Not to be confused with Americanism (ideology).
American exceptionalism is an ideology holding the United States as unique among nations in positive or negative connotations, with respect to its ideas of democracy and personal freedom.
Though the concept has no formal definition, there are some themes common to various conceptions of the idea. One is the history of the United States is different from other nations. In this view, American exceptionalism stems from the American Revolution, becoming what political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called "the first new nation" and developing the American ideology of "Americanism", based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy, and laissez-faire economics. This ideology itself is often referred to as "American exceptionalism." Another theme is the idea the U.S. has a unique mission to transform the world. Abraham Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg address (1863), Americans have a duty to ensure "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Another theme is the sense the United States' history and mission give it a superiority over other nations.
The theory of the exceptionalism of the U.S. has developed over time and can be traced to many sources. French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville was the first writer to describe the country as "exceptional" in 1831 and 1840. The actual phrase "American Exceptionalism" is purported to have originated in the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin as a means to condemn those who suggested the U.S. was impervious to communist ideals. U.S. President Ronald Reagan is often credited with having crystallized this ideology in recent decades. Political scientist Eldon Eisenach argues in the twenty-first century American exceptionalism has come under attack from the postmodern left as a reactionary myth: "The absence of a shared purposes ratified in the larger sphere of liberal-progressive public policy....beginning with the assumption of American exceptionalism as a reactionary myth."
The exact term "American exceptionalism" was occasionally used in the 19th century. In his The Yale Book of Quotations, Fred Shapiro notes "exceptionalism" was used to refer to the United States and its self-image by The Times of London on August 20, 1861. Its common use dates from Communist usage in the late 1920s. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin chastised members of the Jay Lovestone-led faction of the American Communist Party for its claim the U.S. was independent of the Marxist laws of history "thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions". Stalin may have been told of the usage "American exceptionalism" by Broder & Zack in Daily Worker (N.Y.) on January 29, 1929, before Lovestone's visit to Moscow. American Communists started using the English term "American exceptionalism" in factional fights. It then moved into general use among intellectuals. In 1989, Scottish political scientist Richard Rose noted most American historians endorse exceptionalism. He suggests these historians reason as follows:
America marches to a different drummer. Its uniqueness is explained by any or all of a variety of reasons: history, size, geography, political institutions, and culture. Explanations of the growth of government in Europe are not expected to fit American experience, and vice versa.
However, postnationalist scholars have rejected American exceptionalism, arguing the U.S. did not break from European history, and accordingly, the U.S. has retained class-based and race-based differences, as well as imperialism and willingness to wage war.
In recent years scholars from numerous disciplines, as well as politicians and commentators in the traditional media, have debated the meaning and usefulness of the concept. Roberts and DiCuirci ask:
- Why has the myth of American exceptionalism, characterized by a belief in America's highly distinctive features or unusual trajectory based on the abundance of its natural resources, its revolutionary origins and its Protestant religious culture that anticipated God's blessing of the nation, held such tremendous staying power, from its influence in popular culture to its critical role in foreign policy?
Some historians support the concept of American exceptionalism but avoid the terminology, thereby avoid entangling themselves in rhetorical debates. Bernard Bailyn, a leading colonial specialist at Harvard, is a believer in the distinctiveness of American civilization. Although he rarely, if ever, uses the phrase "American exceptionalism," he insists upon the "distinctive characteristics of British North American life." He has argued the process of social and cultural transmission result in peculiarly American patterns of education (in the broadest sense of the word); and he believes in the unique character of the American Revolution.
Origin of the term
Although the concept of American exceptionalism dates to the founding ideas, the term was first used in the 1920s.
Some claim the phrase "American exceptionalism" originated with the American Communist Party in an English translation of a condemnation made in 1929 by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin criticizing Communist supporters of Jay Lovestone for the heretical belief the US was independent of the Marxist laws of history "thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions". This origin has been challenged, however, because the expression "American exceptionalism" was already used by Brouder & Zack in the Daily Worker (N.Y.) on the 29th of January 1929, before Lovestone's visit to Moscow. Also, Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, has noted "exceptionalism" was used to refer to the United States and its self-image during the Civil War by The New York Times on August 20, 1861.
Early examples of the term's usage do include a declaration made at the 1930 American Communist convention proclaiming "the storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism".
The phrase fell to obscurity after the 1930s, and in the 1980s American newspapers popularized it to describe America's cultural and political uniqueness. The phrase became an issue of contention between presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign, with Republicans attacking Obama for not believing in the concept.
History of the concept
Alexis de Tocqueville and others, from 1835
The first reference to the concept by name, and possibly its origin, was by French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835/1840 work, Democracy in America:
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.
Kammen says many foreign visitors commented on American exceptionalism including Karl Marx, Francis Lieber, Hermann Eduard von Holst, James Bryce, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc; they did so in complimentary terms. The theme became common, especially in textbooks. From the 1840s to the late 19th century, the McGuffey Readers sold 120 million copies and were studied by most American students. Skrabec (2009) argues the Readers "hailed American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and America as God's country... Furthermore, McGuffey saw America as having a future mission to bring liberty and democracy to the world."
Communist debate, 1927
In June 1927 Jay Lovestone, a leader of the Communist Party in America and soon to be named General Secretary, described America's economic and social uniqueness. He noted the increasing strength of American capitalism, and the country's "tremendous reserve power"; strength and power which he said prevented Communist revolution. In 1929, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, disagreeing America was so resistant to revolution, called Lovestone's ideas "the heresy of American exceptionalism"—the first time the specific term "American exceptionalism" was used. The Great Depression appeared to underscore Stalin's argument American capitalism falls under the general laws of Marxism. In June 1930, during the national convention of the Communist Party USA in New York, it was declared "The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism and the whole system of opportunistic theories and illusions that had been built upon American capitalist 'prosperity'".
In general, Americans have had consideration in national "uniqueness." Historian Dorothy Ross points to three different currents regarding unique characteristics.
- Some Protestants believed American progress would facilitate the return of Jesus Christ and Christian Millennium.
- Some 19th century historians linked American liberty to the development of liberty in Anglo-Saxon England.
