Quite a few months ago, I wrote two posts dealing with the topic of being American, or actually, what it was that certain contemporaries in the news considered “un-American.” [“Un-American Accusations, Part 1: Big Oil,” May 15, 2011; “Un-American Accusations, Part 2: Pols and Pundits,” June 10, 2011]
Today, I take up a corollary of this concept, the idea of American exceptionalism. Many of us, I am sure, have seen the Chris Matthews MSNBC ad which builds on Barack Obama’s autobiography and the idea that only in America would we likely see an African American elevated to the office of President. In Matthews words, paraphrasing Obama, “only in this country is my story possible.” The video is no longer accessible, but this reference from a Chris Matthews broadcast will suffice as a substitute.
Now, Alexis de Tocqueville first applied the adjective, “exceptional” to America in 1840, noting that “the position of the Americans is...quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” Tocqueville was referring to America as a new nation emerging from a revolution and developing an ideology based on the principles of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.
Such actions could even be construed as a slap in the face to the hero of these neo-Con Republicans--Ronald Reagan: he who revived the Puritan image of the city upon a hill as a metaphor for America and American exceptionalism; he who spoke to the UN, saying that Americans “have never been aggressors....[and that] we have no territorial ambitions. We occupy no countries.”
Were this a singular example, we could write it off as Cheney being Cheney. However, we find almost every Republican embracing some aspect of American exceptionalism as if it were a name tag that identified them as a true Americans and separated them from Democrats. Ann Coulter, in her new book, Demonic...) warns us that America, once an “exceptional nation...endowed by their [sic] Creator with certain inalienable Rights,” has been transformed and demeaned by “secular socialist” liberals.
Coulter takes her religious phrasing from Gingrich who, of course, takes it from our Declaration of Independence, both of them totally ignoring its context and skewing its meaning; but then, nothing new in this.
Mike Huckabee also promotes a God-chosen American exceptionalism, not only in his public appearances, but also in his new company that makes educational cartoons, such as this video on the Reagan Revolution which also features the metaphorical “City on the Hill.”
A slightly different Republican take on the concept can be found in Paul Ryan’s April 5, 2011 presentation on the House floor as he unveiled his plan for the largest cutback of government spending in our history. He invoked American exceptionalism no less than three times, saying “It is now up to all of us to keep America exceptional” by accepting his deficit plan which “affirms our cherished ideals of individual liberty, equal opportunity, entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These are the ideals that have cultivated the exceptional American character.”
At least God and religion were absent, having been trumped in Ryan’s speech by the Republican cathechism: less government, no regulations, and no interference in markets.
This is hardly the way that any American, Republican or Democrat, should want us to be seen as exceptional. And, in fact, there are even Republicans who reject this attitude. For example, former Republican speechwriter, Ted Frier, complained about today’s conservatives who believe every cent they earn is theirs, who give nothing back to the more needy of our country, who forget that community and cooperation were what made America; in their embrace of the “myth of the rugged individualist,” they forget about “the community barn-raising....[and] this omission is a measure of the ingratitude you’d expect from people who think ‘American Exceptionalism’ means them.”
But let’s return to where we began, to President Obama and a version of American exceptionalism that accommodates democrats as well as republicans.
At a news conference in Strasbourg, France on April 4, 2009, President Obama was asked this question by a reporter: “Could I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy?
This was Obama’s answer: “ I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world....And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional....And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent [upon], depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.”
Clearly, in their eyes, Obama is not sufficiently jingoistic about America’s greatness. But I suspect that our “founding fathers” would be more comfortable with Obama’s sense of American exceptionalism than that of Romney, Perry, Gingrich and the others. Thomas Jefferson, for example, would agree wholeheartedy with President Obama’s reference to “Greek exceptionalism.” After all, not only did the Greeks give the world the idea of democracy, but Jefferson even acknowledged this gift in 1785 when he designed and built the Virginia State Capitol in the form of a Greek temple.
|Virginia State Capitol, 1785, designed by Thomas Jefferson|
We might consider another symbolic monument, the Statue of Liberty, again a product of international partnership--the political cooperation between France and the United States. The statue is designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, its base by American architect Richard Morris Hunt. The tablet she holds represents our Declaration of Independence and she has taken on many meanings, all of which coalesce into a symbol of the political and social values that make America great.
|Liberty Enlightening the World (orig.), 1886, Bartholdi & Eiffel|