The term and concept of "American Exceptionalism" goes back over a century, although it has been used in many different contexts. I will skip over the history of dialectical materialism in order to explain the concept of American Exceptionalism, via a song that we used to sing back in my home town.
I'm a raindrop, I'm a raindrop,
And I am falling from the sky
But I would rather be a raindrop
Than a dripdrop from Prairie High
The point of this song being that the students of our rival high school were inferior to us, as evidenced by our clever rhyme. And, if I can cut to the chase, "American Exceptionalism", as it is currently promulgated, isn't an intellectual doctrine. It is a schoolyard chant, basically translated into "GO US!" Much like many types of romantic love
, it is a way to be narcissistic
while pretending to be for something greater.
One of the things about American Exceptionalism is that for many decades, the idea that the United States had a unique position in the world wasn't something that needed to be proclaimed loudly, because it was obvious. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States was the first country to recover and prosper. For a generation, it wasn't a matter of jingo to think the United States had the best education, the highest technology and the nicest standard of living. It was just a practical truth.
And in a world where that is no longer an obvious truth, people have taken one of two tacks. For both the traditional supporters of "American Exceptionalism" and its seeming detractors believe in the theory. America is either the shining city on the hill, the engine of the world's industry and a moral beacon amongst the secular and socialist trend of the world OR it is a consumerist nation full of crumbling infrastructure and uneducated citizens eating pringles and watching reality television. The statistical reality is usually less exciting than the narrative in several ways. The United States is usually roughly even with other industrialized democracies by many objective measures. It has certain challenges that other nations don't have, and certain advantages as well.
But in one way the United States really is exceptional, something that I see ignored repeatedly when comparing the United States to other countries. The United States is by far the most populous developed democracy, as well as being one of the world's physically largest countries. Depending on the definitions used, there really aren't that many countries that come close. Of the world's 20 most populous countries, only 3 (the United States, Japan and Germany) would be described as developed democracies. To try to compare the social and political climate of the United States with, say, Belgium is like comparing watermelons and cherries. It isn't an appropriate comparison.
So to sum up, as much as American Exceptionalism as it is currently trumpted is a banal, juvenile excuse for thinking; and the driver of two equally 2-dimensional narratives, it is also true that the United States does statistically have attributes that make it hard to compare with other nations of the world.