Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

January 26, 2011
By: Paul Glastris

AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM REPOSSESSED… Last year, just about every Republican running for president took a shot at Barack Obama for his alleged failure to believe in the idea of American exceptionalism. The sum total of the evidence for this charge was one sentence, take out of context, in a long nuanced answer to a reporter's question while in Europe in April of 2009 in which the president unmistakably stated his belief in American exceptionalism, but in a words that took into account the sensitivities of other nations.

Nevertheless, Newt Gingrich called Obama's attitude "truly alarming," while Mike Huckabee said that Obama's worldview is "different than any president, Republican or Democrat, we've had.... To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation." These charges were not only overheated and factually wrong but were quite obviously intended to feed the view that Obama is not a real, loyal American.

So I was delighted to see the president wisely and deftly weave the theme of American exceptionalism throughout his State of the Union address last night. He said that open, contentious political debate among people of different races, faiths and points of view is "what sets us apart as a nation." He spoke of the need to maintain an economic leadership that "has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world." He characterized America as "the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea -- the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny." He noted that the ability to tap the creativity and imagination of our people to develop cutting-edge technologies and products is "what America does better than anyone." He went on and on like this, but the tone was not self-satisfied boasting. Rather, he said these things as a set up to a warning, that our preeminence is at risk, and as a challenge -- to reform government and invest in education, infrastructure, and scientific research.

American exceptionalism is hardly a conservative idea. But it's one of those broadly-shared American ideas -- like faith, patriotism, choice -- that the right has tried to make exclusively its own by taking to insane extremes, thus tempting liberals to abandon them. In his speech last night, Obama grabbed the idea back, and shrewdly used it to argue for liberal values and a center-left policy agenda. I don't imagine conservatives are very happy about that.


Paul Glastris 1:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

Bookmark and Share
 
Comments

Pshaw! The man's a pointy headed intellectual, and therefore dangerous to "reg'lar Murricans". (Who want to have a beer with Bush).

Posted by: DAY on January 26, 2011 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

America is really only exceptionally arrogant. The thinking, conscientious individuals are far fewer than the army of idiots like Gingrich and their ilk, who think tax cuts fix roads and feed the poor!

Posted by: Trollop on January 26, 2011 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

As a veteran of twitter debates with conservatives, I can assure you that the difference is still striking: liberals see "American Exceptionalism" as something we must struggle and work for, a goal that we may not meet if we do not confront challenges; conservatives see it as a given, a blessing the God has given the US in return for our Christian worship that could only be taken away if too many liberals are allowed in government.

Seriously.

Posted by: Malek on January 26, 2011 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

To be an exceptional nation, you have to do exceptional things. Like take the lead on global warming. The thing is, when you suggest that America is obligate to do exceptional things, conservatives object. So, do they really believe in American exceptionalism, or just the concept of it?

Posted by: John Dillinger on January 26, 2011 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

The right has conflated exceptionalism with infallibility. However, note their willingness to viciously attack America's current actions (healthcare, DADT repeal, etc.). I guess it's now OK to criticize the President, and the U.S. in general.

Posted by: Alex on January 26, 2011 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

You pointy headed progressives are annoyingly consistent in not understanding what American Exceptionalism means!

American Exceptionalism (AE) means that The United States (and Israel) are God's Chosen Countries.

AE means that we can hold other countries to moral standards that do not apply to us.

AE means that we can ignore treaties and International Law at our own chosing.

AE means that we can invade countries for having oil that we want.

AE means that we can do whatever the hell that we want to throughout the world because we are exceptional and better than everyone else.

AE means that our white, Christian nation is always superior to non-white or non-Christian nations because we are white and Christian.

Nowhere have I seen or heard Obama openly declare these principles of American Exceptionalism; therefore Obama is not a real believer in American Exceptionalism! To proclaim otherwise is to deny real American Exceptionalism.

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on January 26, 2011 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

When I speak of American Exceptionalism, I am referring to the ideals of America- our judicial system, our innovative and travelling spirit, our open arms and big hearts, our ability to rise above the stations we were born to, and the like. When I hear conservatives speaking of American Exceptionalism, I hear them speaking of Americans, as a people, being supeior to all other nationalities.

Posted by: Perspecitucs on January 26, 2011 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

"So I was delighted to see the president wisely and deftly weave the theme of American exceptionalism throughout his State of the Union address"

Political Animal concerns itself almost exclusively with political positioning and messaging strategy. IOW, what's "good" for Obama, or how to undermine Republican criticisms (be they vapid or valid).

