then I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye. The driver in the car that had been next to me decided he’d waited long enough and was merging onto the highway with the other two cars. I see this occur at least twice a day in my travels, and it happens so frequently that I expect it. The metering lights, which are meant to stagger the plethora of cars merging onto the crowded interstate, seem to be optional these days. I shook my head, waited my turn as I always do, and then entered the highway when the light became green.

I’ve tried to eliminate as many fucks as possible from my change purse. I’ve tried to stop caring about jerks who refuse to believe the rules apply to them. I have not been successful. Every time I get into my car, I get triggered by the effrontery of people who decline to abide by the conventions put in place to keep everyone safe and moving in traffic. It irks the shit out of me. There aren’t enough vials of lavender essential oil, cups of chamomile tea, burning aromatherapy candles, or warm neck wraps in the world to relieve me of the tension I feel around Americans who think the rules, whether they be traffic-related or queue-related or common-decency-related, do not apply to them. The “me first” mindset is pervasive and toxic. When there is no perceived negative consequence, people do whatever they damn well please. Their mothers must be so proud.

This morning, as I stewed for the remainder of my thirty minute commute home, I began thinking about American exceptionalism. I understand what the term entails. It refers to the idea that America, with her ideals and her political system and her geography and abundant natural wealth, is a shining city on a hill, an example of the best a nation can be. Here is what I decided about American exceptionalism these days. America has the potential to be exceptional, when we all work together in our democracy and play by the rules. As it stands now, however, we’ve devolved into a country filled with individuals who believe they are exceptional and the exception to the rule. We’ve become so focused on the individual and individual freedoms that we’ve sacrificed the idea of “one nation indivisible” for it. We can’t agree on anything. Believing in the concept of American exceptionalism doesn’t make us exceptional. History is peppered with examples of city-states that believed they were getting it all right. They no longer exist.

Social psychologist Jonathon Haidt hit the nail on the head in an article in The Atlantic on April 11th: “It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history.” It’s this type of righteous mindset that has led us to the place we are now, where every faction and every individual within that faction believes they have cornered the market on what is best and on what they deserve. We’ve become a nation of petulant children, throwing tantrums while doing whatever we want and hiding behind the talking points of freedom and the First Amendment. We’ve forgotten how to adult, how to put on our grown up panties and accept that we can’t always have our way. We tell our bickering children to follow the rules, to play nice, and to compromise, but I’m not confident we’re capable of those things. How can we be a shining example when we can’t even clean up our own house?

I’m not saying that folks who ignore the on-ramp metering are destroying the fabric of our society. I’m afraid it may be a little too late for that.

The Tribalism Inherent In Being A Sports Fan

Last night we attended another Colorado Avalanche hockey game. It was a fun one too. The Avs, who have already clinched their spot in the playoffs, were on fire. The Avs scored 4 points in the first period, while the LA Kings scored none. By the end of the game, the Avs had gone up 9 to 3, and the fans were treated to a hat trick. It was the first time our son got to witness, as an adult, the unmitigated joy of other grown-ass adults tossing their baseball caps onto the ice.

As we were standing there, cheering after yet another Avalanche goal, Luke leaned over and said something to the effect of, “Oh, what a wonderful display of rampant tribalism.” He’s a funny kid. I had never thought of hockey fans as a tribe, but he is correct. There we were in our Colorado Avalanche uniforms (emblazoned Avalanche sweatshirts and hockey sweaters) chanting along and waving our fists in the air after every goal, so I guess we were definitely contributing to the tribe mentality. As part of the Colorado Avalanche tribe, I try to be decent. We had some Kings fans sitting to our left, and I did not do any taunting or trash talking. I let them suffer their humiliating loss in peace.

I began thinking about how many tribes there are. We often refer to our friends as our tribe, but there are other tribes too. You might have a tribe of people you associate with from your church or your child’s sports team or your office. I love the band The National and I’m part of their official fan club, so I am part of The National tribe. There are many tribes to which an individual may belong, intentionally or unintentionally.

I think it’s important, though, to differentiate between being part of a tribe and contributing to tribalism in a negative way. Being tribal, in its most basic sense, is actually a good thing. Tribes foster a sense of community. Ever seen how fiercely a tribe of friends will rise to help another friend who is sick or struggling? Tribes also create a sense of belonging, and that can be crucial to dispelling loneliness and depression. Tribalism provides the feeling that we are all in this together. When politicians speak of tribalism negatively, I think they are missing the point. It’s not tribalism that created our political divide but factionalism. On September 10, 2001, we were a fairly divided country. We’d emerged from a contested election, the outcome of which had been decided by the Supreme Court. We were split into factions: those who thought the Supreme Court should have allowed the recounting to continue to a satisfactory conclusion and those who were happy the court had decided to stop the counting and award the election to the person who had the most votes at that point in the process, George W. Bush. But when the United States was attacked by terrorists the following day, those factions quickly, albeit temporarily, dissolved. We united as one great American tribe. American citizens of every faction came together to aid in the clean up and recovery in New York City, to comfort each other in a time of deep sorrow and loss, and to donate blood. For a brief period of time, we united against a common enemy, terrorism. We proved how strong the American tribe can be.

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian NHL players have been booed and jeered at during games and have received threats against themselves and their families for something they have nothing to do with. This is sports tribalism gone wrong. NHL fans need to do a better job differentiating between the actions of leader Vladimir Putin and the position of the Russian citizens who have been dragged into this war, some of whom are losing their family members in battle. We can do better.

Tribalism is a good thing that can have negative consequences if the power of the tribe isn’t applied judiciously. I’ve seen some impressive, positive sports team tribalism in recent years. When the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Baltimore Ravens on December 31, 2017, it put the Buffalo Bills into the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. As a show of gratitude, Buffalo Bills fans donated $442k to the Andy and Jordan Dalton foundation for ill and disabled children and their families. When the Bills were defeated in the playoffs this past season by the Kansas City Chiefs, Chiefs fans donated over $300k to the Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo where Bills fans had previously raised over $1M to honor Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen’s grandmother after her death in 2020.

All we need to do is realize both the positive and negative powers inherent in being part of a tribe. We can use our tribes for good or not so good. So, when you’re part of the tribe at your favorite sports team’s event and they’re winning, be kind to the members of the opposing tribe. As with pretty much anything humans do, we can unite around good or evil. Make the right choice. As former First Lady, Melania Trump, put it, “Be best.”

Oh, how I love a good hat trick