On Tuesday, 10 September, President Barack Obama delivered a short address from the White House on the subject of the potential use of military force by the U.S. against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria for its use of chemical weapons against civilians in a rebel-held neighborhood of Damascus. In that speech, Obama declared that “when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times of Thursday, 12 September, “I would rather disagree with a case [President Obama] made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is ‘what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.’ It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”
The concept of “American exceptionalism” has been in the news recently. After Obama’s speech and Putin’s response, the commentators and pundits debated the idea that the United States has donned the mantel of uniqueness in the world and what that implies for the country and the world. While the words can have a multitude of meanings depending on who’s using them, who’s hearing them, and what the immediate context is, there is a definition and a history for both the phrase and the socio-political import it conveys. Though ROT is not generally a political blog, I think I can devote one post to this curious notion and the expression some people, both in and out of politics, toss around rather casually but with such significance. First, let’s define the terms denotatively—see what the words mean in a dictionary. Back in 2006, Wikipedia provided an excellent definition:
Exceptionalism is an assertion that the subject under discussion is claiming special exemption to commonly-held relationships or principles. It is used most frequently in historical surveys and in association with an assertion of destiny, i.e., that the supposedly exceptional character draws from or is intended or useful for a larger, perhaps ideological, purpose.
A frequent use of the term occurs in discussions of “American exceptionalism,” which variously implies that the United States of America embodies or claims to be an example of non-standard historical progression in relation to economic or military theory. The unique historical development of the United States of America, and its geographic isolation from culturally similar peoples, have contributed to a palpable sense that in some ways “America” is an “exception.”
(I’ve adjusted some of the punctuation, but not the words, above to conform to standard American usage. The Wikipedia entry for “Exceptionalism” was rewritten in about 2009.)
The phrase is, in fact, so fraught that Obama, while on a post-inaugural visit abroad early in his first term, was asked by a U.S. reporter if he believed in American exceptionalism. At a press conference on 4 April 2009 during the NATO summit meeting in Strasbourg, France, the president replied:
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.
And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.
Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.
And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.
Quoting only his first sentence, conservatives took the president to task for dismissing the notion that the United States is a special case among the community of nations and lumping us in with Great Britain and Greece. Obama supporters applauded his apparent recognition of the country’s obligations stemming from our abundance of resources, human, natural, industrial, and financial. The quality of his subscription to American exceptionalism was taken as a measure of Obama’s patriotism, his qualification to lead the country, even his suitability to stand at the wheel of the free world. It wasn’t just a phrase, or even a political philosophy—it was a litmus test.
The concept of American exceptionalism is pretty old, as far as anything about the United States can be. It goes back to 1835 when the French political theorist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America, his seminal study of the nascent American nation and its people. (De la démocratie en Amérique was published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. The first English translation was available in 1835.) De Tocqueville wrote:
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.
The use of the phrase “American exceptionalism,” however, gained currency much later and originated from an unexpected source: Joseph Stalin in 1929. The Soviet leader was speaking of the U.S. communists whom he felt were cutting out a philosophy and role of their own disconnected from international communism as it was conceived in Moscow by him and the Soviet nomenklatura. He chastised the U.S. branch of the party for “the heresy of American exceptionalism.” Still, even as the term became more common usage, usually in a positive, or at least more acceptable sense, its meaning varied depending greatly on who was using it. As a result of the current discussion of the concept, for instance, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, professor of theology and immediate past president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, wrote in a column in the Washington Post on 14 September: “Yes, American exceptionalism has functioned, from time to time, to convince Americans that God loves the United States best. This has tempted us to regard our own national interest as innocent . . . .” Indeed, exceptionalism has often been a rationale for U.S. nationalists and chauvinists to explain away, if only for themselves and the like-minded, bad behavior by the United States—because God and history have granted us dispensation. From an ethnocentrist’s point of view, it’s a justification for an America-centric view of the world. This notion, I think, is what Putin was repudiating (although he, of course, as the principal backer of Assad and the Syrian regime, had his own agenda).
