Liberals Should Co-Opt And Celebrate The Term, “American Exceptionalism”

I’m hoping that Ben Zimmer of Vocabulary.com saw the big Republican debate last night and will write a word analysis similar to his June 23 article, “Early Words from the Campaign Trail.”

I missed the debate, and I’m wondering if key words like “exceptionalism” or “declinist” were used. I like the title of the book “You are what you speak.” As candidates try to define themselves and their opponents, their choice of words is very revealing.

Republicans want to paint President Obama as a “declinist” — someone who believes that something, a country or system, is “undergoing a significant and possibly irreversible decline.” Republicans accuse Obama of being a “declinist” who is an “anti-exceptionalist” who, and another term, “leads from behind.”

Michele Bachman has said, “President Obama’s own people said that he was leading from behind. The United States doesn’t lead from behind. As commander in chief, I would not lead from behind. We are the head. We are not the tail.”

You can almost hear the crowd chanting, “U.S.A. … U.S.A.”

“American Exceptionalism” is a term that, I betting, will have a lot of use before the 2012 election. The American Catholic web-site says,  “The favor of the lollipop this election cycle for the G.O.P. is ‘American Exceptionalism’. For anyone who watched numerous figures at the CPAC convention (as I did) knows this fact. Each Republican candidate will wave the American flag and try to be the most patriotic.”

Newt Gingrich has a book on the topic, “A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters,” and he has a movie on the topic as well, “ A City Upon A Hill.” A blurb promoting the movie says, “America is a unique nation, and stands above all others because of that uniqueness. Unfortunately, President Obama wants to move America to more of a European style of democracy. From Egypt to France, President Obama has been on an apology tour telling global leaders that America is just one of many exceptional nations.”

Texas in this last controversial rewriting of the history curriculum, for the first time, mandated “American Exceptionalism” be included in school textbooks.  One of the proponents explained,  “The United States is an exceptional nation. Most Americans would not regard that as a controversial statement. And there is good reason for that: it is true.”

I agree. But the debate should be centered on what it is that makes America great. In my view, liberals should define “American Exceptionalism” in a way worthy of a progressive tradition and not allow the right wing to claim the term for its own exclusive use.

The right wing’s use of the term seems typified by a recent Wall Street Journal article by the Hoover Foundation intellectual, Shelby Steele, “Obama and the Burden of Exceptionalism,” that, posing as an exercise in thoughtfulness, was a one-sided trashing of the president.  It starts, “Mr. Obama came of age in a bubble of post-’60s liberalism that conditioned him to be an adversary of American exceptionalism.” It claims Obama has advanced, “an assault on America bedrock exceptionalism of military, economic and cultural pre-eminence.”

The article seems wildly popular with the WSJ readers — so far it has generated 951 comments.

A presidential campaign is an opportunity to have thoughtful discussion about the big ideas encapsulated in big terms. Yes, there is a lot of “denialism” in America. How else can we tout “American exceptionalism,” when, according to one government study, 59 million Americans lacked health insurance last year, and over 40 million Americans were living in poverty?

I know, the argument from the WSJ crowd is that “exceptionalism” is all about individual freedom, big stick military, etc., and if you can’t find a decent job, maybe it’s because you didn’t try hard enough to pass Algebra when you were a teenager. And if you are living in poverty it must be because you are too lazy to work.

According to a recent poll, 58% of Americans agree with the statement, “God has granted America a special role in human history.”

Liberal thinkers and writers, it seems to me, should not dispute “American exceptionalism,” labeling it “triumphalism,” or “dominionism.” Instead, let’s celebrate the fact that America, in fact, is unique and that, in fact, the God of the New Testament has a special role for America. The idea of “American Exceptionalism” should be a term that liberal writers and politicians should co-opt, should celebrate, and make their own term.

