The Real Story of American Exceptionalism

“Defending American exceptionalism should always be above politics,” Hillary Clinton told the American Legion convention yesterday.  In a rare concrete elaboration of what such exalted status might entail, the Democratic nominee for president declared in the same speech that the military’s budget should be exempt from the process of budget sequestration imposed by Congressional Republicans on all federal spending.  

There is no credible meaning to American exceptionalism other than US hegemony, as Clinton candidly avowed; and there can be no way to construe an admonition to keep the ideas and emotions it evokes removed from politics other than to place that power beyond the scope of normal mechanisms of accountability, including the budget. Fundamentally the work of exceptionalism is to carve out an exception:  to declare a perpetual state of innocence regarding American power; to shield it from consequence; and to dictate the terms by which it will be evaluated.  As an article of faith beyond reproach, it is a civic religion.  Deviation amounts to heresy.  

Not that others haven’t countenanced a deeper or different meaning to American exceptionalism, or cloaked it in less overtly militant garb.  But its most recent invocations shed light on its modern currency, as well as its ultimate, enduring meaning. 

A month ago, Republicans gathered in Cleveland for their nominating convention voted to open the party’s platform by declaring: “We believe in American exceptionalism. We believe the United States of America is unlike any other nation on earth. We believe America is exceptional because of our historic role — first as refuge, then as defender, and now as exemplar of liberty for the world to see.” 

That the preamble of a document dedicated to undermining the constitutional rights of others should cite “American exceptionalism” says a lot about its current coinage.  Previously, the 2012 Republican Platform devoted an entire chapter to “American exceptionalism;” its authors declared an allegiance to “peace through strength,” and vowed to restore the military to its rightful dominion, without any acknowledgment or seeming awareness of the fact that the United States spends more on its military than the next seven countries combined.  

The fact that the US military already enjoys unparalleled capability does nothing to deter the warriors of American exceptionalism.  Republicans have seized upon the phrase not to convey a truth but to express a grievance.  Though sometimes left (intentionally) ambiguous, the phrase is most often invoked by conservatives to object to President Obama’s occasional preference to conduct military interventions or robust diplomatic efforts in concert with other nations.

Obama responded to these repeated attacks by professing to believe in “American exceptionalism with every fibre of [his] being.”  By echoing the language of conservatives, Obama attempted to parry the self-anointed forces of “exceptionalism.”  The success of this tactic rests upon whether the framework of exceptionalism can be reworked and redeemed―scoured of its jingoism, and coaxed into a more contemplative posture.  

In this endeavor, Obama does not lack for esteemed company.  While conservatives typically cite American exceptionalism to reference a distinctive past, Obama follows Abraham Lincoln’s example and also uses the phrase to describe a future idyll.  In both applications, the present is found wanting.  For Republicans, the country has wandered from or become indifferent to the glorious arc of its own history.  For progressives, America’s greatness is aspirational as much as it is apparent, a promise not yet fulfilled.  


The Strange Career of American Exceptionalism

Many attribute the first use of American exceptionalism to early 20th century discussions regarding why American workers did not turn to socialism in the same numbers seen elsewhere.  (Its first recorded use comes from Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, who denounced the American communists’ contention that every country must find its own way to revolution as a misguided belief in “American exceptionalism.”)  From this hoary debate flowed a number of important tributaries, including why the United States did not embrace social insurance, or a strong central government, to the same degree as its peer countries.  This “special path” of American exceptionalism was paved with a variety of cobblestones, many of them now discarded, including simplistic ideas about how the frontier operated and, more so, narrow ideas about what constituted class politics.  

Since that time, though its many of its tenets have been debunked, and its most emphatic assumptions heavily qualified, the language of exceptionalism has survived to acquire a new set of meanings.  Mainly it is used to assert American excellence.  Though modern uses of the phrase suggest some stellar accomplishment, sociologist Jerome Karabel found mediocre results when he decided to measure American achievement along standard (as well as some unusual) metrics.  Nevertheless, as Karabel points out, the belief that the United States is “not only different from, but superior to, other countries” commands significant support among American public.  

The resilience of this conviction relates to a second, competing narrative of American exceptionalism, one that predates the phrase and the flawed inquiry into class politics.  In unvarnished form, it amounts to a “my country, right or wrong” proclamation of patriotic allegiance; in more nuanced articulations, the United States is depicted as “city upon a hill,” an exemplary nation to be emulated.  

Not surprisingly, in this and all other “exceptionalist” settings, the subtleties attempted in more careful interpretations apply only once the meaning of the cruder rendition is accepted in toto.  American exceptionalism is, at its core, an exclusionary mechanism, and within its boundaries some have tried to shade a narrative of inclusion.  To paraphrase Dororthy Parker’s remark on the acting range of Audrey Hepburn, American exceptionalism permits the gamut of policy ideas and patriotic feelings, all the way from A to B.  In the 19th century, support for Manifest Destiny served as the necessary predicate that conjugated all other “exceptionalist” claims.  Later, an unquestioning belief in the American century as global superpower was the only suitable premise upon which other narratives of exceptionalism could stand.  When Ronald Reagan recast John Winthrop’s shining “city upon a hill” to an interventionist mold, New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s artful rejoinder accepted the language at face value, then, in the pattern of progressives, attempted to refashion its meaning.  Only one of those men has a “revolution” named after him.


Neoconservative Patrimony

In more recent times, conservatives following in Reagan’s wake have been quick to apprehend the potential of joining all previous adumbrations of American exceptionalism.  Embracing the fiction of a “classless” political history as fact, and championing the American military as well as the projection of US power abroad, Newt Gingrich and others have proselytized on behalf of American exceptionalism.  It is the inspirational force animating the neoconservative worldview and, to no small degree, binding the Republican policy spectrum together.  In their eager hands, American exceptionalism has stalled progress on social policy at home, and justified adventurism abroad.


Rather than extricate the phrase from its troubled lineage, Hillary Clinton embraced the neoconservative use of exceptionalism in her speech to the American Legion on Wednesday.  Most clarifying was her discussion of cyberthreats. “You’ve seen reports,” she reminded the veterans’ service organization; “Russia’s hacked into a lot of things. China’s hacked into a lot of things.”  Clinton omitted mention of the fact the United States has “hacked into a lot of things.”  As David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal makes clear, the United States gives as well it gets when it comes to cyberwarfare.  But, critically, the rhetoric of “American exceptionalism” erases any misdeeds or instigation―or their eventual consequences.  By wiping the slate clean, American exceptionalism prepares the ground for the exercise of US power as always reactive, reluctant, and restrained.  

But never subject to reciprocity.  As Clinton goes on to remark in her speech, “the United States will treat cyber attacks just like any other attack. We will be ready with serious political, economic and military responses.”  If this logic of escalation applied to the United States, American citizens would be forced to contemplate bombs raining down on their cities.  Instead, American exceptionalism posits an a priori state of innocence, and recruits support under the guise of defense.  In this way, American exceptionalism does the legitimatizing work for a political establishment that acted without obtaining meaningful consent from the American people.

For all intents and purposes, this is the ultimate meaning of American exceptionalism: a singularity of power, and in particular the conceit of rule-making without the substance of conforming or the trouble of consistency.  In the hands of hegemony and an insulated political class accustomed to the bulk of discretionary spending routed toward the national security state, the rhetoric of American exceptionalism purports to celebrate democracy, but its history and current use attest to profoundly anti-democratic purposes.


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