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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

American Exceptionalism in Contemporary Politics

An earlier post dealt with a Gallup survey on American exceptionalism. The Pew Research Center finds:

The view that the United States is a great nation is widely held across all typology groups. About nine-in-ten Americans say the United States either stands above all other countries in the world (38%) or is one of the greatest along with some others (53%). Just 8% say there are other countries that are better than the U.S.

But Staunch Conservatives differ from other typology groups in their view that the United States is superior to all other countries. Two-thirds of Staunch Conservatives (67%) say the U.S. stands above all other nations; they are the only group in which a majority expresses this view.

Smaller percentages of Solid Liberals (19%) and Post-Moderns (27%) than those in other groups say the U.S. stands above all other countries. Still, majorities in both groups (62% of Solid Liberals and 65% of Post-Moderns) say the U.S. is one of the greatest countries along with some others.

At The Washington Post, Richard Cohen writes:

The term “American exceptionalism” has been invoked by Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and, of course, Sarah Palin. I would throw in Michele Bachmann, since if she has not said it yet, she soon will because she says almost anything. She is no exception to the cult of American exceptionalism.

The phrase has an odd history. As Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz reminds me, American exceptionalism once applied to the hostility that the American worker — virtually alone in the industrialized world — had toward socialism. Now, though, it is infused with religious meaning, which makes it impervious to analysis. Once you say God likes something, who can quibble?


The huge role of religion in American politics is nothing new but always a matter for concern nonetheless. In the years preceding the Civil War, both sides of the slavery issue claimed the endorsement of God. The 1856 Republican convention concluded with a song that ended like this: “We’ve truth on our side/ We’ve God for our guide.” Within five years, Americans were slaughtering one another on the battlefield.

Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. And yet clearly America must change fundamentally or continue to decline. It could begin by junking a phase that reeks of arrogance and discourages compromise. American exceptionalism ought to be called American narcissism. We look perfect only to ourselves.

At National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg replies:

As far as I can tell the only evidence that Cohen cites to support his thesis that “American Exceptionalism” is now an overwhelmingly and dangerously religious concept comes in the 8th paragraph (of a 10 paragraph column) where he notes that Gingrich uses the phrase “secular left” sometimes. That doesn’t strike me as a forensic slam dunk. It seems that Cohen is sort of right in one narrow sense. The term American exceptionalism is impervious to analysis — Cohen’s analysis.

I don’t dispute, by the way, that there is some significant religious resonance to American exceptionalism. What I vigorously dispute is any suggestion that Cohen understands what it is or has come within a thousand yards of explaining it.

For those interested they might consult the works of Seymour Martin Lipset, or Arthur Brooks, or Ponnuru and Lowry.

* The most mindless “American exceptionalism” attack yet: Rick Santorum rehashes the nonsense about Obama and “American exceptionalism” yet again, even though he was confronted with proof less than two weeks ago that it’s completely false.
At Politico, Isaac Wood of the University of Virginia writes:

Much like stories of the Cold War, American exceptionalism was more something we inherited than experienced first-hand. We read in textbooks, not newspapers, about America’s ascent to superpower status....

The end of bin Laden’s life on the lam may be only symbolic. But it is a particularly powerful symbol to my generation. Across college campuses, students rushed to celebrate together, singing patriotic hymns and waving U.S. flags.

In New York, young people flocked to Ground Zero to mark closure and justice done. In Washington, the White House was surrounded by jubilant spectators, joined together in communal catharsis.

It feels like we turned a corner. America triumphed again — but this was our triumph over our foe. We realize are not free from the specter of terrorism — but we have shown we are not powerless against it. We brought justice to a man who sought to replace law and order with disorder and terror.

My generation is young. We have many more challenges to face, from a rising Chinese economic superpower to the still-dangerous terror networks overseas. At home we must confront concerns about our energy future and a serious national debt crisis.

Still, we have a sense of shared purpose and patriotism — perhaps forged from the same steel as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

For one exhilarating moment, at least, we now taste the power and potential of America.

Christianity Today reports on a more negative reaction:

Popular author and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has accused the world of giving America a free pass for violating Pakistan's sovereignty and killing an unarmed man during the recent attack that killed Osama bin Laden.

The former bishop of Durham sent a short statement to The Times' religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill in which he pointed out that Americans would be "furious" if Great Britain's military had staged an unannounced raid against hypothetical Irish Republican Army terrorists and killed them, unarmed, in a Boston suburb.

The only difference, Wright says, is "American exceptionalism."

"America is allowed to do it, but the rest of us are not," said Wright, who is now the research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "By what right? Who says?"

President Obama, Wright says, has "enacted one of America’s most powerful myths," the vigilante hero going outside the law to execute "redemptive violence" against an enemy who has rendered the legitimate authorities impotent. "This is the plot of a thousand movies, comic-book strips, and TV shows: Captain America, the Lone Ranger, and (upgraded to hi-tech) Superman. The masked hero saves the world."

In Australia, Ruby Hamad writes in the same vein:
So how disappointing it was, last week, to hear him boast that “today's achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people… tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to”. Including, apparently, violating the sovereignty of another nation, an ally no less, and quite possibly illegally executing an unarmed man, along with whoever happened to get in America’s way that night.

Either Obama has been inducted into the American exceptionalism camp, or simply revealed his true colours. Either way, it’s devastating for those of us who dared to believe his audacious message - that America need not claim exceptionalism in order to play an important role in world affairs.