America is exceptional because America has a constitution that can evolve, and has evolved over time, to meet new challenges, so that the government can move ever closer to being “of the people, for the people.” The founding fathers would have hated the 16th Amendment empowering progressive taxation, would have hated women and blacks voting. So what? We evolved. This capacity to grow, to improve, toward an ever more perfect union — toward more justice, more freedom — is at the heart of American exceptionalism.

Let’s celebrate the ideals of America that makes us a “shining city upon a hill,” the ideals of “freedom and justice for all” we are still working to bring to reality, the ideals that make us a good example to the world.  Let’s celebrate the term “American Exceptionalism,” and define it in a way that is worthy of our ideals.

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13 comments to Liberals Should Co-Opt And Celebrate The Term, “American Exceptionalism”

  • Stan Hirtle

    Patriotism always plays well in politics (remember the flag decal issue the Republicans tried to use on Obama last time). It may play particularly well at a time that America’s leadership in the world on many issues is actually under great stress. The US is being drained militarily by seemingly endless wars, is in debt to China, and faces a serious loss of employability of its people and the middle class lifestyle that employment supported. We have a seemingly disfunctional political system characterized by domination by monied contributors, manipulation of the election system by the drawing of political boundaries, and the rise of political opinion media dedicated to division and derision as entertainment. To say nothing of environmental and resource challenges and a world with rising consumption interspersed with record large numbers of people facing poverty, drought and disease. In fact, this may be the best time for American exceptionalism to play, since it is so threatened even as people want and need to believe in it. However an underlying search for meaning, security and community can not be satisfied by possessions, status through acceptance as insiders and a search for outsiders to scapegoat. Really America has always been a struggle between its underlying ideals and seemingly insuperable barriers to them, like slavery and its aftermath, and the power of the wealthy and violent. Working people, slaves and their descendants, immigrants, and other non-elite outsiders have always struggled on in the face of these with seemingly inadequate resources. We can be optimistic that democracy, equality and freedom have gained overall in our 250 year history. But the victories have not always been one sided, and whatever has been gained in this struggle is always at risk of being lost again, particularly as dizzying and potentially threatening changes in technology and social structures occur. Everything can be new but it is not always good. We have just experienced a decade in which high anxiety has resulted in the voluntary surrender of freedom, a heavy investment in violence combined with a lack of understanding, and a greed driven economy seemingly spiraling out of control. America seems to be becoming less relevant than the global capitalism that seems content to employ others, and which displays a freedom from the emotional ties of nationalism that seem more like vulnerabilities than strengths. Even as an example of democracy for the world, America’s political structures seem unable to meet the needs expected of them. Who would choose to copy them and how we act within them in detail? If battles for freedom, justice, equality and a decent life must only be phrased in terms of America, this may resonate some but will eventually hit the wall. People in places like Syria are putting Americans to shame. While American exceptionalism can mean “this capacity to grow, to improve, toward an ever more perfect union — toward more justice, more freedom ” it can just as easily mean more empire, more arrogance, more separation from everyone else and less of the sharing of common human strengths and weaknesses that all those good things require.

  • Mike Bock

    Stan, you have a POV grounded in reality and, I agree, reality right now is looking grim. If the right wing succeeds in pushing their vision of “American Exceptionalism,” it will, in your words, result in,“more empire, more arrogance, more separation from everyone else and less of the sharing of common human strengths and weaknesses that all those good things require.”

    My observation is that there is sorely lacking a liberal POV that might give citizens a viable alternative to this right wing view. Big ideas are ceded to the right without a fight. Ted Strickland, I believe, lost the governorship because he failed to offer a progressive vision and failed to articulate progressive policies sufficient to inspire what should have been his base. This lack of progressive leadership resulted in an emboldened Kasich juggernaut. Strickland was genuinely committed to the common good, but he has been replaced by energized and narrow minded ideologues who, blinded by their own arrogance and sense of self righteousness, are causing havoc.