- Other American writers looked to the "millennial newness" of America. Henry Nash Smith stressed the theme of "virgin land" in the American frontier that promised an escape from the decay that befell earlier republics.
Recently, socialists and other writers tried to discover or describe this exceptionalism of the U.S. within and outside its borders. The concept has also been discussed in the context of the 21st century in a book co-authored by former American Vice President Dick Cheney: Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America (2015).
Causes in their historical context
Scholars have explored possible justifications for the notion of American exceptionalism.
Absence of feudalism
Many scholars use a model of American exceptionalism developed by Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz. In The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), Hartz argued that the American political tradition lacks the left-wing/socialist and right-wing/aristocratic elements that dominated in most other lands because colonial America lacked any feudal traditions, such as established churches, landed estates and a hereditary nobility. The "liberal consensus" school, typified by David Potter, Daniel Boorstin and Richard Hofstadter followed Hartz in emphasizing that political conflicts in American history remained within the tight boundaries of a liberal consensus regarding private property, individual rights, and representative government. The national government that emerged was far less centralized or nationalized than its European counterparts.
Puritan roots and Protestant promise
Parts of American exceptionalism can be traced to American Puritan roots. Many Puritans with Arminian leanings embraced a middle ground between strict Calvinist predestination and a less restricting theology of Divine Providence. They believed God had made a covenant with their people and had chosen them to provide a model for the other nations of the Earth. One Puritan leader, John Winthrop, metaphorically expressed this idea as a "City upon a Hill"—that the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model community for the rest of the world. This metaphor is often used by proponents of exceptionalism. The Puritans' low moralistic values remained part of the national identity of the United States for centuries, remaining influential to the present day.
In this vein, Max Weber was a pioneer in delineating a connection between capitalism and exceptionalism. Eric Luis Uhlmann of Northwestern University argues that Puritan values were taken up by all remaining Americans as time went by. Kevin M. Schultz underlines how they helped America to keep to its Protestant Promise, especially Catholics and Jews.
American Revolution and republicanism
The ideas that created the American Revolution were derived from a tradition of republicanism that had been repudiated by the British mainstream. Historian Gordon Wood has argued, "Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy." Wood notes that the term is "presently much-maligned," although it is vigorously supported by others such as Jon Butler.
Thomas Paine's Common Sense for the first time expressed the belief that America was not just an extension of Europe but a new land, a country of nearly unlimited potential and opportunity that had outgrown the British mother country. These sentiments laid the intellectual foundations for the Revolutionary concept of American exceptionalism and were closely tied to republicanism, the belief that sovereignty belonged to the people, not to a hereditary ruling class.
Religious freedom characterized the American Revolution in unique ways—at a time when major nations had state religions. Republicanism (led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) created modern constitutional republicanism, with a limit on ecclesiastical powers. Historian Thomas Kidd (2010) argues, "With the onset of the revolutionary crisis, a significant conceptual shift convinced Americans across the theological spectrum that God was raising up America for some particular purpose." Kidd further argues that "a new blend of Christian and republican ideology led religious traditionalists to embrace wholesale the concept of republican virtue".
Jefferson and the Empire of Liberty
According to Tucker and Hendrickson (1992), Jefferson believed America "was the bearer of a new diplomacy, founded on the confidence of a free and virtuous people, that would secure ends based on the natural and universal rights of man, by means that escaped war and its corruptions". Jefferson sought a radical break from the traditional European emphasis on "reason of state" (which could justify any action) and the usual priority of foreign policy and the needs of the ruling family over the needs of the people.
Jefferson envisaged America is becoming the world's great "Empire of Liberty"—that is, the model for democracy and republicanism. He identified his nation as a beacon to the world, for, he said on departing the presidency in 1809, America was: "Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other areas of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence."
Basis of arguments
Marilyn B. Young argues that after the end of the Cold War in 1991, neoconservative intellectuals and policymakers embraced the idea of an "American empire," a national mission to establish freedom and democracy in other nations, particularly poor ones. She argues that after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration reoriented foreign policy to an insistence on maintaining the supreme military and economic power of America, an attitude that harmonized with this new vision of American empire. Young says the Iraq War (2003–2011) exemplified American exceptionalism.
In 2012, conservative historians Larry Schweikart and Dave Dougherty argued that American Exceptionalism be based on four pillars: (1) Common Law; (2) Virtue and morality located in Protestant Christianity; (3) Free-market capitalism; and (4) the sanctity of private property.
In a 2015 book entitled Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney sets out and argues the case for American Exceptionalism, and concludes: "we are, as Lincoln said, 'the last, best hope of earth.' We are not just one more nation, one more same entity on the world stage. We have been essential to the preservation and progress of freedom, and those who lead us in the years ahead must remind us, as Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan did, of the unique role we play. Neither they nor we should ever forget that we are, in fact, exceptional."
Republican ethos and ideas about nationhood
Proponents of American exceptionalism argue that the United States be exceptional in that it was founded on a set of republican ideals, rather than on a common heritage, ethnicity, or ruling elite. In the formulation of President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, America is a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". In Lincoln's interpretation, America is inextricably connected with freedom and equality, and in world perspective, the American mission is to ensure, "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Historian T. Harry Williams argues that Lincoln believed:
- In the United States man would create a society that would be the best and the happiest in the world. The United States was the supreme demonstration of democracy. However, the Union did not exist just to make men free in America. It had an even greater mission—to make them free everywhere. By the mere force of its example, America would bring democracy to an undemocratic world.
American policies have been characterized since their inception by a system of federalism (between the states and the federal government) and checks and balances (among the legislative, executive and judicial branches), which were designed to prevent any faction, region, or government organ from becoming too powerful. Some proponents of the theory of American exceptionalism argue that this system and the accompanying distrust of concentrated power prevent the United States from suffering a "tyranny of the majority", are preservative of a free republican democracy, and also that it allows citizens to live in a locality whose laws reflect those voters' values. A consequence of this political system is that laws can vary widely across the country. Critics of American exceptionalism maintain that this system merely replaces the power of the national majority over states with power by the states over local entities. On balance, the American political system arguably allows for more local dominance but prevents more domestic dominance than does a more unitary system.