As President Obama used the phrase, I believe, it signifies that since the United States has been given so much, both in terms of natural and human resources and with respect to our social and political systems, that of all the nations, we have the most obligations and responsibilities to the rest of the world’s population. It’s a version of the New Testament admonition, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” The dichotomy of the two understandings of the phrase is the reason the late Seymour Martin Lipset, sociologist and political scientist, entitled his book on the concept American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (1996). “The American Creed is something of a double-edged sword,” warned Lipset: “it fosters a high sense of personal responsibility, independent initiative, and voluntarism even as it also encourages self-serving behavior, atomism, and a disregard for communal good.” (Atomism, by the way, is the sociological view that society arises from individuals and that larger structures are unimportant. This mindset elevates the individual above the institution, the community, or, say, the government . . . hey, does this sound familiar at all?)
In an address he gave in January 2003, history professor Ira M. Leonard of Southern Connecticut State University explained that “the ‘good’ side of the double-edged sword promotes ‘Egalitarianism,’ i.e., equality of opportunity, the idea that in America, anyone can become president” (this speech was posted on the Internet and I’ve adjusted some of the punctuation and typography—but not the text), whereas “the ‘dark’ side of the double-edged sword promotes violence, brutality, hatred, cruelty.” Leonard attributes the egalitarianism, America’s reputed meritocratic credo, to the precedent set by America’s Puritan colonists whose religious traditions emphasized “individualism and personal rights.” While this was the foundation, Leonard asserts, of U.S. capitalism and even the Bill of Rights, it is also the basis of laissez-faire economics and social intercourse, which, if unchecked, sets as a goal the individual’s prosperity and success without restraint and at almost any cost, ignoring community rights and the obligations one citizen owes to another. (Lipset put it in an interview that “the American society tells you to get ahead by hook or by crook and if you can’t do it by hook, . . . then you do it by crook.”) This tendency engenders the excessive litigiousness which Lipset observed in the United States as well. (The U.S. has more lawyers per capita than any other country—we spend four to eight times more on lawsuits than do the Germans, British, Italians, French, Dutch, or Japanese—and we have high incidences of tort and malpractice cases.)
Now, it should be noted that de Tocqueville intended the idea that Americans were “exceptional” to mean only that we (or our 19th-century predecessors) were different from our European forbears—not necessarily better or worse, but qualitatively distinctive because of the uniqueness of our origins, national philosophy, history, and cultural and social institutions. The principal differences are that the U.S. was the first former colony to gain independence and form a state based solely on an ideology rather than an ethnic heritage, language, history, or religion. (Later, it might be said that the Soviet Union was conceived as a nation on the basis of an ideology, but that was 141 years later. And, of course, it became a tyranny and ultimately didn’t last.) It’s those who’ve taken up the term subsequently who’ve turned it into a statement of the moral superiority of the United States or the nobility of our national ideals. Only here does one speak of notions or people being “un-American” because they don’t adhere to “American ideals”; because other national societies are built on community, shared ethnicity or history or culture and politics, no one speaks of being “un-Canadian,” “un-British,” or “un-Brazilian.” Either you’re a member of the group (an Englishman, say) or you’re not. (Outcast peoples in the Third Reich weren’t declared un-German—they were stripped of their membership in the community by being declared no longer German at all.)
In his book, however, Lipset argued that this dichotomous phenomenon has had a detrimental effect on U.S. society as well as a beneficial one. The social scientist, who died in 2007, posited that the principal consequence of this innate difference of Americans with our European cousins is that there has never been a significant labor or socialist movement in American politics and that ours is the only developed society in which this is true. (In most of the Old World, labor organizations and unions lean socialist or even communist in their politics, but in the United States, unions may support Democrats but seldom approach socialistic politics and U.S. workers—who are joining unions in ever-dwindling numbers—are often politically and socially conservative.) The manifestations of this lack, according to Lipset, include “income inequality, high crime rates, low levels of electoral participation, a powerful tendency to moralize which at times verges on intolerance toward political and ethnic minorities.” Our emphasis on the individual and our congenital skepticism of governments and authorities has led us, Lipset contended, not only to doubt our governmental officials, but to distrust all our leaders and institutions, even anti-establishment ones—hence the failure of a socialist movement as well as the low voter turnout. A parallel consequence is the emphasis on the individual over the group, leaving community-oriented commitments weak in the United States.
