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July 04, 2013 12:39 PM American Exceptionalism

By Ed Kilgore

An unavoidable subject on every Independence Day is the extent to which patriotic Americans are expected to proclaim that the United States isn’t just our beloved homeland, or a rich and highly accomplished society, or a wonderfully diverse culture, or the site of vast natural beauty, or a polity that has long promoted values like freedom, equality and opportunity—no, it is also uniquely worthy of love and loyalty, and possessed of unique characteristics that give it a unique responsibility to make over the whole world in its image to the maximum extent possible.

“American exceptionalism” was a term first popularized by Seymour Martin Lipset to describe those aspects of the country that led its citizens to believe in its uniqueness, but it has more recently been turned into an ideology in itself, borrowing on some very old ideas of America as a “redeemer nation” populated by refugees from the despotic theocracies of Europe—a “righteous remnant” of depraved humanity.

The term is most often used and abused by conservatives these days to (a) to anathemize social democratic governing models and traditions as “European” and hence “Un-American;” and (b) to justify a unilateralist U.S. foreign policy. And ironically, when “American exceptionalists” are out of power, it leads many of them to a decidedly seditious attitude towards America itself: non-conservative American leaders and the citizens who support them are regarded as not authentically American, and thus as unworthy of loyalty, or even allegiance, from “real” Americans. Thus we see the strange anomaly of self-described super-patriots despising half the people in the country, hating the President of the United States, and brandishing firearms and revolutionary symbols to warn of their very limited and ever-contingent acceptance of election results and laws passed by Congress and judicial decisions.

What’s most ironic about latter-day American exceptionalists is how deeply they resent the very American ideology of liberalism, which holds that this society like all others should be judged by universal norms, not some theory of unique endowment or divine empowerment. But then I guess it’s no stranger than the displacement of another great American tradition—official secularism, based not only on the religious (and irreligious) pluralism of the American people, but on the hostility of believers to politicized religion—by a theocratic impulse that represents European far more than American traditions.

In any event, on this Independence Day like others, I’ll express my love of country and gratitude for living here without pretending its distinctive features define goodness and reject fellowship. In the words of the hymn, “This Is My Song, O God of All the Nations:”

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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