Yes, Obama mouthed his "belief" in the country's exceptionalism, perhaps staving off this particular Republican criticism for a while, but is it true, or good?

Because most of the positive criteria whereby I would rate the US as "exceptional" are trivial examples - where any country might be able to call itself that.

And by and large, it's the negative criteria where America truly IS exceptional. Belligerence, percentage of people in poverty in an advanced economy, etc.

I mean, other countries might behave worse, if you made them unipolar hyperpowers, but they might not. It's debatable. But right now, in this world, there are about one million graves in Iraq with Made in the USA written on them.

Posted by: flubber on January 26, 2011 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

re Perspecitus...

Your view is so hopelessly dated. Are you stuck in the 1960's? Or are you unAmerican like Obama?

You are probably an aethiest as well. You probably do not even understand the parable that Jesus taught that "It is easier for a camel to fit thru the eye of a needle than for a poor man to go to heaven."

American Exceptionalism is written in the Bible and if you would stop hating America and start listening to Pat Roberson you would understand that.

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on January 26, 2011 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

The GOP has turned it into American Except-them-ism. Everyone is welcome in the tent expect brown people, black people, the poor, Muslims, gays & lesbians, immigrants, and the sick.

Posted by: sue on January 26, 2011 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

For the right, Exceptionalism means that no one can teach them anything. It means that because we are Americans, empirical facts are meaningless, so looking at the successes of other nations as a guide to our own policies would be traitorous. It means that intellectuals are fools, and it means that blind nationalism is patriotic. Obama may make headway politically by playing on this theme, but he is basically feeding BS to the mindless American boobs who hold these "truths" to be self evident.

Posted by: candideinnc on January 26, 2011 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

Hearing about "American exceptionalism" -- from either side -- makes me a tad queasy. The closest Obama came to representing my POV on the subject was during the campaign,(I think it was), when he said that every country likes to think of itself as exceptional. When Repubs erupted in fury at that perfectly sensible and true statement, I began to wonder whether, in American English, "exceptional" meant something different from what I meant when I used the term. Kinda analogous to the time when I borrowed a book on "special ed", hoping it would help me direct him. It turned out, I needed a book on "gifted" kids, not "special" ones...

Posted by: exlibra on January 26, 2011 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

Sue - you forgot hispanics!

Posted by: js on January 26, 2011 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

Obama may make headway politically by playing on this theme, but he is basically feeding BS to the mindless American boobs who hold these "truths" to be self evident.

I grew up believing that America can do great things. I grew up believing that we overcame the economic disaster of the Great Depression and won a world war against fascist dictators. I grew up believing in Kennedy's "New Frontier" and the Peace Corp. I grew up believing that we could win Johnson's war on poverty and end racial discrimination.

In spite of the war in Viet Nam, Watergate, Iran/Contra, support for bloody-handed suppression in Guatemala and El Salvador, invasion and occupation of Iraq, an ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and Reagan, Bush, Bush/Cheney administrations, I still believe in the American experiment. I still believe that we can do great things.

Perhaps, I'm just a "mindless American boob", but I found the Presidents speech inspiring. It gave me hope that the liberal consensus that guided this country since FDR may yet be revived. Particularly, as the GOP has nothing with which to respond.

Posted by: AK Liberal on January 26, 2011 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

AK Liberal,
We are capable of doing great things. I think the phase of stupidity and ignorance being acceptable is passing. Obama is the clearest sign of that.
It is not the majority that makes the wild claims, that is the smaller number of people and they get a lot of media attention. The loudmouths like Gingrich and others are not taken seriously by most of us.
Cable tv news is losing viewers and I doubt right wing talk radio is doing any better. Beck isn't doing well in radio markets. He lost New York. His show is not on the air there.
There was a man interviewed a couple of years ago in Iraq. He was a US citizen and was a tourist. He said that he visits countries on the State Department warnings list and has always been treated very well and had a good time.
I am sick and tired of people knocking the US down
and making foolish statements about what is going on.
It shows a lack of gratitude for what they have here.
We are going through major change and it is a struggle, but it will work out well.

Posted by: Maude on January 26, 2011 at 4:01 PM | PERMALINK

As a Canadian I find myself cringing whenever Americans start talking about how uniquely awesome their country is.