    Tragically it appears that Barack Obama will be a one term president, and his defeat will usher in the reign of right wing idiots at the federal level — because, he too has failed to be nearly progressive enough. At the web-site Bold Progressives, visitors are asked to sign a PLEDGE: “I’ll only donate or volunteer for Obama if he firmly opposes Social Security, Medicare, & Medicaid benefit cuts.” In his speech last night Obama called for cuts to Medicare. Such thinking is sinking Obama’s ship.

    My own view is that Democrats Should Dump President Obama — And Nominate An Authentic Liberal Candidate. If the Democratic candidate is going down in flames, he or she should at least be standing for something, should at least be attempting to educate citizens and elevate the discussion. We need a vigorous debate on the meaning of “American Exceptionalism,” and how the ideals of America can best be advanced.

  • Rick

    Stan, Mike, I know many conservatives who don’t want “more empire” but rather want the US to pull back significantly its military involvement throughout the world. Of course that could stated to be more separated from others, but that would be good in respects.

    Mike, you need to control your hate.

  • Mike Bock

    Rick, I agree that “conservatives” don’t want more empire. And “conservatives,” I’d think, wouldn’t want to cut down the trees on state lands, nor drill for oil in the state parks. In my article and comments, I use the term “right wing” or “Republicans,” and, I agree, to call the leadership of these groups “conservative” makes no sense. I wonder what Barry Goldwater would have to say, if he were still around?

    Rick, you need to check the sensitivity setting of your hate meter.

    And, let me add, after writing the above I looked up Barry Goldwater in Wikipedia: “In 1996, he (Goldwater) told Bob Dole, whose own presidential campaign received lukewarm support from conservative Republicans: ‘We’re the new liberals of the Republican party. Can you imagine that?‘”

  • Eric

    Well, Mike, just what is the difference between restoring “American exceptionalism” and “reclaiming our democracy?” Do you know any liberal who have read the relevant books carefully enough to tell the difference–or should liberals co-opt vocabulary to advance their political agenda?

    Let’s celebrate the ideals of America
    Perhaps agreeing on those ideals would be a step. Perhaps revision of the state’s social studies academic content would provide that opportunity. Or we could just drop the ball and pretend it doesn’t matter.

  • Mike Bock

    Eric, It seems a good place to start a discussion of American ideals is an examination of two ideals expressed when we “pledge allegiance to the flag”: 1) Liberty for all, 2) Justice for all. These are the ideals that, it seems to me, should be at the heart of a philosophy of “American Exceptionalism.”

    It seems to me, that systems’ thinking is the template that should guide our thinking as to how to accomplish these ideals. Again, I return to Deming: It’s all about organizational structure: How Can The System Known As The United States Be Made To Work To Provide “Liberty and Justice For All”? “We the people” have concluded that these ideals can best be accomplished via a constitutional structure that gives limited power to government. Our constitution has been amended over the years, so that now it is significantly different from that envisioned by the founding fathers. “We the people” at one time included only white men who were property owners. A progressive income tax at one time was unconstitutional.

    It was understood, at one time, that the ideals of “liberty” and “justice” actually applied to only a small fraction of the population. The question worthy of in-depth civic discussion today should center on “American Exceptionalism,” defined by the notion that the ideals of liberty and justice should apply to the entire population. And if our national goal is that these great ideals truly should be enjoyed by all, then the next part of the discussion should center on how the system should be organized to accomplish such ideals.

    Such a discussion would threaten the political power of our ruling money oligarchy and, so, such discussion is never allowed. Our system of public education doesn’t help. The curriculum that is taught in our system of public education is tightly controlled, but, more destructively, students are systematically demoralized so that their capacity for authentic character or independent thought is pathologically diminished. There really is not a Liberal voice in most discussions and to suppose President Obama advocates a liberal POV is truly laughable.

