Today’s Washington Post has a very interesting article on the idea of “American exceptionalism.” Republicans such as Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Sarah Palin, New Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum have recently argued, in one way or another, that America is “inherently superior to the world’s other nations.”
These conservatives are particularly upset by remarks made by Barack Obama at a news conference over a year ago in Strasbourg, France. Obama said: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He went on to say that the United States must work together with other nations in order to solve the world’s problems.
What makes the United States exceptional? The Post article cites the late sociologist Seymour Lipset who wrote that the ideology of the United States can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” I can’t disagree with Lipset, although I would probably add adjectives to a few of his descriptive terms. How about unfettered liberty, narcissistic individualism, and a social Darwinian brand of laissez-faire that destroys local economies. In this sense, perhaps the United States is indeed exceptional.
Newt Gingrich has suggested that American exceptionalism is directly related to the the “rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence”–rights that have been “granted by God.” The problem with this statement is that no one living in the eighteenth-century, Thomas Jefferson included, would have seen the inalienable rights promised by the Declaration of Independence as uniquely American. These were longstanding British ideas (even the idea that God is the creator of human rights). Jefferson took these ideas and applied them to the cause of the American Revolution.
Yet, instead of arguing that Gingrich’s exceptionalist reading of the Declaration of Independence is wrong, the Obama administration has tried to show that indeed the president has, in numerous speeches, connected American exceptionalism to the Declaration.
For an interesting commentary on this article, especially as it relates to American historians, check out Mike O’Connor’s remarks at U.S. Intellectual History.
J. L. Bell says
Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic has also written about this speech by President Obama and how Republican presidential hopefuls are egregiously misrepresenting it.
Tom Van Dyke says
The president's critics may be unfair in focusing on one of the president's statements, but the problem is really that President Obama spoke out of both sides of his mouth. He's the one who screwed up.
There hasn't been a “Grecian exceptionalism” for 2500 years.
The president rather properly defined American exceptionalism [below], however, to go and lump it in with Greece or any other nation is mealy-mouthed.
“Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy; our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over 200 years ago,” Obama told the delegates in Boston. ” 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' That is the true genius of America.”