Historian Eric Foner has explored the question of birthright citizenship, the provision of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) that makes every baby born in the United States a full citizen. He argues that:
- birthright citizenship stands as an example of the much-abused idea of American exceptionalism... birthright citizenship does make the United States (along with Canada) unique in the developed world. No European nation recognizes the principle.
Global leadership and activism
Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh has identified what he says is "the most important respect in which the United States has been genuinely exceptional, about international affairs, international law, and promotion of human rights: namely, in its outstanding global leadership and activism." He argues:
To this day, the United States remains the only superpower capable, and at times willing, to commit real resources and make real sacrifices to build, sustain, and drive an international system committed to international law, democracy, and the promotion of human rights. Experience teaches that when the United States leads on human rights, from Nuremberg to Kosovo, other countries follow.
Peggy Noonan, an American political pundit, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world, it tries to be a force for good because it is exceptional".
Former U.S. Vice PresidentDick Cheney explores the concept of United States global leadership in a 2015 book on American foreign policy entitled Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America, co-authored with his daughter, Liz Cheney, a former official of the United States Department of State.
Proponents of American exceptionalism often claim that many features of the "American spirit" were shaped by the frontier process (following Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis). They argue the American frontier allowed individualism to flourish as pioneers adopted democracy and equality and shed centuries-old European institutions such as royalty, standing armies, established churches and a landed aristocracy that owned most of the land. However, this frontier experience was not entirely unique to the United States. Other nations had frontiers, but it did not shape them nearly as much as the American frontier did, usually because it was under the control of a strong national government. South Africa, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and Australia had long frontiers, but they did not have "free land" and local control. The political and cultural environments were much different—the other frontiers did not involve widespread ownership of free land nor allow the settlers to control the local and provincial governments as in America. Their edge did not shape their national psyches. Each nation had entirely different frontier experiences. For example, the DutchBoers in South Africa were defeated in war by Britain. In Australia, "mateship" and working together was valued more than individualism was in the United States.
Mobility and welfare
Further information: Economic mobility and Social mobility
For most of its history, especially from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, the United States has been known as the "land of opportunity", and in this sense, it prided and promoted itself on providing individuals with the opportunity to escape from the contexts of their class and family background. Examples of this social mobility include:
- Occupational—children could easily choose careers which were not based upon their parents' choices.
- Physical—that geographical location was not seen as static, and citizens often relocated freely over long distances without barrier.
- Status—as in most countries, family standing and riches were often a means to remain in a higher social circle. America was notably unusual due to an accepted wisdom that anyone—from poor immigrants upwards—who worked hard, could aspire to similar standing, regardless of circumstances of birth. This aspiration is commonly called living the American dream. Birth details were not taken as a social barrier to the upper echelons or high political status in American culture. This stood in contrast to other countries where many larger offices were socially determined, and usually hard to enter without being born into the suitable social group.
However, social mobility in the U.S. is lower than in some European Union countries if defined regarding income movements. American men born into the lowest income quintile are much more likely to stay there compared to similar people in the Nordic countries or the United Kingdom. Many economists, such as Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, however, state that the discrepancy has little to do with class rigidity; rather, it is a reflection of income disparity: "Moving up and down a short ladder is a lot easier than moving up and down a tall one."
Regarding public welfare, Richard Rose asked in 1989 whether the evidence shows whether the U.S. "is becoming more like other mixed-economy welfare states, or increasingly exceptional." He concludes, "By comparison with other advanced industrial nations America is today exceptional in total public expenditure, in major program priorities, and in the value of public benefits."
Scholars have been polarized on the topic, according to Michael Kammen with historians generally against it, while empirical social scientists have tended to be supporters. Kammen reports that historians Lawrence Veysey, C. Vann Woodward, Eric Foner, Sean Wilentz, Akira Iriye, and Ian Tyrrell have been opponents, while support has come from social scientists Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Alex Inkeles, Sanford Jacoby, Samuel P. Huntington, Mona Harrington, John P. Roche, Richard Rose, Peter Temin, and Aaron Wildavsky.
Kammen argues that the hostile attacks began in the 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War, when many intellectuals decided, "The American Adam had lost his innocence and given way to a helpless, tarnished Gulliver." At about the same time, the new social history used statistical techniques on population samples that seemed to show resemblances with Europe on issues such as social mobility. By the 1980s, labor historians were emphasizing that the failure of a work party to emerge in the United States did not mean that America was exceptionally favorable grounds for workers. By the late 1980s, other academic critics started mocking the extreme chauvinism displayed by the modern usage of exceptionalism. Finally mid-1980s, colonial historians downplayed the uniqueness of the American experience in the context of British history. On the other hand, some of the critics pulled their punches, with Wilentz arguing for "distinctively American forms of class conflict" and Foner saying there was a "distinctive character of American trade unionism."
The third idea of American exceptionalism—superiority—has been attacked with charges of moral defectiveness and the existence of double standards. In American Exceptionalism and Human Rights (2005), Canadian commentator Michael Ignatieff couches his discussion of the topic in entirely pejorative terms. He identifies three main sub-types: "exemptionalism" (supporting treaties as long as U.S. citizens are exempt from them); "double standards" (criticizing "others for not heeding the findings of international human rights bodies, but ignoring what these organizations say of the United States"); and "legal isolationism" (the tendency of U.S. judges to ignore other jurisdictions).
Exceptionalism as "exemptionalism"
During the George W. Bush administration (2001–2009), the term was somewhat abstracted from its historical context. Proponents and opponents alike began using it to describe a phenomenon wherein certain political interests view the United States as being "above" or an "exception" to the law, specifically the Law of Nations. (This phenomenon is less concerned with justifying American uniqueness than with asserting its immunity to international law.) This new use of the term has served to confuse the topic and muddy the waters since its unilateralist emphasis, and actual orientation diverges somewhat from prior uses of the phrase. A certain number of those who subscribe to "old-style" or "traditional American exceptionalism"-the idea that America is a more nearly exceptional nation than are others, that it differs qualitatively from the rest of the world and has a unique role to play in world history—also agree that the United States is and ought to be entirely subject to and bound by the public international law. Indeed, recent research shows that "there is some indication for American exceptionalism among the [U.S.] public, but very little evidence of unilateral attitudes".
