Imagine you're at a party with 190-some other people, and all sorts of conversations are taking place among a variety of free-flowing groups. One of the conversations that periodically crops up on a regular basis among many different people is the fact that this one guy is really full of himself, and overestimates his importance. The first time you hear it, it sounds pretty reasonable - the guy has plenty of friends, and is surrounded by women, but so are a number of others too. But it keeps being said - over, and over, and over: "This guy's really not that important." And you start to wonder why someone who is not that important is such a topic of discussion. You start to wonder if maybe some of the people saying this are trying to convince themselves of it.
So I'd like to make a devil's advocate challenge to people who insist on critiquing so-called "American Exceptionalism": Prove your point by no longer talking about this country. Plenty of countries are full of themselves, and see themselves as having some unique place in humankind that entitles them to something more than others - but you're not talking about them, because you don't actually believe them. This is not an attempt to justify or rationalize American Exceptionalism, just a challenge that people who see it as a real problem should take responsibility for their role in perpetuating it.
I have as much contempt for the ignorant perverts of Amurrcan psychopathic right-wing conservatism as anyone capable of rational thought, but I'm not such an ignoramus myself as to identify that degenerate form as being somehow definitive or even representative of this country. Whenever I see "American Exceptionalism" mentioned, I get a distinct whiff of moral and intellectual laziness. If you're not American, what the hell do you care what deluded ideas are prevalent in America? Oh, that's right - because opinion in the United States has a disproportionate effect on the world. One might even say an exceptional effect. And if you are American...what the hell do you care what other, less worthy Americans think? Does this country belong to you or doesn't it? Do you belong to yourself, or are you just flotsam whining that the tide isn't carrying you to a more desirable destination?
Laugh at people who speak from ignorance about America's position relative to the world in various metrics - education, healthcare, crime, freedom, democracy, etc. But if you really believed that changes the intrinsic value of this country, you wouldn't care what people think in the first place. Let the fools believe what they believe, right? But you do care, because you see potential being wasted. Potential more than other countries. Again, if you didn't believe that, you wouldn't bother. You'd leave, as indeed some have. But even among those who do leave, some just can't stop talking about the country they left to the people still living in it. America is, at very least, an addiction, and it's one shared all over the world.
German magazine Der Spiegel loves to talk about the United States, as does the British media, as do media organizations around the world, but the US media gives the rest of the world short shrift. It's horrible - I love hearing about the rest of the world - but it says a lot about exactly who it is that's guilty of thinking we're exceptional. When the rest of the world stops believing it - rather than just constantly, almost desperately asserting it - eventually we'll get the idea. But while we remain a subject of intense scrutiny, don't expect US narcissism to fade. Of course, maybe it's not that simple, and the rest of the world really can't stop talking about the United States way more than it talks about them in return because it really is that important. In which case bitching about "exceptionalism" is just a sad defense mechanism.
As for those who think they're motivating progressive reform in the US by belittling its image of itself, does that ever work with the people in your real life? Your kid's not rising to expectations in school, so you call him/her a loser and a moron? Your spouse isn't pulling their weight in the relationship, so you say they're really not that important to you? Is that the formula for success in family and community relationships? The term "American Exceptionalism," while it describes a real cultural phenomenon, has become a cheap, weak-minded shorthand for armchair frustration at the lack of progress by other people in advancing this country's state of affairs. Every bit of skepticism it pretends to represent should be reflected back at the speaker, and the question asked - why do you care? Either you're right, in which case your topic is inexplicable, or you're wrong and it makes perfect sense to bitch about America all the time: Can't have both. Faded powers are a topic of rare, indifferent laughter - not screeds and angry, belittling rhetoric.