U.S. Intellectual History Blog

How Did "Exceptionalism" Become a Conservative Shibboleth?

(Actual Right-Wing Infant Wear)

“On the right, the word ‘exceptional’ – or ‘exceptionalism’ – lately has become a litmus test for patriotism. It’s the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution. To many on the left, it has become birther code for ‘he’s not one of us.’

Washington Post conservative columnist Kathleen Parker,  Jan. 30, 2011
In recent years, the idea of American exceptionalism has become strongly associated with the American right, an association nicely captured by Kathleen Parker in an otherwise deeply silly op-ed about President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address.  Parker’s focus was not on whether Obama believes that the U.S. is exceptional, nor even on whether he indicated that belief in his speech, but rather on Obama’s failure to use the word itself.  “He didn’t say it,” Parker begins,

That word: “exceptional.” Barack Obama described an exceptional nation in his State of the Union address, but he studiously avoided using the word conservatives long to hear.

Conservatives’ obsession with Obama’s relationship to exceptionalism goes back to an April, 2009, press conference in Strasbourg (previously discussed by Mike O’Connor on this blog), but the conservative appropriation of the term is of longer standing…though not by much.  

Until the 1990s, the term “exceptionalism” was almost entirely associated with the left.  Of course the idea that the United States is unique among nations is of very long standing. It has taken a wide variety of different forms and political guises going back to the very foundation of this country.  From Tom Paine’s notion of America as an “asylum for mankind” to Alexis de Tocqueville’s explorations of American democracy to Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, U.S. history is dotted with competing visions of American uniqueness.  Indeed, Americans have even found the roots of these ideas going back long before there was a United States, in John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon aboard the Arbella.  
Many of these visions are complicated by the fact that, while they propose that the United States is utterly unlike any other nation that has ever existed, its uniqueness is capable of being universalized.  Indeed, Paine’s image of America as a singular asylum for all of mankind captures this duality.  We are unlike anywhere else…but perhaps everywhere else can become just like us.  Other visions of American uniqueness contain within them a narrative of declension: we’ve been unique, but the font of our uniqueness is dying. Turner propounded the Frontier Thesis as the frontier was, in his estimation, disappearing forever.
But the term “exceptionalism” itself–and it is, again, the term that has lately become a particular conservative obsession–has its roots in twentieth-century debates within Marxism.  Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry on “exceptionalism”:

exceptionalism, n.

Pronunciation:  /?k?s?p??n?l?z(?)m/

Etymology:  < exceptional adj. + -ism suffix.


  The theory that the peaceful capitalism of the United States constitutes an exception to the general economic laws governing national historical development, and esp. to the Marxist law of the inevitability of violent class warfare; more generally, the belief that something is exceptional in relation to others of the same kind; loosely, exceptional quality or character.

[1928    J. Lovestone in Communist Nov. 660   We are now in the period of decisive clashes between socialist reformism and communism for the leadership of the majority of the working class. This is in all countries of high capitalist development with the exception of the United States where we have specific conditions.]

1929    Brouder & Zack in Daily Worker (N.Y.) 29 Jan. 3/2   This American ‘exceptionalism’ applies to the whole tactical line of the C.I. as applied to America. (This theory pervades all the writings and speeches of the Lovestone–Pepper group up until the present.)

1945    Political Affairs July 603/2   When we argued against Jay Lovestone, who was expelled from our ranks years ago, we pointed out that Lovestone?put forth his theories of exceptionalism because he was influenced by the exaggerated strength of American imperialism.

1957    E. R. Browder Karl Marx & Amer. iii. 29   The exceptionalism of America is one of concrete historical conditions, but not of laws and principles of economic development.

1977    K. Minogue in J. Abse My LSE 166   The treatment of British politics was still heavily permeated with self-congratulation, amounting virtually to a theory of British exceptionalism.

1983    Times Lit. Suppl. 9 Dec. 1369/1   St Basil’s is, in fact, more symmetrical and ‘rational’?than advocates of exotic Russian exceptionalism have been inclined to admit.

1984    Times Lit. Suppl. 25 May 592/1   Historians in the United States were for a long time understandably concerned with celebrating the special character of a country which?drew much of its confidence from a belief in American exceptionalism.