On September 12, 2013, in the context of U.S. President Barack Obama's comment about American exceptionalism during his September 10, 2013, talk to the American people while considering military action on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized Obama saying that "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
In his interview with RT on October 4, 2013, President of Ecuador Rafael Correa criticized Obama's policies and compared America's exceptionalism with Nazi Germany, saying: "Does not this remind you of the Nazis' rhetoric before and during World War II? They considered themselves the chosen race, the superior race, etc. Such words and ideas pose extreme danger."
Critics on the left such as Marilyn Young and Howard Zinn have argued that American history is so morally flawed, citing slavery, civil rights and social welfare issues, that it cannot be an exemplar of virtue. Zinn argues that American exceptionalism cannot be of divine origin because it was not benign, especially when dealing with Native Americans.
Donald E. Pease mocks American exceptionalism as a "state fantasy" and a "myth" in his 2009 book The New American Exceptionalism. Pease notes that "state fantasies cannot altogether conceal the inconsistencies they mask", showing how such events as the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and the exposure of government incompetence after Hurricane Katrina "opened fissures in the myth of exceptionalism".
American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued that the automatic assumption that America acts for the right will bring about moral corruption. However, Niebuhr did support the nation's Cold War policies. His position (called "Christian realism") advocated a liberal notion of responsibility that justified interference in other nations.
U.S. historians like Thomas Bender "try and put an end to the recent revival of American exceptionalism, a defect he esteems to be inherited from the Cold War". Gary W. Reichard and Ted Dickson argue "how the development of the United States has always depended on its transactions with other nations for commodities, cultural values and populations".Roger Cohen asks, "How exceptional can you be when every major problem you face, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to gas prices, requires joint action?"Harold Koh distinguishes "distinctive rights, different labels, the 'flying buttress' mentality, and double standards. (…) [T]he fourth face—double standards—presents the most dangerous and destructive form of American exceptionalism." Godfrey Hodgson also concludes that "the US national myth is dangerous".Samantha Power asserts that "we're neither the shining example, nor even competent meddlers. It's going to take a generation or so to reclaim American exceptionalism."
The Americanist heresy
Main article: Americanism (heresy)
In 1898 Pope Leo XIII denounced what he deemed to be the heresy of Americanism in the encyclical Testem benevolentiae nostrae. He targeted American exceptionalism in the ecclesiastical domain, arguing that it stood in opposition to Papal denunciations of modernism. At the end of the 19th century, there was a tendency among Catholic clergy in the United States to view American society as inherently different from other Christian nations, and to argue that the understanding of Church doctrine had to be enlarged in order to encompass the 'American Experience', which included greater individualism, tolerance of other religions, and Church–State separation.
Herbert London has defined pre-emptive declinism as a postmodern belief "that the United States is not an exceptional nation and is not entitled by virtue of history to play a role on the world stage different from other nations". London ascribed the view to Paul Krugman, among others. Krugman had written in The New York Times that "We have always known that America's reign as the world's greatest nation would eventually end. However, most of us imagined that our downfall, when it came, would be something grand and tragic."
According to RealClearPolitics, declarations of America's declining power have been common in the English-language media. In 1988, Flora Lewis said that "Talk of U.S. decline is real in the sense that the U.S. can no longer pull all the levers of command or pay all the bills." According to Anthony Lewis in 1990, Europeans and Asians are already finding confirmation of their suspicion that the United States is in decline. Citing America's dependence on foreign sources of energy and "crucial weaknesses" in the military, Tom Wicker concluded "that maintaining superpower status is becoming more difficult—nearly impossible—for the United States". In 2004, Pat Buchanan lamented "the decline and fall of the greatest industrial republic the world had ever seen". In 2007, Matthew Parris of The Sunday Times in London wrote that the United States is "overstretched", romantically recalling the Kennedy presidency, when "America had the best arguments" and could use moral persuasion rather than force to have its way in the world. From his vantage point in Shanghai, the International Herald Tribune's Howard French worries about "the declining moral influence of the United States" over an emergent China.
In his book, The Post-American World, Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria refers to a "Post-American world" that he says "is not about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else".
Similarities between the U.S. and Europe
In December 2009, historian Peter Baldwin published a book arguing that, despite widespread attempts to contrast the 'American way of life' and the 'European social model', America and Europe are actually very similar to a number of social and economic indices. Baldwin claimed that the black underclass accounts for many of those few areas where a stark difference exists between the U.S. and Europe, such as homicide and child poverty.
The historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto argues that it be commonly thought that all people consider themselves exceptional. In most cases in which this subject has broached the similarities between the conflicting parties outweigh the differences. Things such as the "dynamic wealth creation, the democracy, the accessibility of opportunity, the cult of civil liberty, the tradition of tolerance," and what Fernández-Armesto considers evils such as the materialistic economy, the excessive privileges of wealth, and the selective illiberality are standard features in many modern societies. However, he adds, America is made exceptional by the intensity with which these characteristics are concentrated there.
Current official stance and its detractors
In April 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama responded to a journalist's question in Strasbourg with the statement, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Obama further noted that "I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."Mitt Romney attacked Obama's statement, arguing it showed Obama did not believe in American exceptionalism. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said that Obama's "worldview is dramatically different from any president, Republican or Democrat, we've had... He grew up more as a globalist than an American. To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation."
In a speech on the Syria crisis on September 10, 2013, Obama said: "however, when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our kids safer over the long run, I believe we should act... That is what makes America different. That is what makes us exceptional." In a direct response the next day, Russian President Vladimir Putin published an op-ed in The New York Times, articulating that "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation... We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal." Putin's views were soon endorsed by future president Donald Trump who declared the op-ed "a masterpiece" to British television personality Piers Morgan: "You think of the term as being beautiful, but all of sudden you say, what if you're in Germany or Japan or any one of 100 different countries? You are not going to like that term," Trump said. "It is very insulting, and Putin put it to him about that." Some left-wing American commentators agree with Trump's stance; one example is Sherle Schwenninger, a co-founder of the New America Foundation, who in a 2016 Nation magazine symposium remarked that "Trump would redefine American exceptionalism by bringing an end to the neoliberal/neoconservative globalist project that Hillary Clinton and many Republicans support".