It's not.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Posted by: neilt on January 26, 2011 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

Maude and AK Liberal-- I have no fight with your optimism and love of America. However, America didn't win World War II. A number of nations, together did that. The war on poverty is something every nation has to confront, because there is nothing uniquely American about poverty or people's aversion to it. The Peace Corps is an idealistic, positive organization, and just the same sort of thing many enlightened European nations try to encourage. The great depression was not something only America confronted. It was a world-wide phenomenon.

I was an American Studies major as an undergraduate, and can appreciate the varied contributions America has made in politics, culture, science and industry. The problem isn't that America has no accomplishments. It has. But an enormous portion of our countrymen is blind to America's failures. As the Canadian above suggested, there is an arrogance and sense of superiority that is attached to this vanity we call exceptionalism. When I was reared, I was taught that humility is a virtue. It is not a particularly American virtue.

Posted by: candideinnc on January 26, 2011 at 4:48 PM | PERMALINK

President Obama's success need not have fallen back on historical tropes that are mismatched to present realities - domestically and internationally - and invoke some of the best but mostly the worst of this nation's policy choices - domestically and internationally - for over 100 years.

William Pfaff's recent tome, "The Irony of Manifest Destiny" is a must read, must abide if we're ever going to have an alternative political and conceptual framework by which to bring the political and functional end to the Military-Industrial welfare state and state of perpetual wars.

Posted by: William Hurley on January 26, 2011 at 4:49 PM | PERMALINK

It's fun and rather enlightening to chat on international sites and watch American exceptionalism slam headfirst into Canadian exceptionalism and British exceptionalism, etc. It's convinced me that exceptionalism is just newspeak for nationalism.

Posted by: Seould on January 26, 2011 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

Here is an exceptional idea: we come to grips with what 21st Century prosperous economy should look like. We need leaders who understand the population and environmental pressures on old systems and lead us out of it before the next great plague. I am tending to agree with Chomaky's assessment of the past elections. We may have already passed a tipping point towards extinction. But let's give great weight to the right wing magic thinkers.

Posted by: Sparko on January 26, 2011 at 6:03 PM | PERMALINK

I guess that conservatives have poisoned the notion of American exceptionalism, too. We have had enormous failures, I think I noted a few in my comment. However, I don't think that it is jingoistic bombast to note that the US is fairly unique among nations, whether one looks at its origins, history, culture, or prominence and leadership in the world.

With regard to WWII, unquestionably many nations played large roles in defeating the Axis powers. Most notable is the terrible sacrifice of the Russian people. However, without US manufacturing capacity, not to mention armed forces, that sacrifice may well have been for naught.

Posted by: AK Liberal on January 26, 2011 at 6:03 PM | PERMALINK

I think the right needs to read the Christian theologian/political philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr. The right frequently claim him as their own, but one consistent theme in his writings is to be wary of the idea of exceptionalism.

Obama has cited Niebuhr as an important influence. As did Carter.

Posted by: Objective Dem on January 26, 2011 at 6:51 PM | PERMALINK

At the risk of overstaying my welcome on this string, I think American exceptionalism is fed by American parochialism. I would venture to say the strongest advocates of the concept of American Manifest Destiny are the people who know the least of the world outside America. It is one of America's most noisome features that, because they are geographically isolated, they are also culturally and historically blind to the greatness of other cultures. If all you know are the beauties of Kansas City, "becuz they had gone 'bout as fur as they could go," you aren't going to appreciate the value of the louvre.

Posted by: candideinnc on January 26, 2011 at 7:35 PM | PERMALINK

At the risk of overstaying my welcome on this string, I think American exceptionalism is fed by American parochialism. I would venture to say the strongest advocates of the concept of American Manifest Destiny are the people who know the least of the world outside America. It is one of America's most noisome features that, because they are geographically isolated, they are also culturally and historically blind to the greatness of other cultures. If all you know are the beauties of Kansas City, "becuz they had gone 'bout as fur as they could go," you aren't going to appreciate the value of the Louvre.

Posted by: candide on January 26, 2011 at 7:36 PM | PERMALINK

^

"I would venture to say the strongest advocates of the concept of American Manifest Destiny are the people who know the least of the world outside America."

candide, I have to say that truer words have never been spoken.

Posted by: Mitch on January 26, 2011 at 9:29 PM | PERMALINK

Why, yes, america is indeed the only pure country with the only pure people... Fuck off.
Wether this claim is made by someone on the american right or (almost non-existent) american left, it is disgusting. You're unique. Just like every other counry. You are not automatically any more worhty of anything.

Posted by: HMDK on January 28, 2011 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM



buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly