Is America a special nation, chosen by God as “the shining city on the hill?” Do our founding documents, with their explicit invocation of natural rights, set us apart from the rest of the world?
Majorities of Americans believe so. Even the liberal Brookings Institution recently published a survey that found 58 percent of citizens believe: “God has granted America a special role in human history.”
American exceptionalism, as it is called, has been in the news quite a lot lately. In his victory speech Nov. 2, Florida Senator-elect Marco Rubio eloquently extolled American exceptionalism, provoking howls of outrage from liberals. “America is the single greatest nation in all of human history. A place without equal in the history of all mankind,” he said. The son of Cuban exiles declared that only in America could he and others have risen so far, with so few barriers to advancement.
Rubio was implicitly drawing a distinction between he and other conservatives and liberals like President Obama. The left and many in the media took notice. In a Nov. 29 Washington Post article, Karen Tumulty discovered American exceptionalism as a threat to an Obama second term. “But with Republicans and tea party activists accusing President Obama and the Democrats of turning the country toward socialism, the idea that the United States is inherently superior to the world's other nations has become the battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars. Lately, it seems to be on the lips of just about every Republican who is giving any thought to running for president in 2012.”
But far from acknowledging it as a standard electoral tool or a valid issue for an American president, liberal commentators have associated conservatives’ embrace of exceptionalism with “birtherism” and “the suggestion that Obama is not really one of us.” They’ve suggested appeals to exceptionalism are a way of flattering the electorate or creating false divisions in society. They called exceptionalism a “lunatic notion” and out right declared that “U.S. is not greatest country ever.”
In newspapers from USA Today to the Washington Post, magazines from Newsweek to the Atlantic, and on cable and broadcast news, American exceptionalism is a hot topic.
Obama and Exceptionalism
Conservatives have long noted President Obama’s ambivalence toward American exceptionalism. In spring 2010, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review wrote that “President Obama’s first year in office should be seen in the context of contemporary liberalism’s discomfort with American exceptionalism. The president has signaled again and again his unease with traditional American patriotism.”
But in extolling the singular virtues of the nation, conservatives aroused the ire of the left and the amused disdain of many in the media. Add to that Sarah Palin’s extolling of American exceptionalism in her latest book, anti-exceptionalism all the rage among liberals (because if she’s for it, they’re against it.)
In an April 2009 press conference in Europe, Obama was asked directly whether he subscribed to American exceptionalism. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he said, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” And although he went on to add that he was “enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world,” it came during his first “apology tour,” and the damage was done.
As a man of the left who managed to get elected president of a center-right country, much of what Obama does cuts against the grain of American sensibilities, including the belief in American exceptionalism.
But that’s not good enough for liberals who need to find deeper, more sinister thinking behind appeals to exceptionalism.
In the Post, Tumulty’s readers shouldn’t be fooled into thinking exceptionalism is about ideology and the direction of the nation, however. “With a more intellectual sheen than the false assertions that Obama is secretly a Muslim or that he was born in Kenya, an argument over American exceptionalism ‘is a respectable way of raising the question of whether Obama is one of us,’ said William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.”
This refrain was picked up the same day by liberal Post blogger Greg Sargent. “The intended subtext of the argument is unmistakable,” Sargent claimed. “While respectable right wing commentators are careful to disavow the ‘birther’ movement, the suggestion that Obama is not really one of us subtly permeates virtually every aspect of the right's critique of the Obama administration and its policies.”
In summation, Sargent wrote, “The real goal is to hint that you should find Obama's character, story, motives and identity to be fundamentally alien, unsettling, and insidious.”
The only certainties are death, taxes and Sarah Palin’s ability to anger liberals. The former Alaska governor’s new book, “America by Heart,” contains a chapter on American exceptionalism. And while liberal journalists roundly scorn the entire volume, they reserve special bile for Palin’s take on exceptionalism. In a review that verges on a caricature liberal obtuseness, Amanda Marcotte wrote Britain’s left-wing Guardian newspaper that what Palin is “actually saying-without-saying to her audience is dark stuff indeed.”
