From Speaker Boehner, in response to a question about President Obama’s State of the Union address:
Well, they — they’ve refused to talk about American exceptionalism. We are different than the rest of the world. Why? Because Americans have — the country was built on an idea that ordinary people could decide what their government looked like and ordinary people could elect their own leaders.
And 235 years ago that was a pretty novel idea. And so we are different. Why is our economy still 20 times the size of China’s? Because Americans have had the freedom to succeed, the freedom to fail. We’ve got more innovators, more entrepreneurs, and that is exceptional but you can’t get the left to talk about it. They don’t — they reject that notion.
One of the stranger things I’ve seen in Republican Party politics lately is the political soundbyte use of a somewhat complex and heretofore primarily scholarly phrase: American Exceptionalism. But maybe I shouldn’t really be surprised. Just looking at the phrase, you wonder why it hasn’t made its appearance in mainstream political “discourse” sooner. In its colloquial sense, it appears to capture one of the right’s popular criticisms of the left–that the left focuses on finding fault with America (especially with American foreign policy) and ignoring or minimizing the truly remarkable things about our country.
These days, use of the adjective “exceptional” tends to connote something that is different in a superior way, rather than something that is just different. Thus, many people probably hear the phrase American Exceptionalism and think to themselves, American Superiority. It’s pretty clear that Speaker Boehner was using the phrase in this colloquial sense when he expressed his frustration about the President’s (and the left’s) refusal to acknowledge the ways that America is “superior” to the rest of the world. But is the concept of American Exceptionalism really equivalent to American Superiority? I think it’s actually pretty clear that it’s not, and I thought I’d put up a short post explaining why I think the right has American Exceptionalism all wrong.
The phrase American Exceptionalism appears to have its origins in the writings of Alexis de Toqueville, a French scholar who visited America during the early part of the nineteenth century:
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. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.
In its original sense, American Exceptionalism refers to view that the developmental path taken by the United States of America (and its citizens) was, and is, objectively different from the developmental path taken by other countries and their citizens. The concept has its roots in some obvious contrasts between America and other nations, particularly that fact that America was both republican in government and had a quasi-religious zeal for commerce. People who subscribed to, or studied, the idea of American Exceptionalism, acknowledged only that America was different in significant ways from other countries and had a different developmental history — not that anything about that history was inherently superior.
Scholars have posited a number of reasons as to why America and Americans seem to be qualitatively different from other countries and peoples. Some say that it’s the absence of a punitive feudalism in American history (let’s put the uncomfortable realities of Native American resettlement and African American slavery aside for a moment). Others point to the open space provided by a continually-advancing western frontier as the basis for the development of a uniquely independent American character and the facilitation of an economically mobile society. Still others have suggested that it has something to do with America’s historical status as a destination for immigrants.
And, of course, many others take the view that America is not really exceptional at all. As time passes, there may be more to recommend this view of the situation. Looking around the world, it’s obvious that the primary thing that set American apart from many other nations — its commitment to republican self government — is no longer as much of a differentiating characteristic. Is America really exceptional these days? Maybe. I think we still tend to be just a little unique, though these days it’s probably a difference in degree more than a difference in kind.
So, I think the right’s use of American Exceptionalism shows a misunderstanding of the phrase. But does that really matter in the end? The way the phrase is being used now by Boehner and Palin et al., does convey the idea of American Superiority, which has a long political tradition in the good old USA. And finally, let’s just go ahead and admit it: Seizing on the scholarly phrase American Exceptionalism as a euphemism for the more uncomfortable and politically-potent American Superiority . . . whatever else it may be, is, itself, thoroughly American.