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- ^Seymour Martin Lipset, The first new nation (1963).
- ^Lipset, American Exceptionalism, pp. 1, 17–19, 165–74, 197
- ^de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America (1840), part 2, p. 36: "The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one."
- ^Eldon Eisenach, "A Progressive Conundrum: Federal Constitution, National State, and Popular Sovereignty" in Stephen Skowronek et al., eds., The Progressives' Century: Political Reform, Constitutional Government, and the Modern American State (Yale UP. 2016) pp 29-30.
- ^Zimmer, Ben "Did Stalin Really Coin "American Exceptionalism"?", Slate.com Retrieved 1st of February 2015
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- ^Donald E. Pease (2009). The New American Exceptionalism. U of Minnesota Press. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8166-2782-0.
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- ^David W. Noble, Death of a Nation: American Culture and the end of exceptionalism, pp. xxiii ff.
- ^Timothy Roberts and Lindsay DiCuirci, eds., American Exceptionalism (2013) vol. 1, p. 9
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- ^Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. p. 92
- ^The New American Exceptionalism, Donald E. Pease U of Minnesota Press, 2009 ISBN 0-8166-2783-5, ISBN 978-0-8166-2783-7 Length 246 pages p.10
- ^ abHow Joseph Stalin Invented American Exceptionalism, The Atlantic.
- ^Iviea, Robert L.; Ginerb, Oscar (2009). "American Exceptionalism in a Democratic Idiom: Transacting the Mythos of Change in the 2008 Presidential Campaign". Communication Studies. 60 (4): 359–75. doi:10.1080/10510970903109961.
- ^"Foreword: on American Exceptionalism; Symposium on Treaties, Enforcement, and U.S. Sovereignty", Stanford Law Review, May 1, 2003, p. 1479
- ^Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vintage Books, 1945
- ^Kammen p. 7
- ^Quentin R. Skrabec (2009). William McGuffey: Mentor to American Industry. Algora Publishing. p. 223. ISBN 978-0-87586-728-1.
- ^Fried, Albert. Communism in America: a history in documents, pp. 7–8, 19, 82–92. Columbia University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-231-10235-6
- ^Pease, Donald E. Editors: Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. "Exceptionalism", pp. 108–12, in "Keywords for American Cultural Studies. NYU Press, 2007. ISBN 0-8147-9948-5
- ^Edwards, Brian T.; Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar (2010). Globalizing American Studies. University of Chicago Press. pp. 58–59. ISBN 0-226-18507-9.
- ^McCoy, Terrence. "How Joseph Stalin Invented 'American Exceptionalism'". The Atlantic, March 15, 2012. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
- ^Johnpoll, Bernard K. A Documentary History of the Communist Party of the United States. Vol. II, Vol. II. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1994, p. 196.
- ^Dorothy Ross (1991). Origins of American Social Science. p. 23.
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- ^Henry Nash Smith, "The Frontier Hypothesis and the Myth of the West." American Quarterly 2.1 (1950): 3–11. in JSTOR
- ^Dorothy Ross (1991). Origins of American Social Science. p. 25.
- ^American Exceptionalism. The Washington Post
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- ^Cross, Gary (1995). "Comparative Exceptionalism: Rethinking the Hartz Thesis in the Settler Societies of Nineteenth-Century United States and Australia". Australasian Journal of American Studies. 14 (1): 15–41. JSTOR 41053761.
- ^Anna Gandziarowski, The Puritan Legacy to American Politics (2010) p. 2
- ^Justin B. Litke, "Varieties of American Exceptionalism: Why John Winthrop Is No Imperialist," Journal of Church and State, 54 (Spring 2012), 197–213.
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Illustration by Tim Robinson.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
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The phrase “American exceptionalism” has become a quintessential crisis term. it indicates not the certainty we associate with superpower but the dread that this power is dissipating. It’s arrogant, as many critics point out; that arrogance, however, masks self-doubt. If it were possible to do a Google search to correlate words with emotion, the feeling most associated with the term today would be anxiety, the fear that comes when the world turns suddenly unfamiliar and the ground gives way under your feet—as happened, for many, when a black man was elected president of the United States.Ad Policy
Barack Obama entered the White House in early 2009, in the midst of one of the worst crises in American history, brought about by the combined disasters of neoliberal financial deregulation and neoconservative militarism. Even before he was elected president, early in the 2007–8 primary season, it was Obama—not his main Democratic competitors, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards—who became the standard-bearer of American exceptionalism: “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he told a New York Times columnist a month before the Iowa caucus in January 2008. “Listen to his campaign speeches,” said Douglas Wilder, then the mayor of Richmond, Virginia, in February 2008, “and you will hear something not heard often enough at Democratic rallies: the crowd chanting ‘U-S-A’ and the speaker making the case for American exceptionalism.”
On the stump, Obama offered an inclusive vision of patriotism, using his own success to celebrate the country’s meritocracy and as proof that racial division could be overcome through the gradual extension of liberal political equality. “Our exceptionalism,” he said in 2008, “must be based on our Constitution, our principles, our values, and our ideals.” For decades, going back to the triumph of Reagan in 1980, liberal Democrats had advanced similar themes, in the hopes of reclaiming the mantle of patriotism from Republicans.
Obama, however, invoked the exceptionalism of the United States less as a rearguard action against ascendant Republican nationalism than as a calming technique, a way to normalize his threatening self. The intensity of the birther movement’s racism can only be understood once we realize that it was driven not by a belief that Obama was a foreigner, but by an intuitive recognition that he was archetypally American—albeit with a biography that reminds us of our slaver, settler, neocolonial, imperial, and militaristic past. He was born in Hawaii—which was annexed by the United States in the late 19th century, after Washington supported a planter overthrow of the indigenous sovereign—in August 1961, just two years after that colony became a state. His mother was an anthropologist—a suspect discipline if ever there was one—and his father a left-wing, anticolonial Kenyan economist who had immigrated to Hawaii largely because of the political turmoil sparked by US Cold War machinations in Central Africa (just a few months before Obama’s birth, the CIA had helped assassinate Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo—one of the most consequential political killings of the 20th century). He was raised in Indonesia in the late 1960s, shortly after the CIA helped engineer a genocidal coup in that country, which resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands. And he identifies as an African American. Obama’s very being serves as an avatar of a history that had long been erased from public discourse. Dinesh D’Souza, in best sellers like The Roots of Obama’s Rage and Obama’s America, has carved out a late-career niche tapping into America’s mass social projection, attributing the settler-colonial frenzy that motivates much of the right to Obama himself.
