U.S. Intellectual History Blog

another thought on American exceptionalism

The recent revival of American exceptionalism as a political issue has been noted a few times at USIH. In November, I wondered why an idea so generally scorned by historians could be getting new legs in politics. Last month, Ben traced the term’s shifting meanings over time, from its origins in Marxist thinking to its status today as a “conservative shibboleth.” Another, slightly more recent (February 14) take on this phenomenon can be found on the website of The New Republic, where Georgetown historian Michael Kazin (The Populist Persuasion, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan) has approached the subject from the perspective of President Obama’s political difficulties surrounding the phrase. The president’s measured support for American exceptionalism has been too lukewarm to earn him points with conservative critics, and Kazin assesses Obama’s use of the term to date as neither “productive” nor “convincing.” Kazin nonetheless argues that the president, despite his difficulties with celebrating the nation’s uniqueness, “neither can nor should discard the exceptionalism creed…[Instead, he] can use exceptionalism to suggest that the country has yet to live up to its ideals and simultaneously, to garb his policies, from health care to immigration to foreign aid, as what the country needs for this to finally happen.” Click here for Kazin’s post.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Actually, Nils, it is in the OED (as I note in the post that Mike links above). If you have access to the online version of the OED, you’ll see that it first appeared in the 1993 Additions volumes, i.e. after the last complete edition (the Second), which was published in 1989. The term occurs exclusively in the context of American exceptionalism.

    According to the OED, “exceptionalism” first appeared in 1929 in a Daily Worker rejoinder to Lovestoneite claims about the US.

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