A few things to note about this: the term “exceptionalism” entered the English language in Marxist discussions about the U.S.  And, not surprisingly, it appears to have come into being during the argument between the Lovestoneites and the Stalinists over whether the U.S. could follow the same path to Communism as the USSR was apparently taking.  In fact, this argument was related to a somewhat older line of inquiry usually associated with the German sociologist Werner Sombart, who, in the title of a 1906 book, famously framed a question that has haunted the American left ever since,  Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?*  

Now one might think that the association of the idea of American exceptionalism with the absence of socialism might explain its adoption by the American right.  However, to the extent that the concept of American exceptionalism posited the impossibility of American socialism (certainly not Lovestone’s position, but one that later became associated with the term), the idea was actually somewhat foreign to the American right, which has been very committed to the possibility of socialism in the United States as a grave and present danger.
At any rate, though most conservatives certainly felt that the United States was exceptional, the word “exceptionalism” is virtually absent from major conservative journals from World War II through the 1970s. Its only appearance in The National Review from the 1950s through the 1970s is in a short, May 26, 1978, piece entitled “American Exceptionalism” that reported the results of a survey showing that the vast majority of Americans considered themselves to be middle class.  The journal put the term in scare quotes and associated it with Marxism (though the NR agreed with the general thrust of the idea):

“American Exceptionalism,” the bane of Marxist theory, found confirmation yet again in a survey taken jointly by the New York Times and CBS News.

As far as I can tell, through the 1970s, the term “exceptionalism” never appeared in the pages of Russell Kirk’s Modern Age.  Its only appearance during the 1960s and 1970s in The Public Interest, the premiere journal of early neoconservatism, was in a 1976 essay by Daniel Bell, who (as has been much discussed already on this blog) was a kind of one-man left-wing of neoconservatism in those years.  Although Bell doesn’t confine the term to debates within Marxism, he proclaims in the essay’s very title “The End of American Exceptionalism.”  This is hardly the kind of flag-pin use of the term that twenty-first century conservatives have become known for.**
In the politically conservative [oops…see update below] academic Journal of Politics, the term was similarly rare during these years. It first shows up in 1973, in an early Harvey Klehr essay entitled “Marxist Theory in America.”***  It then shows up more neutrally in passing in a 1976 essay by Alan Grimes and a 1979 book review by Joel Rogers.**** In these two later pieces, “American exceptionalism” is no longer particularly associated with Marxism, but it is also not in any sense lionized.  Both Grimes and Rogers use the term more or less as Bell did in 1976, to designate the more general idea that the U.S. is unique among nations in broadly positive ways.  
Interest in the term increased rapidly in the 1980s, but mainly on the academic left, where arguments about American exceptionalism (in the old, Marxist sense) took center stage in the rise of the new labor history, which largely rejected exceptionalism by moving away from earlier, mechanistic teleologies concerning the rise of the proletariat.*****  In a sense, in the wake of E.P. Thompson, every working class had become exceptional.******
But as far as I can tell, it was at the turn of the century that the term began showing up in the conservative media and in the speeches of conservative politicians, usually in connection with foreign policy.  For example, Marc Thiessen, who at the time served on the Republican Majority Staff of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, wrote an article for the June 12, 2000 issue of the neoconservative Weekly Standard entitled, “The Candidates’ Foreign Policies;
It’s Bush’s American exceptionalism versus Gore’s liberal multilateralism.” Here Thiessen uses “American exceptionalism” as a description of Bush’s unilateralist, interventionist foreign policy, which he in turn associates with Ronald Reagan.  “Exceptionalists,” writes Thiessen,

view the principled projection of American power as the key to an effective internationalism. For security, they look first to concrete defenses. And, while exceptionalists seek to preserve America’s freedom of unilateral action in the world, they also support well-negotiated treaties and strategic alliances such as NATO as ways to promote U.S. interests and spread American values.

Although Thiessen concludes by sternly warning that, if Bush wins the White House, “our allies may soon have to reacquaint themselves with a ‘distinctly American’ foreign policy based on the traditions of American exceptionalism,” there’s nothing remotely traditional about this use of the word “exceptionalism.”  And yet it seems to be in connection with the aggressive but unilateralist foreign policy promoted by neoconservatives in the 1990s that the term finally jumped over to the right side of the political spectrum.
Lurking in the background of this unilateralist approach to foreign policy was the older meaning of American exceptionalism, though of course spun positively and shorn of its Marxism: America could have an exceptionalist foreign policy because it was different from other nations.  And not only different, but superior.  Although in the strictly Marxist usage “exceptionalism” only referred to a way in which the U.S. was different from, rather than superior to, other countries, the long history of American beliefs in U.S. superiority could easily be retroactively attached to the concept (and were in, for example, Bell’s writings on exceptionalism), especially given the double-meaning of the word “exceptional.” 
Indeed, much of the force of the current conservative insistence on the term “exceptionalism” concerns not an argument for an American Sonderweg, let alone for unilateralism in foreign policy, but rather a claim about how awesome this country is.  As one t-shirt available online declares:  “MEDIOCRITY IS FOR THE REST OF THE WORLD. EXCEPTIONALISM IS AN AMERICAN THING.” Or, as one bumpersticker somewhat confusingly puts it, “If America is not an exceptional country, Barack Obama is definitely NOT an exceptional president.”
And yet even here, we haven’t entirely left the Marxist context of exceptionalism.  For the discussion of mediocrity on the right these days is often connected to (Obama’s purported) socialism.  As yet another t-shirt suggests, “socialism creates mediocrity.”
Today’s popular conservative discourse about exceptionalism suggests a kind of nexus of Sonderweg, national greatness, and aggressive unilateralism that is opposed by a international socialist conspiracy to undermine America represented simultaneously by Barack Obama, Europe, the UN, Islam, and a variety of other enemies.  There’s a kind of rough internal cultural logic to this sort of thing, but as an actual argument about what’s happening in America or the world today it’s utterly disconnected from reality.  This may partly account for the incoherence of the attempts by Kathleen Parker and other conservative pundits to reproduce this discourse in more sober versions.