Obama is no radical, yet unlike past presidents he is aware—and often seems to recognize the legitimacy—of a radical interpretation of American history, even if he doesn’t share it himself. “I’m certainly mindful that there are dark chapters in our own history,” Obama said last March, during his historic visit to Cuba (an island nation that shares much history with the place of Obama’s birth). One gets the sense that the cautiousness of his public statements and the conservatism of many of his policies owe less to economic or psychological factors, as many left critics have it, than to an acute awareness of the backlash that would ensue were Americans forced to reckon with these “dark chapters.” The embrace of American exceptionalism allowed our first black president to use his personal success as a way to present this history in more palatable terms, as a story of progress toward a more perfect union—“my entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism,” he once said—while at the same time signaling to an unsettled electorate that he would seek to solve the multiple calamities inherited from his predecessor not with radical solutions, but on familiar terms.
Obama’s election didn’t just touch a nerve; it drove an ice pick into the medulla spinalis of his opponents. In the Tea Party and the Republican Congress, on Fox News and talk radio, conservatives were hysterical in their denunciations of Obama as an existential threat to “America.” Over the course of his two terms, American exceptionalism has, for his right-wing enemies, become a catch-all for conveying Obama’s perversity. All of the GOP leadership, especially those who hoped to replace him in 2012 or 2016—Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, Rudy Giuliani, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, even Tim Pawlenty, among others—serially accused him of not believing that America was unique, taking every instance that Obama recognized there were limits to American supremacy, every time he acknowledged “dark chapters,” as an apology for American power. “I’m convinced he wants Americans to be ashamed of success,” Romney said at one point. Down-ticket Republicans joined the fray: South Carolina Representative Jeff Duncan, who in 2012 promised to “unleash American exceptionalism” on his own constituents, ran against Obama’s supposed faithlessness.
“My entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism.” —Barack Obama
For eight years it’s gone thus, with Republican leaders and their rank-and-file fire-eaters effectively terminating the ideological utility of “American exceptionalism,” transforming a concept that once had the power to reconcile competing, contradictory ideas about what it meant to be American into a political cudgel, a buzzword on par with “Benghazi” or “Sidney Blumenthal” that might arouse a rump core of supporters but had become increasingly meaningless to a majority of voters. “We believe in American exceptionalism,” affirms the first sentence of the 2016 platform of the Republican Party, which then nominated Donald Trump as its presidential candidate. “I don’t like the term,” President-elect Trump says.
It remains to be asked, though: What was American exceptionalism?
* * *
The term entered the public lexicon in the late 1940s, at the start of the Cold War, and was used mostly by sociologists and political theorists to describe the things that America lacked—feudalism, for example, or class consciousness—to explain why its history was different from Europe’s (often to answer the question “Why is there no socialism in America?”). It wasn’t until decades later, after Reagan’s election as president, that politicians and intellectuals began to use the term as a counter to the cynicism generated by the multiple shocks of the 1960s and ’70s: the defeat in Vietnam, racial conflicts and urban riots, assassinations, Watergate, the Church Committee report on US covert activity and CIA crimes, and the breakdown of postwar Keynesianism. For a rising New Right looking to remoralize American militarism, the concept of American exceptionalism became a useful organizing principle. Recently, Elliott Abrams, a prominent neoconservative intellectual and former policy-maker in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, defined the phrase in vague, amorphous terms as “a belief in the goodness of America and in the benefits of American power and of its use.”
In 1981, however, at the start of the Reagan Revolution, Abrams was more specific about the problem such a belief sought to remedy. “We need a military response to the Soviets,” he wrote in an influential State Department memo, but “we also need an ideological response. Our struggle is for political liberty.” Jimmy Carter’s human-rights policy was a good start. “Human rights,” said Abrams, who would later plead guilty for withholding information in the Iran-contra scandal, “is at the core of our foreign policy because it is central to what America is and stands for.” But “human rights” as understood in the late ’70s and early ’80s was too fluid a concept, too easily used to criticize allies and condemn US policy.
Ultimately, Abrams thought, the phrase was unsalvageable, associated as it was with social and economic rights. He recommended that the State Department begin to “move away” from its use altogether and instead substitute “individual rights,” “political rights,” and “civil liberties.” “We can,” he added, “move on to a name change at another time.”
“We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further.” —Madeleine Albright
The name change that the right would eventually settle on: “American exceptionalism.”
By the early 1990s, the crisis generated by the loss in Vietnam appeared to be over. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had collapsed, leaving the United States as the world’s sole superpower. By the last year of Bill Clinton’s first term as president, upwards of 75 percent of adults, according to Seymour Martin Lipset’s American Exceptionalism, were “proud” to be Americans, by far the highest patriotic ranking of any Western nation. In retrospect, though, the end of the Cold War created a new set of uncertainties. With the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the first Gulf War in 1991, militarists had been stunningly successful in restoring a sense of purpose to American power. Power certain of its purpose, however, is a highly unstable element if it doesn’t have a credible enemy to stand against. And so, in the early months of the Clinton administration, then–UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright kicked off the golden age of post–Cold War humanitarian interventionism, which would see the deployment of American military force for ends not exclusively related to matters of national security, with this question: “What’s the point of having this superb military,” she asked Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Colin Powell, who had expressed reluctance for an armed US intervention in the Bosnian War, “if we can’t use it?”
