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.