    So, agreeing on how to define “American ideals” would be a great start to a meaningful civic discussion. But, a meaningful civic discussion, itself, is a great ideal. Meaningful discussions, those characterized by “reasoning together,” are reality based — with participants showing a commitment to understanding each other and to practicing self honesty. Such discussion should be learned and practiced within our system of public education, but schools have no meaningful models in adult society and many teachers, who, themselves are the product of public education, have had no experience with such civic discussion.

  • Eric

    … participants showing a commitment to understanding each other and to practicing self honesty. Such discussion should be learned and practiced within our system of public education, but schools have no meaningful models in adult society and many teachers, who, themselves are the product of public education, have had no experience with such civic discussion.

    Sounds like teacher preparation programs pose a threat to America’s future. Oh, are you suggesting that League of Women Voters provides “no meaningful models in adult society?”

  • Eric

    students are systematically demoralized so that their capacity for authentic character or independent thought is pathologically diminished

    Wow. Not the sort of place children ought be compelled to attend.

    to suppose President Obama advocates a liberal POV is truly laughable

    What can we expect of those on President Obama’s left in support of the common good? Might it be …

    … Strickland was genuinely committed to the common good …

    … empty rhetoric? Unfunded mandates? Smoke and mirrors?

  • Mike Bock

    Eric, I just paid my $65 to become a member of the League of Women Voters, so I have a lot of confidence in the credibility and promise of this organization. But, no, from my experience with the League, they’ve not shown a format for meaningful civic discussions, and it is a matter that I feel the organization should address. Their “Meet the Candidates” forums, I found to be very ineffective in encouraging much of a meaningful exchange of ideas and certainly not the kind of civic discussion I described above. But then, this group has been in existence for over 80 years, and maybe there have been other formats in the past they have used that has been more effective. The structure of the Kettering forums seem to hold more promise. My point is that there seem to be no examples of thoughtful civic discussions, I’ve noticed, impacting our politics. Do you have a good role model to point to?

  • Eric

    League of Women Voters … not shown a format for meaningful civic discussions, and it is a matter that I feel the organization should address. … The structure of the Kettering forums seem to hold more promise.

    Yes! Kettering Foundation, our local civic think tank, proposes National Issues Forums for that purpose. Is the League in touch? How can the League promote civic ideals without first identifying them?

    “Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? … Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is ‘America.'” –Capt Ian Fishback, United States Army

  • Stan Hirtle

    “Conservatives” are an alliance of people with political positions who claim that label. They don’t always agree on everything (this was most noticeable when Bush II was in power) but they generally hang together well in order to get and divide up the spoils, financial and policy wise. A major wing is the military industrial complex, consisting of the military and defense contractors but also patriotic individuals who staff the military and also some people who have geopolitical ends they want the military to accomplish, such as the “neoconservatives” who were so influential in starting the Iraq war. There are other wings of conservatives who may be more concerned about small government, or less government spending (not accepting military Keynesianism any more than any other type), or be more isolationist or more libertarian, who are less interested in an having, exploiting and defending an empire. They have been less influential on policy when Republicans get in.

  • Rick

    The Democrats are also an alliance of diverse groups who hang well together to divide up the spoils. Both parties are corrupt which is another reason why government should be kept small.

  • Stan Hirtle

    Arguably the Democrats hang together less well. The working class, their unions and impoverished minorities have a hard time working out a compromise on economic policy with the business and Wall Street contributors on their side. For the Republicans, people from those classes who vote Republican are more likely voting on social issues rather than economic ones, and that is easier to pull off since there aren’t really competing views on the same issue. Of course any democratic system will have a “what’s in it for me” quality, and we generally accept that because we think other systems are worse. Arguably we now have a political system that is essentially directed by moneyed interests who fund the system with a democratic overlay, that is voters get a choice between options selected by the moneyed elite. This was most clear in something like health care payment reform, where the moneyed elite is not of one mind, so insurers, employers and the pieces of the medical industrial complex have pretty much limited the options.

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