U.S. Intellectual History Blog

long live American exceptionalism!

According to the Washington Post, American exceptionalism is making a comeback. In an effort to score political points, Republicans have taken to criticizing President Obama’s comments of over a year ago, given in Strasbourg, France.

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism…[W]e have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional…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 can’t solve these problems alone.

Mitt Romney writes in his campaign book that “[t]his reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism is misguided and bankrupt,” while Mike Huckabee has claimed that “[t]o deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.” The article also finds Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum echoing similar ideas.
(I note that some might find Obama’s statement to be actually rather celebratory of the United States. On this subject, I believe that conservatives tend to take issue with the first and last sentences quoted above, rather than Obama’s overall positions or policies. A quick review of a transcript of the entire event reveals an Obama who, in my view, expresses a great deal of pride in his country, if with perhaps a bit more circumspection and somewhat less swagger than Republicans typically prefer.)
Within the history profession, I think it is fair to say that the mention of American exceptionalism is typically greeted with derision, scorn and mockery. It is odd, therefore, to see professional politicians embrace the phrase, and its attendant ideas, so aggressively. Of course, the people making these attacks are not running for president of the AHA, and the views of academic historians may not track well with those of the electorate at large. According to a poll cited in the article, fully fifty-eight percent of Americans agree with the statement that “God has granted America a special role in human history.”

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. American exceptionalism is making a comeback? Surely the follow-up article will be one on how capitalism is still popular in the US. Which is to say, academics and journalists are surprised to see that both continue to be embraced when they make one of their periodic descents from the ivory tower. That, of course, is the whole line (certainly a lot of it) of the conservative attack against Obama on this point; either he’s out of touch with America, or not really American at all, for not believing as most of his countrymen do.

    “Within the history profession, I think it is fair to say that the mention of American exceptionalism is typically greeted with derision, scorn and mockery.”

    That’s not exactly a great attitude to have towards something one is trying to understand and/or explain, is it? I guess I can chuck most historians’ accounts of the concept into the trash, then, and go with the political scientists, since they do seem to take it seriously. They might come to the same conclusion, but at least they’ll maintain the pretense of a fair trial.

    I wonder, though, if Americans would be so enthusiastic about the notion if they knew how much a product of European views of the United States it is.

  2. I, too, bristled at the “derision, scorn, and mockery” sentence. It’s not strictly true (see Michael Kammen’s “The Problem of American Exceptionalism: a Reconsideration” AQ 45.1 [March 1993] for an example), though it does suggest the dismissiveness with which many historians greet the term. And it does, as Varad Mehta claims, lead to a lack of interest in explaining its undeniable power.

    This may come off as self serving, because this is my next project, but I think we need to come to terms with the power of exceptionalist ideas in fueling and legitimating the projection of American power around the globe. On the Daily Show, Rob Corrdy once said, “It’s not important that we did torture those people. What matters is that we’re not the type of people who would torture those people.” I think that quip gets at something big: that exceptionalist ideas are pervasive in American political culture, and that they are not easily dislodged by events (such as torture,or My Lai) that should call them into question. Why that is needs exploration, no? And mocking the ideas themselves doesn’t seem a useful place to start.

  3. Isn’t this just another version of the civic religion discussion? A belief in American exceptionalism is a belief in the central message of American civic religion and getting people to stop believing that America is exceptional is about as easy as getting devout Christians to stop believing in the crucifixion.

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