Lipset defined what he called the “American Creed,” the “set of dogmas about the nature of a good society” also identified as the “American Spirit,” the “American Identity,” or the “American Way of Life,” as comprising “five terms [from de Tocqueville]: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” The writer also maintained that this American Creed places great value on competitiveness and, consequently, material success, eclipsing any urge for communal cooperation and collaboration to achieve a societal benefit. The notion of American exceptionalism, at least from the perspective of a leftist, is a frequent basis for conservatives’ belief that the U.S. has the right to use its economic and military might to coerce others and force our will on them with impunity. One neo-conservative argument is that, because the Unites States is exceptional, the rules governing other societies do not apply to us. Because they didn’t break away in a revolution from a feudal and monarchical system, European societies maintained a cognizance of class hierarchies and a respect for the state which Americans never developed. A wonderful illustration of this dichotomy is the contrast with Canada, with whom we share a great number of historical and social parallels. Canada preserved the monarchy, gained its independence by an act of the British parliament, and continues to have a figure-head governor-general who represents the British Crown there. We overthrew the monarch and broke all ties with the British state. Consequently, in comparison with the U.S., Canada seems more class-conscious, hierarchical, and compliant, more respectful of the law and the state. (“[B]ut when considering the variations between Canada and Britain,” Lipset noted by way of contrast, “Canada looks more anti-statist, violent, and egalitarian.”) Within our society, Americans are the least law-abiding and the most, not just anti-statist, but anti-authoritarian people in the developed world, more focused on “the achievement of approved ends (particularly pecuniary success) than with the use of appropriate means (the behavior considered appropriate to a given position or status).”
(Martin Lipset liked to use the switch to the metric system as an illustration. In the mid-1970s, he pointed out, both Canada and the U.S.
were told to go metric, to drop miles and inches and go to meters and kilograms and the like, and after 15 years, both countries were supposed to be only metric. Well, you know, if you go to Canada, you see you can drive 100 an hour, that means kilometers, not miles. . . . Canadians were told to go metric, and they did. Americans were told to go metric, and they didn’t, you know, under identical, almost identical, conditions.
Canada “metricated” between 1976 and 1977, but the U.S. abandoned the effort in 1985 in the face of massive resistance from industry, business, and the general public. The U.K., having “decimalized” its currency in 1971, fully metricated by 1980; the U.S. is one of only three nations that doesn’t use the metric system of measurements, the other two being Myanmar and Libya.)
Even the vaunted American egalitarianism, according to Lipset, is more centered on the “equality of opportunity,” providing everyone a chance to rise above others, to get ahead, and less cognizant of an “equality of result” where citizens share equally in the nation’s bounty. That focus on competitive individualism and the failure of a socialist movement in the United States stem from the same impetus: ours is not a society that sees fault in unequal distribution of income because the high value placed on the achievement of prosperity causes everyone, irrespective of socio-economic condition, to aspire to wealth. More Americans than Europeans, Canadians, or Japanese feel “Individuals should take responsibility for themselves” than “The state should take more responsibility to ensure that everyone is provided for” according to a World Values Survey Lipset cited. Even many lower-middle-class U.S. laborers will oppose policies that redistribute wealth or to help the poor at the expense of the rich because they hope one day to be wealthy themselves. This, too, is a consequence of the American Creed from the perspective of Lipset.
Most Americans (and nearly all U.S. politicians), of course, agree that the United States is an exceptional nation. (In terms of plain old jingoism—my country’s better than your country—I imagine that’s true of most nations and cultures.) It would be hard to find someone living here or an American living abroad who wouldn’t answer yes if asked in a survey, “Do you think the United States is special?” (When I lived overseas, I found myself defending and explaining the U.S. much more than I ever did at home. It was my dad’s job, but I felt compelled to do it, too.) What’s also true, though, is that left and right disagree on why or how America is exceptional.
At least an element of the dispute over what American exceptionalism means derives from a logical fallacy—equivocation. Those who understand ‘exceptionalism’ to mean that we are excused from the same conventions that govern everyone else, that we are an exception to international standards are using the word in a different sense than those who take it to mean that we are distinct from other peoples, not superior or somehow indemnified from conventional behavior. It’s the ambiguity in the variant uses of ‘exceptional’ that’s responsible in part for this persistent disagreement.
According to David A. Lake, a University of California professor of social and political science, liberals see the United States as exceptional because of its philosophical ideals and political institutions, not its cultural superiority. Those on the political left agree that Americans are inherently good (would anyone say otherwise, I wonder?), but, noted Lake, 73% of Democrats polled by USA Today/Gallup in 2010 felt, as President Obama expressed it in the Strasbourg statement, that the nation’s “history and its Constitution” makes it “the greatest country in the world.” While liberals see a more activist and pervasive role for government, they generally feel that the Constitutional system of checks and balances, conceived to keep any one branch from getting too powerful, assures that the government will do the right thing. (Of course, as we’ve recently learned—if we didn’t already know it—the fact that the plans are well-intentioned doesn’t indemnify them against bad planning and technical glitches like those displayed in the inauguration of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.)
In the international arena, liberals believe that the U.S. may lead, as it often has, but not from any position of noblesse oblige. If our leaders take charge, it’s because they have earned the trust and respect of the leadership of the other nations. Generally, American leftists prefer multilateralism in foreign affairs rather than a go-it-alone unilateralism. After airing the views of all nations concerned on any issue, the United States may take the lead by joint agreement. This is why most liberals (57% in a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, in contrast to 38% of conservatives) think United Nations approval is necessary before taking military action.
Leftists have seen American exceptionalism, sometimes viewed as the excuse the United States gives for not being bound by international law except when it serves the nation’s interests, as the rightists’ justification for, for example, the European settlers’ displacement and slaughter of the North American natives, the expansion westward into territory already inhabited by Indians, wars with Mexico and Spain, the forceful annexation of Hawaii, McCarthyist probes and blacklists, Jim Crow and anti-sodomy laws, atrocities committed against Korean, Vietnamese, Iraqi, and Afghanistani civilians and the cover-up of those acts, the imposition of a U.S.-style political system on other nations who may not want it and the subsequent hostility to governments elected in those countries (e.g.: Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, 1953; Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, 1963; Salvador Allende in Chile, 1973). Slogans such as “manifest destiny” as an excuse to annex territory by force or subterfuge while displacing and killing those who lived there, “making the world safe for democracy” as a rationalization for suppressing alternative forms of social organization, “a matter of national security” as an excuse for suppressing opposition and dissent, and “support the troops” as a demand for unquestioning acquiescence in military adventurism, are seen by leftists as adjuncts of American exceptionalism—the stern belief that the United States may make its own rules of conduct because it’s special.
To the conservative, American exceptionalism is the basis, the rationale, for independence from government interference and the laissez-faire economic and social system under which they believe the nation prospers and advances. It’s also the argument for a strong executive and our powerful military machine. In their view, our uniqueness and special qualities mean that we have to be strong militarily as well as economically in order to defend our interests at home and around the world and to project our freedoms and civil liberties beyond our borders. (Remember, for example, that World War I was fought to make the world “safe for democracy,” as Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it. World War II and the war in Vietnam were both legitimized as struggles against anti-democratic ideologies that threatened freedom not only abroad but ultimately at home as well. Our alliances with the Soviet Union in the first case and the authoritarian government of the Republic of Vietnam were often ignored in the propaganda campaigns or excused as exigencies of war—‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’) In response to Putin’s admonition on American exceptionalism, former Republican senator from South Carolina Jim DeMint, now president of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think-tank, declared that “not all nations are created equal.” If carried too far, we know where this philosophy leads—Vietnam and Iraq being only the most prominent examples in my own lifetime of American imperialism, and we came close to it in Libya and now Syria. It was essentially what took us into wars with Mexico (1846-48), Hawaii (1893), Spain (1898), the Philippines (1899-1913), China (Boxer Rebellion, 1900), and Colombia (“defending” the new Panamanian state—and the canal, 1903-14).
“Conservatives believe the United States is exceptional because its people are inherently good. . . . Nonetheless, conservatives are much more likely than liberals to believe that American values and culture are superior to those of other nations,” wrote Lake. Citing the Pew poll, the U.C. professor said 63% of conservatives hold this position. Among the repercussions is the belief that other nations should accept U.S. leadership in international matters because of “the inherent goodness of the American people and the foreign policies produced by our government.” (Lake found it ironic that the same conservatives who take this stance abroad also distrust government at home. The contradiction isn’t acknowledged.) This stance also accounts for the conservative antagonism to the U.N. and other multinational organizations the United States can’t control, which they believe would restrict U.S. actions in deference to the wishes of other countries. (In the 1950s, following World War II and the foundation of the United Nations, a series of constitutional amendments were proposed. Known collectively as the Bricker Amendment for its sponsor, conservative Republican Senator John W. Bricker of Ohio, they would have severely restricted the authority of the president to sign treaties with foreign states and join multinational organizations. Though the movement’s proponents prevented the adoption of international human rights conventions in the U.S., the Bricker measures were ultimately blocked—failing in the senate by a single vote—only by the opposition of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.)
