The Twilight of American Exceptionalism: Why a Resurgence of Self-Reliance Is Essential

Published December 8, 2017

 Historically, the notion of self-reliance has been a central characteristic of American culture, governing, and educational doctrine.

From the founding of the United States until the mid-twentieth century, these three institutions reinforced the bedrock principle of self-reliance. During this period, the United States became the beacon of liberty and the most prosperous nation in world history.

Over the past 60 years, however, political and cultural forces have undermined respect for self-reliance. Since the mid-1960s, a cultural revolution, deteriorating education system, and misguided government programs have produced a toxic brew that jeopardizes the American people’s self-reliance and what has been truly exceptional about America from the start.


From the colonial era until the 1950s, self-reliance was a cultural keystone. After World War II, however, subtle changes began to take place. In the postwar United States, the Beatnik generation represented a new phenomenon in American culture. The Beatniks challenged traditional values, celebrated drug use, and rejected personal responsibility.

The Hippie generation, much larger than the Beatniks, took these radical concepts much further. The Hippies endorsed a wide range of behaviors antithetical to self-reliance: rampant drug usage, sexual promiscuity, idleness, self-indulgence, and dependency. Their socialist views and communal philosophy repudiated all notions of personal responsibility. The entitled attitudes and self-destructive behaviors of the Hippies created a counterculture that abandoned self-reliance and strongly influenced mainstream thought for the Baby Boom generation.

The cultural transformation of the 1960s has had a profound impact on society. In 2017, self-reliance has fallen by the wayside. In the current cultural climate, dependency is lauded, personal responsibility is disparaged, and victimhood predominates. The explosive growth of the number of Americans reliant on government benefits, rapid increase in opioid addiction, and deterioration of the two-parent household are just a few of the negative consequences of this counterculture revolution.


For the first 150 years of American history, the size and scope of the national government remained limited. Rugged individualism, often referred to as “the pioneer spirit,” was an American hallmark. Most Americans refused to accept government handouts, even during the toughest of times.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared “war on poverty” and launched the Great Society. In line with the cultural transformation taking place, millions of Americans abandoned the principle of self-reliance and accepted government benefits. Food, medical care, housing, and higher education were deemed “rights,” which the national government bestowed to an increasingly indolent and entitled population.

Under Johnson’s Great Society, the number of Americans on the government dole skyrocketed, and as the welfare state increased, personal responsibility decreased.

Fifty-two years after the launch of Johnson’s Great Society, the poverty rate remains largely unchanged. More Americans are receiving government payments than at any point in the nation’s history. A startling 2014 U.S. Census Report found more than 50 percent of Americans received payments from the national government in 2011. Needless to say, this does not indicate a people devoted to self-reliance and the productive activity it entails.


The modern education system in the United States is also antagonistic toward personal responsibility, a stark departure from previous generations. From the colonial era to the dawn of the twentieth century, 120 million American students used the McGuffey Reader. These textbooks emphasized rigor and a strict moral code, and within its pages, the United States was portrayed as a righteous nation, the land of opportunity.

As the Progressive Era took hold in the early 1900s, education dogma changed precipitously. Progressive reformers such as John Dewey promoted a pedagogy that rejected moral absolutes and injected moral relativism.

By the 1960s, the counterculture began to infect educational institutions. College campuses were fraught with student protests. Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground sought to destroy the Western democratic tradition. Adamantly opposed to the virtue of personal responsibility, these radical student groups advocated fundamental transformation of America into a socialist welfare state.

Where does the once-vaunted American education system currently stand? In the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, the United States ranked an unremarkable 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Rigor, discipline, and personal responsibility have been replaced with the “everybody gets a trophy” philosophy.

For more than 50 years, American schoolchildren have been coddled and shielded from the harsh reality of competition. Students are no longer held accountable for their actions inside or outside of the classroom. No wonder 58 percent of Millennials would prefer to live in a socialist, communist, or fascist nation, according to a recent poll.


Although the virtues of self-reliance and personal responsibility that fostered American exceptionalism are waning, it is not irreversible. If America is to remain exceptional, a revival of personal responsibility needs to occur. A whole host of federal welfare programs should be eliminated, or severely curtailed, to reinstate a sense of personal responsibility. Education reform should be instituted immediately to smash the outdated and ineffective government monopoly on education.

A cultural shift back toward self-reliance will reap many rewards. To generate this cultural rebirth, political leaders should incent personal responsibility through their behavior and the programs they support. The entertainment industry should favor projects that cast self-reliance in a noble and positive light. Athletes, musicians, and other artists should express to their fans that self-reliance and tenacity are integral to success. In schools, teachers and role models should explain the benefits of personal responsibility, discipline, and a strong work ethic in a highly competitive globalized economy. Creating a culture that respects and values these bedrock principles will sustain American exceptionalism for generations.

Reversing the decline of self-reliance is a tall task. However, history shows that when a culture evolves to an unsustainable point, the pendulum begins to swing back in a different direction: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. It requires a segment of the population to realize “enough is enough” and to stress a return to the values that made America exceptional in the first place: self-reliance, personal responsibility, and individual liberty. These values are the essential elements of a twenty-first century American renaissance.