[UPDATE:  I realize that, in a moment of middle-age muddle, I confused the Journal of Politics with the Review of Politics.  It’s the latter journal that I had meant to check for “exceptionalism.”  And to be honest, I’m not sure what the politics of the Journal of Politics are…so what you see above should be read with a grain of salt.  A quick check of the often conservative-leaning Review of Politics, however, shows similar results: no appearances of the word “exceptionalism” before 1976–the bicentennial seems to be emerging as a turning point–and only four before 1980, one of which appears in a piece about Earl Browder.]

* One of the ironies of Sombart’s question is that there was probably more socialism in the United States around the time he posed it than there has been at virtually any time since.
** Daniel Bell, “The End of American Exceptionalism,” The Public Interest, Fall 1976, pp. 193-224.  This essay is still is well worth reading, as is Bell’s follow-up to it, “‘American Exceptionalism’ Revisited: the Role of Civil Society,” The Public Interest, Spring 1989, pp. 38-56.
*** Harvey Klehr, “Marxist Theory in America,” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 35, No. 2 (May, 1973), pp. 311-331.  Klehr’s discussion of “exceptionalism is on p. 330.  In fact, Klehr’s unpublished 1971 UNC PhD dissertation in political science was entitled “The Theory of American Exceptionalism” and was entirely devoted to the mid-century debate within American Marxism.
**** Alan P. Grimes, “Conservative Revolution and Liberal Rhetoric: The Declaration of Independence,” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 38, No. 3, 200 Years of the Republic in Retrospect: A Special Bicentennial Issue (Aug., 1976), pp. 1-19; Joel Rogers, Reviewed work(s): Political Repression in Modern America: From 1870 to the Present. by Robert Justin Goldstein, The Journal of Politics, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Nov., 1979), pp. 1233-1234. It is hard to consider Joel Rogers a conservative, though I’m not entirely sure what his politics were at the time of this review.  
***** The key essay in this regard was Sean Wilentz, “Against Exceptionalism: Class Consciousness and the American Labor Movement, 1790-1920,” International Labor and Working-Class History, No. 26 (Fall, 1984), pp. 1-24.  This inaugurated a decade of debates about exceptionalism among historians (see, for example, the Forum on American Exceptionalism in The American Historical Review, Vol. 96, No. 4 (Oct., 1991)).
****** This view might have gained force as the question went from “Why is there no socialism in America?” to “Why is there no socialism in the industrialized world?” over the course of the 1980s and 1990s.  Indeed, the discussion of American exceptionalism took on a very different feel as the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War came to an end, an the U.S. emerged as an apparently ideologically unchallenged superpower.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben:

    This is a very interesting etymology of exceptionalism. From the stuff I have looked at that relates civil religion to exceptionalism, the connection to the etymology you provide above rests on the assumption that the United States has been some how exempt from the usual historical problems that plagued all other traditional nations. Niebuhr’s Irony of American History was written as corrective of that idea or logic. In this sense, the US is not just exempt from a Marxist view of history from history of empires, “fallen” Christian communities, and most disturbingly during the cold war, the nuclear noose.

    So my question is this: why does it matter that there is not any real connection between the original etymology of exceptionalism and the contemporary use of American exceptionalism (see Godfrey Hodgson’s recent book on this as well as Lipset’s much older one) by the right or whomever chooses to use in these along these lines?

  2. This is a truly great post. Great digging Ben! I love a few of your asides, like this: “One of the ironies of Sombart’s question is that there was probably more socialism in the United States around the time he posed it than there has been at virtually any time since.”

    One quick question: is it coincidence that Marxists originated two key conservative concepts that have been the topic of conversation at the blog lately, not only “American exceptionalism” but also “new class” thinking? It must be coincidence, since as you outline here the neocons (former Trotskyists, not to be confused with Trotskyites!) were not the ones to take up the mantle of American exceptionalism the way they did with new class thinking. Right?