What kind of evil code is Palin speaking? Marcotte quotes her: “When we say America is exceptional we're saying we are the lucky heirs to a unique set of beliefs and national qualities, and that we need to preserve those values and beliefs.” Scary. Palin had the temerity to praise Ronald Reagan, to suggest that there really are “exceptional” people and, by extension, nations.
The hint (if you missed it) should be clear for her readers – America is better than everyone else. At least, their version of America. Which is another way of saying that they – aggrieved white conservative voters – have some unique, if hard-to-pin-down quality of awesomeness lacking in all foreigners and all merely technical Americans whom Palin has excluded from her beloved category of Real Americans.
In the Nov. 21 Las Vegas Sun, the aptly named Brian Greenspun managed to spin the discussion of American exceptionalism into an attack on Sarah Palin’s daughter and her relative success on the show “Dancing with the Stars.”
As CMI reported, Palin made it to the show’s finals bolstered by viewer votes, and making liberals see Tea Party conspiracies. And Greenspun, who rejected American exceptionalism as “a superiority complex,” still managed to be offended on its behalf.
“If popularity is the deciding value,” he wrote, “Bristol and her mother’s supporters win the day. If, however, we are supposed to reward exceptionalism, I would argue that we, instead, rewarded mediocrity.”
He continued, “If I were a Tea Party adherent who believes in the American values espoused by so many voters this past election, I would feel used in this instance. For if I believe in real exceptionalism, then I should not have voted for Bristol. If I believe, however, that I am superior just because, then I would be content to advance mediocrity.”
On Nov. 18, Washington Post opinion writer Matt Millar used Palin’s insistence on American exceptionalism as the jump-off for a piece snarkily named “Ohhhh, America, you’re so strong.”
“The conservative use of American exceptionalism as a political sword today is perversely revealing,” Millar said. “There's something off when the first generation of Americans that is less educated than its parents feels a deep need to be told how unique it is.”
Millar then asked, “Wouldn't it bolster Americans more to be told that we can meet the challenges of this moment? Wouldn't we be better off striving to be exceptional at solving our common problems?” As if acknowledging America’s greatness somehow impedes our ability to rise to our challenges, rather than aids them.
Millar suggested that, after all, we’re not really so special, “ … a generation that's handing off epic debts and a chronically dysfunctional political process (among other woes) demands that its leaders keep toasting its fabulousness. Especially when other nations now offer more upward mobility, and a better blend of growth with equity, than we do – arguably the best measures of America's once-exceptional national performance.”
And this leads into liberal inability to truly fathom the concept of American exceptionalism. In their view, Government doesn’t do enough to make America exceptional.
In her Post article, Tumulty acknowledged that “the concept of exceptionalism also speaks to Americans' beliefs about the size, role and scope of their own government.” But at The Daily Beast on Nov. 3, Peter Beinart wrote, “ … China has stimulated its way out of recession and is set to pour even more government money into infrastructure, leaving America further behind …”
Beinart scoffed at Rubio’s suggestion that “almost every other place in the world … what you were going to be when you grow up was determined for you.”
Almost every other place in the world? From China to India to Brazil, hundreds of millions of people are rising economically in ways their parents could scarcely have imagined, in part because their governments are investing in infrastructure in the way the United States did in the late nineteenth century. The American dream of upward mobility is alive and well, just not in America. And rather than looking at what those other countries are doing right, the Republicans have taken refuge in an anti-government ideology premised on the lunatic notion that America is the only truly free and successful country in the world.
Beinart’s ideological comrade Michael Kinsley declared in no uncertain terms that “U.S. is not greatest country ever.” That was the title of his Nov. 2 Politico column. As he ranted at the electorate for daring to choose the wrong candidates, Kinsley offered that “This conceit that we’re the greatest country ever may be self-immolating. If people believe it’s true, they won’t do what’s necessary to make it true. “
Fair enough. Like what? “The Brits, who suffer no such delusion (and who, in fact, cherish the national myth of being people who smile through adversity), have just accepted cuts in government spending that no American politician – even a tea bagger –would dream of proposing.”
This again misses the point by quite a lot. It’s the existence of the government spending in the first place that is the threat to American exceptionalism, not whether the people accept that what government giveth government can taketh away. That Americans, in the form of the Tea Party, rose up this year to demand less from their government is exceptional.