Furthermore, the American right, in contrast to its European and even Canadian counterparts—part of the distinction between the United States and other Western democracies—has raised anti-statism to an article of faith that almost iconizes the individual in our society. (This is fundamentally what leads conservatives to oppose practices like so-called affirmative action and other anti-discrimination policies, legal protections for the rights of specific groups—like gay rights, women’s rights, and so on—and even cultural concepts like color- or gender-blind casting. These practices, rightists argue, treat people not as individuals but as members of particular groups.) It is the same impulse, conversely, that generates the strong libertarian streak that runs through American conservatism, especially visible in the Republican Party. As Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed, “[G]overnment is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Ironically, however, the conservative support for national strength often leads rightists to approve state measures, such as the Patriot Act or FISA, that curtail individual civil liberties for what they see as the common good, such as national defense or security. (Locally, they back stop-and-frisk programs and similar practices because they benefit law enforcement even if they threaten some people’s individual rights.)
Another consequence of the conservative reading of American exceptionalism is the support of federalism, what used to be known as “states’ rights.” (That term was discredited as code for a defense of the Jim Crow system in the South when the federal government was trying to dismantle official segregation in the United States. It had been used a century earlier to justify slavery.) Alongside the espousal of individualism, the American right maintains a strong opposition to the concentration of power in the central government over the states, keeping many institutions that govern the daily lives of the citizens in the hands of local officials. This system permits voters to have more control of their affairs, the supporters contend, than a system controlled entirely from Washington. To critics, however, this arrangement merely exchanges the dominance of the national authority over the states with that of the states over local jurisdictions. It can also lead, as history has shown, to circumstances in which attempts by the federal government to eliminate discrimination against ethnic or social minorities is met with resistance at the state level.
Additionally, of course, it also means that many laws and practices vary widely from state to state, as we’re now seeing with, say, same-sex marriage laws. At this writing, the fifteenth and sixteenth states, Illinois and Hawaii, have legalized marriage between members of the same gender—which means that 34 states still outlaw the practice. In addition, though the federal Defense of Marriage Act was overturned, many states still have provisions prohibiting the recognition of gay marriages performed in other states (or D.C.) where it’s legal. Gun laws and laws in many other fields fall into the same patchwork situation across the country. (Have you ever driven behind an 18-wheeler and seen all the different license plates and permits it has to display to drive cross-country? Can you imagine being the company officer responsible for seeing that all your trucks have the right permits to cover their routes?)
One way or another, leaders and commentators in the United States have invoked the special nature of this nation and its people. As far back as 1630, John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, told the colonists in his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” that their new home “shall be as a city upon a hill,” a metaphorical expression of the idea. Winthrop, of course, had borrowed the phrase from Jesus’ “Sermon in the Mount”—“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden”—but 350 years or so later, President Ronald Reagan borrowed it again (several times). Announcing his candidacy for president in 1979, for instance, Reagan promised American voters and the world “that we will become that shining city on a hill.” In 1776 and then in 1791, the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights both enshrined other, now familiar statements of the uniqueness of the United States. In the Gettysburg Address, whose 150th anniversary was marked on 19 November, Abraham Lincoln spoke of “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” his description of this exceptional country. Even before that, on the eve of signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, Lincoln spoke of the United States as “the last best hope of earth,” clearly a reference to the exceptional nature of the country. There are surely countless more examples of similar locutions. I don’t know if people mostly took it as a rhetorical device or just accepted the notion that the United States is special, not questioning the allusions. But in recent years, the whole idea that the U.S. is somehow different has become, if not controversial, at least something to which many people are paying attention: supporters see it as a profession of patriotism and loyalty to the founding principles of the nation; skeptics wonder if it’s a sentiment we ought to reexamine and probably soft-pedal. Seymour Lipset summed up his feelings on the concept by writing:
Americans once proudly emphasized their uniqueness, their differences from the rest of the world, the vitality of their democracy, the growth potential of their economy. Some now worry that our best years as a nation are behind us. Americans distrust their leaders and institutions. The public opinion indicators of confidence in institutions are the lowest since polling on the subject began in the early sixties. These concerns suggest the need to look again at the country in comparative perspective, at the ways it differs from other economically developed nations. As I have frequently argued, it is impossible to understand a country without seeing how it varies from others. Those who know only one country know no country.
As the historian Richard Hofstadter is quoted as saying, “America is the only country that believes it was born perfect and strives for improvement.”