  3. Excellent question, Ray and Andrew!

    To take Ray’s question first: at a certain level, it doesn’t matter where the term comes from. Certainly, I don’t think it matters much insofar as one is considering the more politically neutral use of the word “exceptionalism” that seems to have sprouted in the mid-1970s, appropriating what was once a more narrow Marxist term to describe a broader and often older multifaceted series of claims about the uniqueness of the United States (the civil-religion-related usage Ray cites is an example of this).

    The origins of the idea do draw our attention to the fact that the idea of “exceptionalism” is necessarily teleological…or at least that it implies a contrast with a teleology that applies to everyone else. This is explicit in the Marxist usage, but it lurks in the background of the broader usage of the term. You can’t have a Sonderweg without a notion of the “normal” path of history (which is precisely why the new labor historians tried to toss the idea of exceptionalism overboard). But all of that is implicit in the idea itself; you don’t really need the etymology to get there.

    I do think the etymology is significant when one considers the current attempt to make the idea of exceptionalism the exclusive property of the political right, which its Marxist origins pretty spectacularly contradict.

    As for Andrew’s question about whether ex-Marxists brought this term to the right: I don’t think so, but I’m not entirely sure. From what I’ve seen, there’s a good chance that neoconservative foreign policy thinkers in the 1990s played a crucial role in rhetorically turning the term into a conservative one. But neoconservatives of the First Age (a la Vaïsse), i.e. the former Trostkyists for whom the idea of the “new class” was so crucial, don’t seem to have much used the term. The one notable semi-exception, as I mention above, was Daniel Bell (as has already been noted in an earlier post, never a Trotskyist, but a YPSLer in his youth), and he was more interested in others’ claims of exceptionalism than in building a claim for exceptionalism himself. And most of the leading neoconservative figures of the 1990s did not have leftist pasts (though there are a few exceptions, e.g. Joshua Muravchik).

  4. Raymond Geuss on American Exceptionalism (indicating that the term was, however, being used prior to the turn of the century and by those note on the marxist left, incidentally):

    “The very idea that the United States was “special” has always seemed to me patently absurd, and the idea that in its present, any of its past, or any of its likely future configurations it was in any way exemplary, a form of gross narcissistic self-deception which was not transformed into something laudable by virtue of being embedded in a highly sophisticated theory which purported to show that ethnocentrism was in a philosophically deep sense unavoidable. I remain very grateful to my Catholic upbringing and education for giving me relative immunity to nationalism. In the 1950s, the nuns who taught me from age five to twelve were virtually all Irish or Irish-American with sentimental attachment to certain elements of Celtic folklore, but they made sure to inculcate into us that the only serious human society was the Church which was an explicitly international organization. The mass, in the international language, Latin, was the same everywhere; the religious orders were international. This absence of national limitation was something very much to be cherished. “Catholica” in the phrase “[credo in] unam, sanctam, catholicam, et apostolicam ecclesiam” should, we were told, be written with a lower-case, not an upper-case, initial because it was not in the first instance part of the proper name of the church, but an adjective meaning “universal,” and this universality was one of the most important “marks of the true Church.” The Head of the Church, to be sure, and Vicar of Christ on earth, was in fact (at that time) always an Italian, but that was for contingent and insignificant reasons. The reason most commonly cited by these nuns was that, as Bishop of Rome, the Pope had to live in the “Eternal City,” but only an Italian could stand to live in Rome: it was hot, noisy, and overcrowded, and the people there ate spaghetti for dinner everyday rather than proper food, i.e., potatoes, so it would be too great a sacrifice to expect someone who had not grown up in Italy to tolerate life there. I clearly remember being unconvinced by this argument, thinking it set inappropriately low standards of self-sacrifice for the higher clergy; a genuinely saintly character should be able to put up even with pasta for lunch and dinner every day. I have since myself adopted this diet for long periods of time without thinking it gave me any claim on the Papacy.”

  5. For the longest time I had been bothered by the use of “exceptionalism” in relation to the USA. I found it vainglorious to say the least. Except that the word does have dual meanings. And the USA has shown itself to have exceptions with the UN and international law in relation to Constitutional international matters of war, conquest, rendition and human rights. Our leaders took exception to the Nuremberg Laws they ignored them. The UN would never and couldn’t enact sanctions against the mighty USA because of its power. And any countries under its mantle like Columbia and especially Israel. We see it today and it goes back for many years.

    Not something I see as beneficial to the world and definitely not good for us. We get the whole positivist slant of our corporate democracy cum empire bringing “democracy” to the impoverished non whites of the world. Not much different what was done with the Native Americans and the “White Fathers” of the USA. Especially considering the kind of imperial things the USA did in the name of “liberty” when they brought terror, anguish and dictatorial control of other countries killing the inhabitants, calling them the terrorists. Now that is exceptional, but not superior, in getting away with it and still saying they are for goodness and light in the world when they really are darkness and tyranny abroad.

    I am enlightened by this article and will book mark it for continual referral.

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