Michael Kazin, writing in The New Republic, thinks that American exceptionalism is a flawed, but still politically useful, idea.
As much as Barack Obama’s critics think he is not an American exceptionalist, Kazin argues that the president “has sworn his belief in the exceptionalist faith more frequently than did George W. Bush….” According to Kazin, Obama has not abandoned a belief in American exceptionalism, he has just been using that belief in the wrong way.
Here is a snippet from Kazin’s article:
But the president neither can nor should discard the exceptionalism creed…He can use exceptionalism to suggest that the country has yet to live up to its ideals and simultaneously, to garb his policies, from health care to immigration to foreign aid, as what the country needs for this to finally happen. How can our great country spend more money on health care than other industrial nations and yet cover fewer people—or allow one-fifth of its children to live in poverty? How can the nation Jefferson called “an empire of liberty” bar people who came to the U.S. illegally when they were children from becoming citizens? If we believe in freedom and democracy, why do we spend billions to arm dictators in Egypt and elsewhere?
The popular belief that America is an exceptional nation prods us to live up to that ideal and to question when and why it falls short. Our famously pragmatic president would do well to re-read how our greatest pragmatic philosopher came down on this matter. In 1897, during another era when conservatives were mucking up the idea of liberty, equating it to unregulated corporate power, William James wrote, “The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes; they always dwell within their borders. And from these internal enemies civilization is always in need of being saved. The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day.”
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