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.