In 2000, Paul Wolfowitz—who as deputy secretary of defense under George W. Bush would soon help execute the Iraq War—applauded Clinton’s hawkishness. “American forces under President Clinton’s command have been bombing Iraq with some regularity for months now,” Wolfowitz noted, and the president had been using “American forces in operations involving tens of thousands of troops in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq—and to conduct military strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan.” But the bombing was “facile and complacent.” Without a real threat to snap America out of its belly-patting smugness, Wolfowitz worried—echoing a lament common among neoconservatives before 9/11— Washington’s projection of military power was too easy. There was no real burden to shoulder, “virtually no American casualties” in Clinton’s wars. It sounded like a complaint.
Clinton often left it to Albright, who had become his secretary of state, to answer the charge that his foreign policy lacked focus. “We are America,” Albright said in 1998; “we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” She made those remarks in reference to the siege of Iraq, not long after she infamously said that starving half a million children was “worth” the “price” of containing Saddam Hussein, and not long before Clinton launched a four-day cruise-missile assault that killed scores of civilians.
* * *
Of course, Albright was talking about war when she defined the United States as the indispensable nation, for American exceptionalism is unmistakably a war cry, born out of violent Christian schism. That exact phrase is relatively new, but the idea that America represents a rejuvenating force in human history is old, emerging out of Europe’s interminable religious conflicts in the 16th and 17th centuries. Starting in the early 1600s, Protestant reformers, depending on the baroque intricacies of their particular theology, might have understood New World migration as a way of escaping European war. Or they might have seen colonial settlement as a chance to extend the battlefield, winning those wars on new soil, with the salvation or elimination of Native Americans as part of the final eschatological victory. Either way, America was a redeemer, an idea renewed during various religious awakenings, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the pacification of western lands, a war against Mexico and then one against Spain, and two world wars.
With the shock of 9/11, the narcissism at the core of American exceptionalism turned manic—but not immediately. At first, in the days just after the attack, columnists and letter writers more often than not referenced the term as a criticism, worried that Washington would react with too jingoistic a retaliation. The Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman, writing in the Los Angeles Times, held out hope that the suffering might offer a chance to forge a new, humane internationalism, to end the United States’ “famous exceptionalism.”
With the Iraq War, appeals to American exceptionalism turned into a rallying cry for a people that believed itself under siege.
But starting around late 2002, with the war in Afghanistan under way and the Bush administration making its case for invading Iraq, American exceptionalism became the property of neoconservatives: the idea that Washington, with boots on the ground and bombs, could force what it called a democratic revolution on the Greater Middle East. “Faith, freedom, and American exceptionalism” became, according to the journalist Craig Gilbert, “pet themes” in Bush’s speeches, especially those prepping the public for war.
From the conservative National Review to the mainstream New York Times, a stream of articles appeared using the concept of American exceptionalism to justify this or that aspect of the coming war. As some US allies began to balk at invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, one influential columnist announced that our “exceptional” history meant we had the right to “disregard other nations.” To those who thought oil was the reason we were going into Iraq, another opinion-maker said no, it was because of American exceptionalism, our “impulse to do good in the world.”
Charlie Rose began regularly asking guests on his show if they believed in American exceptionalism. Oh yes, most said, there is something different about America. Mainstream historians—the kind PBS and NPR roll out during presidential elections—were asked if American exceptionalism was real. Oh yes, “we have always believed in American exceptionalism,” as one put it. Another scholar, who had spent his whole previous career stressing the “realist” roots of US foreign policy, suddenly turned face, reporting that the origins of Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” could be traced to the idealism of America’s founders.
The failure of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq did little to confirm that exceptionalism. Faith dies hard. For many Americans, the reports coming in from Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Falluja, and elsewhere established that the war was not just illegal in conception, but deceptive in its justification and immoral in its execution. Those who continued to support it, however—especially those who hoped the Iraq adventure would once and for all change America’s domestic culture, overcoming the “Vietnam syndrome” and creating a citizenry willing, even eager, to wage war as part of its national purpose—adopted an increasingly strident version of American exceptionalism.
Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush had emphasized lofty versions of the creed, designed to transcend the divisions of the 1960s. Counternotes of aggrievement, common to all nationalisms, were muted under the main chords of unity, high purpose, and good cheer. But with the Iraq War, especially with the never-ending debate on torture illustrated by those photographs from Abu Ghraib, appeals to American exceptionalism turned into a truculent nationalism, a rallying cry for a people that believed itself under siege. “Necessary roughness,” Max Boot called the torture; don’t let international law get in the way of carrying out Bush’s Freedom Agenda.
Unilateralism, offered by the neocons first as a policy doctrine, evolved into shrill sentiment—an injured refusal to feel guilt or admit wrongdoing transmuted into what only its adherents believed to be a positive virtue. During one famous interview on Meet the Press, Dick Cheney argued that what made Americans exceptional was that it was they, and they alone, who were worth being considered victims of torture. Asked about the legality of his administration’s policy, Cheney said: “I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture. It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.” There’s no comparison between that, he added, and “anything we did with respect to enhanced interrogation.” Americans can only be tortured; they can never actually torture, even when they are by definition torturing. As a reflection of pure ideology, it might be the most honest thing Cheney has ever said.
* * *
Then came Barack Obama and his efforts to rehabilitate the term. Why did he drive them so crazy? Race and racism is the answer—the fact that Obama was not just America’s first African-American president, but someone whose life trajectory shadowed America’s neocolonial and interventionist history. I don’t mean race as a stand-alone mechanical variable, in opposition to, say, class or sex. Rather, I mean it in the way that race is imprinted on this country’s political culture: the way in which, in both domestic and foreign policy, the antagonism between individual and social rights is inescapably racialized.
A settler-colonial nation founded on the elimination of Native Americans and the subjugation of Africans and African Americans, the United States did indeed develop an exceptional political culture. At its core, that culture, once it is stripped of its alternating moods of optimism and ressentiment, is a fundamentalist faith in the virtue of inherent individual rights, understood to be “natural” in the terminology of philosophers—among them, the right to property, the right to the product of one’s own labor, the right to guns, and, most important, the right to call on the power of the state to protect those rights. It is this conception of individual rights that Elliott Abrams and other Reagan-administration officials successfully sought to codify as official policy. As a corollary, any positive action by the state to protect or extend collective social rights is reflexively understood to be an “unnatural” threat to freedom.
