U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Exceptionalism Watch

Earlier this month, the Washington Post‘s political blog “The Fix” wrote a piece about a recent Pew poll that had suggested that the number of Americans who believed that the U.S. “stands above all other countries” had declined. What interested me about this Fix post was that its authors – Aaron Blake and Jaime Fuller – chose to use the term “American exceptionalism” throughout their piece to designate the belief that America stands above all other countries.

The USIH Blog has spilled a lot of pixels over the years on the idea of American exceptionalism. Back in 2011, I wrote a post about the term’s emergence, since the late 1990s, as a right-wing shibboleth. Part of the right’s adoption of “American exceptionalism” as a watchword has been a shift in its core meaning. Blake and Fuller’s use of the term marks the extent of this shift.

For most of the history of the term – which originally emerged in the 1920s in debates between Lovestoneites and Stalinists over the future course of socialism in the U.S. – “American exceptionalism” was principally used to designate the belief that the U.S. was unlike other countries is some fundamental way. Of course, the word “exceptional” has at least two distinct meanings: 1) unusual and 2) outstanding. And though “American exceptionalism” tended for most of its history to be used in the first sense, that second sense always lurked in the shadows of its usage.

The idea that America was unlike other countries was never entirely separate from the idea that America was the greatest country in the world. Indeed, the second idea almost by necessity entails the first. And both these ideas long predate the emergence of the term “American exceptionalism.”

But as that term has grown in importance to American conservatives, what was once an occasional connotation of “American exceptionalism” has become its core meaning in common speech. Neither Blake nor Fuller is a conservative pundit; indeed, Fuller used to work for the liberal opinion journal The American Prospect. That they would use “American exceptionalism” to mean the belief that America stands above all other countries suggests that this shift in meaning is nearly complete.

Why do I care that “American exceptionalism” now means “American superiority” in our public discourse? To begin with, it affects my teaching. One of my bread-and-butter courses is a survey of American social thought. And one of the issues I return to over and over again in the semester is American exceptionalism in the older sense: which American intellectuals have understood their country to be fundamentally different from other countries and what did they believe was the basis of this difference? In recent years, however, I’ve noticed the newer sense of “American exceptionalism” creeping into our class discussions and the students’ papers. I’ll try to ask about the changing ways in which people have understood the U.S. to be different from other countries, and my students will answer with a litany of ways in which the U.S. has been awesome (frequently in their own views, occasionally in those of the people we’re reading).

It now seems to me that I’ve lost this terminological battle. For the moment, at least, I think I’m going to remove the term “American exceptionalism” from my syllabus, outlines, essay prompts, and exams. I’ll have to use a few more words to get my meaning across. Rather than write “American exceptionalism,” I’ll write something like “the belief that America is fundamentally unlike other nations.” But at least my students and I will be more likely to be talking about the same thing.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I wonder, however, if “the belief that America is fundamentally unlike other nations” is equally saturated with the idea of “America is the best”. That is, the moment that difference or distinctiveness is introduced in a comparative context, the go to for many is not, say, “American capitalism has more mercilessly triumphed over its adversaries than capitalism in Europe,” but “isn’t American capitalism great because its uncontaminated by European collectivism and makes us more free.” Of course, the concept of “capitalism” has some of the same problems–it began as a term of left-wing critique only to become a term of celebration. Which may be why talking to students about capitalism, or neo-liberalism, or a whole host of other terms always seems to involve a translation problem.

    • I do think that the belief that America is fundamentally unlike other nations tends to be somehow related to claims about American superiority. But I don’t think every claim of the first sort is equally saturated with claims of the second sort. Take three examples that I teach (out of Hollinger and Capper): Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Woodrow Wilson’s “The Ideals of America,” and John Crowe Ransom’s “Reconstructed but Unregenerate.”

      The first makes a very clear argument that America is unlike other nations, but that it might be losing what has made it unique. Turner implies, I think, American superiority, but he doesn’t emphasize it.

      Wilson, on the other hand, is entirely frank about his belief in American superiority. But he hopes that other nations, with a lot of imperial oversight, will eventually be able to become just like us.

      Finally, Ransom sees what makes America–or at least the dominant North–unusual is entirely pernicious. His hopes for the renewal of (a largely imaginary) Southern culture and understands that culture as being much closer to European culture than the culture of the North that he detests.

  2. I have to think that the idea of America as some shining example of what a country can be at its best died with JFK on the streets of Dallas 50 years ago. He was our last real president in what could have been a truly exceptional country.

  3. I’ve taken to referring to #1 as “exceptionality” – which can refer to a set of readily identifiable geographical and historical facts taken together – and to reserve #2 for “isms” that tend to be associated with one or another #1.

    Belief in American exceptionality always implies belief in some other, relatively more normal historical tendency or predicament, but it also just means that we can treat North America as in many ways, materially and concretely, as the globe’s prime developable real estate for the entirety of the modern period up to the present, at least initially without prejudice in regard to the form that that development took or its conceivable moral import. I also believe, however, that it will prove impossible for us, either as Amerians or as inhabitants of “the world America made” to avoid attributing values of some type to that facticity.

    Predictably, many of the fiercest opponents of the type of contemporary rightwing exceptionalism described in the post become or turn out to have been not just philosophically anti-exceptionalist or anti-“American exceptionalism” but “anti-American” exceptionalist. It’s also not surprising that people devoted to the view that a nation is not special, is not admirable, is not chosen for a special fate by God, or perhaps is remarkably evil and dangerous (seat of imperialism, militarism, global capitalism, ecological destruction, genocidal colonialism, etc.) will in normal times have difficulty attaining power and influence, since they are denied or deny themselves the indispensable political resources of good honest demagogy.

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