In both domestic and foreign policy, the antagonism between individual and social rights is inescapably racialized.
Over the course of centuries, as Obama points out in his progressive version of American exceptionalism, heroic struggle has expanded the original promise of liberalism to cover more and more people. But one consequence of the New Right’s successful ideological project in the 1980s was to re-racialize individualism, albeit in coded, often subconscious form. Put another way, the fever of individual supremacy that today grips the modern American right is, whether its members know it or not, white supremacy. This helps explain all those Confederate flags that started appearing at Tea Party rallies and later at Trump rallies, and why conservative politicians can’t help equating federal policies they don’t like with chattel bondage. Believing in the “right to health care,” Rand Paul once said, is “basically saying you believe in slavery.”
Barack Obama isn’t a socialist. I hold to the left-wing critique that his two terms in office were a missed opportunity to move America, after the catastrophe of the Iraq War and the 2008 financial collapse, toward more sustainable economic and foreign policies. The codification of extrajudicial assassination through the use of drones and the unaccountability of finance and corporate capitalism are moral outrages; the ongoing, even increasing, reliance on fossil fuels is terrifying. Yet Obama clearly believes in public policy, including government intervention in the economy to correct market imbalances. And any kind of public policy, even Obama’s mild to-the-right-of-Eisenhower, to-the-right-even-of-Nixon variety, violates the absolutism of American conservatives, who now hold that the sole function of the state is to protect individual rights.
That Obama was a person of color who had come to power during a severe social crisis, when citizens’ trust in markets and militarism was more wobbly than at any time since 1974, and that he put forward a progressive interpretation of American exceptionalism at a moment when the neocon version was devolving into the failed faith of a belligerent remnant, added to the rage. When Obama’s opponents charge him with trying to turn the United States into both Sweden and Zimbabwe, they are voicing two sides of a single fear, in which social rights (Sweden) would produce an irresponsible, unvirtuous state governed by racial criminals (Zimbabwe).
* * *
Since Reagan, the power of the concept of American exceptionalism has resided in its ability to reconcile contradictions and unite opposites, helping people make sense of the gap between the ideal and the real. Obama took office when that gap seemed unbridgeable, when the reality of America as a war-making, torturing, unjust, and economically untenable society made a mockery of his predecessor’s ideal that America was the world’s most effective instrument of “human freedom.”
Obama worked hard, rhetorically, to close the gap. “No American president,” The Washington Postobserved, “has talked about American exceptionalism more often and in more varied ways than Obama.” Having inherited an endless global war, faced with a recalcitrant opposition seemingly possessed by the ghosts of the Confederacy, and burdened with governing a profoundly violent nation, Obama strived for synthesis. “I’m big and full of contradictions,” he reportedly told one of his speechwriters, riffing on Walt Whitman, as they worked on a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma. In those remarks, Obama presented American history as a process of becoming, of brave men and women fighting to transcend slavery and racism. Selma, he said, “is the manifestation of the creed written into our founding documents…a permission structure for change.”
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Obama’s recomposition of American exceptionalism was tactically successful, at least as measured by his 2012 reelection, which expanded the multiracial and cross-class coalition that had given him the White House four years earlier. But it isn’t sustainable, and it hasn’t even survived his presidency. There are many ways that Trump’s wildfire victory represents the death knell of American exceptionalism. America was unique, we told ourselves, because it was able to keep fringe candidates at the margin—but now Trump and his followers wield the combined power of the federal government. America was unique because its political self-governance was founded on the idea of individual self-governance, on the ability of our leaders to use reason and virtue to contain their impulses and vices (Obama was preternaturally self-controlled and self-regulated). But Trump is pure id and appetite.
As an organizing principle, American exceptionalism—in any version, conservative or progressive—can’t really explain America to itself, or to the world, anymore. Even before the ascendancy of Trump, it often seemed that Obama himself barely believed in it, at least when it came to foreign policy. In 2011, he justified the bombing of Libya by harking back to Madeleine Albright, calling America an “indispensable” force for good in the world. Today, though, as he reaches the end of his presidency, Obama talks more about his struggles to rein in what he calls the “machinery of our national-security apparatus,” taking more pride in having resisted the momentum to bomb Syria than he does in having helped overthrow Gadhafi. Obama presided over a global counterinsurgency, drone, and bombing campaign, but now he hardly tries to defend it, except in terms of national security. Trump takes this disenchantment to its logical end, presenting the objectives of foreign policy purely as achieving national defense and securing economic advantage. He’ll torture, bomb, drone, and trade, and he won’t even pretend to do so in the name of universal humanity.
More importantly, the competing impulses that have historcally comprised American exceptionalism have split apart, moving in two opposite directions. One way, Christian nationalism beckons, driven by the fears of white Protestants—exceptionalism’s core constituency since before the Mayflower—who are still (despite the 2016 election results) declining as a percentage of the electorate. Donald Trump is their standard-bearer. The other way, socialism calls to younger voters who, burdened by debt and confronting a bleak labor market, are embracing the legitimacy of social rights and questioning American-style capitalism. According to a recent Harvard poll, 47 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 believe that “basic necessities, such as food and shelter, are a right that the government should provide to those unable to afford them.” Forty-eight percent think “basic health insurance is a right for all people.”
A belief in its exceptionalism has long been the way that America suppressed these two opposing positions, reconciling both racism and demands for social rights in a vibrant, forward-looking Americanism that presented itself as the highest expression of liberal universalism. I doubt, though, that any post-Trump president will be able to put the pieces back together. Hillary Clinton, in her failed campaign for the presidency, tried, saying that she believes “with all my heart that America is an exceptional country.” But her appeals to American uniqueness were burdened by a discredited hawkishness and were tone-deaf to hardship, incapable of adapting an old idea to new times. “America has always been great,” Clinton tweeted during the campaign. OK.
Rather, coming generations will face a stark choice—a choice long deferred by the emotive power of American exceptionalism, but set forth in vivid relief by this election cycle: the choice between barbarism and socialism, or at least social democracy.