What is American exceptionalism?

January 23, 2012

Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, although they spend a lot of time these days at one another’s throat, appeared on the night of the South Carolina primary to agree on at least one thing: Each believes in “American exceptionalism,” and, they say, Barack Obama does not. Gingrich has already devoted an entire book to the topic, and in an interview with my colleague David Rohde, a top foreign policy adviser to Romney made it clear that American exceptionalism is a theme that Romney intends to stress throughout the campaign.

It’s easy to see that these candidates view their own ideas about American exceptionalism as a strong opportunity to contrast themselves with the incumbent. It’s harder, though, after sifting through the various ways the term is used, to establish what it actually means. Far from being a simple concept that one can easily endorse or reject, American exceptionalism is a loose skein that uneasily unites many different strands of thought, faith and ideology.

Like so much in the discussion of American history, the phrase is often traced to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. But that doesn’t explain much, because when de Tocqueville wrote that “the position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional,” he was referring primarily to the development of a practical — as opposed to literary or artistic — worldview, stemming from the American landscape and the lack of an aristocracy. More to the point, Gingrich seeks to ground the term in the American Revolution: “The ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and the unique American identity that arose from an American civilization that honored them, form what we call today ‘American Exceptionalism’,” he wrote in A Nation Like No Other, published last year. But that explanation, too, is inadequate; after all, the authors of the Declaration of Independence went out of their way to universalize the values underpinning the American experience (“when, in the course of human events…”), not to cleave that experience off from the rest of the world.

Rather, the faith in the uniqueness of the American experience is best found in its Puritan heritage, the belief that God made a covenant with the founders of America and intended to use American civilization as an example for the rest of the world. In a much-cited speech, Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop referred in 1630 to his colony as “a city on a hill” that could serve as a beacon to the world. But grounding American exceptionalism in religion creates multiple conceptual minefields. For one, the early colonies were not really bastions of liberty; in addition to their slaveholdings, they were, as Gingrich acknowledges, governed like “a theocratic dictatorship.” For another, an appeal to the supernatural puts the idea of American exceptionalism on a similar plane with, say, the Jewish concept of being the Chosen People or the ancient Chinese idea that their country is at the center of the universe — which is to say, there is nothing exceptional about thinking that your civilization is exceptional. Nonetheless, the idea that the United States occupies a privileged and arguably unique place in history is critical to understanding the phrase “American exceptionalism,” from the Manifest Destiny period to the present day.

In the 20th century, American exceptionalism took on a particular meaning in political theory. Typically, it was used to explain why the United States — unlike nearly all developed nations — had never developed a significant working-class political movement. Curiously, although Gingrich and Romney are principally using it in the context of American foreign policy, that usage is of fairly recent vintage. It is also where the meaning of the term is probably the muddiest and does not make as neat a litmus test as Gingrich and Romney seem to want. One can believe that the foundation of America in ideas of liberty and self-governance — rather than in ethnicity or royal domain — makes the United States “exceptional” and yet still be deeply skeptical about America’s use of force abroad. Instead, what Gingrich and Romney appear to be advocating under the name of exceptionalism is either American unilateralism — the idea that the United States has a right and/or obligation to act in the international sphere even if all other countries and multinational institutions don’t join in — or American infallibilitythe idea that nothing the United States does in the international arena is ever morally unjustified.

On such subtopics there is robust debate, particularly since 9/11. The Canadian scholar and politician Michael Ignatieff has identified three problematic areas of American exceptionalism in the international realm. These include American exemptionalism, the idea that prevailing international standards don’t apply to the U.S., particularly in the ratification of human rights conventions; double standards, the idea that rules will be ignored or enforced depending on the U.S. perception of its interests; and legal isolationism, the notion that legal findings outside the U.S. should have no bearing on how American judges rule and think.

Here is where Gingrich and Romney probably see a place they can sink their teeth into. It is nearly certain that current or former members of the Obama administration have publicly taken positions against “American exceptionalism” if it’s defined as unilateralism, infallibility, exemptionalism, etc. The political hope is that such parts can be made to stand for the whole and thus used as one more way to call out Obama’s supposed patriotism vacuum.

Yet this task may prove harder than Gingrich and Romney have calculated. For one thing, Obama has already displayed a nuanced grasp of how the exceptionalism trap would work. In a 2009 press conference following a NATO meeting about Afghanistan, a reporter from the Financial Times asked Obama whether he believed, as so many of his predecessors did, in American exceptionalism. He began his response by saying: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” That alone is probably insufficient for those demanding superpatriotism from their president, but Obama went on to say: “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.” To all but the most determined hairsplitters, that is indistinguishable from Gingrich’s position.

Another question is how important this topic is to the American public. Gingrich points to a Gallup poll from December 2010 showing that 80 percent of Americans believe that America is exceptional and, tellingly, 37 percent doubted that Obama shared that belief — a much higher percentage than for other recent presidents. Other polls show different results. The Pew Research Center has for nearly a decade asked people in different countries whether their culture is superior; the 2011 results were the lowest ever in the United States, with nearly equal portions (49 to 46 percent) agreeing or disagreeing with the idea. It’s not hard to believe that the prolonged economic slowdown has caused many Americans to question just how exceptional their country is, which could mean that it won’t play as a political issue. Then again, maybe the more Americans doubt that they are exceptional, the more they want people in power to tell them that they are.

PHOTOS: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign stop in Ormond Beach, Florida, January 22, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder. Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich reacts to a disturbance during a campaign event on the U.S.S. Yorktown in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, January 20, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer


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The authors of the Declaration of Independence made America possible with little more than exceptional bravery, foresight, and faith in themselves. They gave viable form and substance to abstract concepts utterly unproven as a basis for governing that immediately took root and flourished in the fertile soil of freedom. It is but a logical extension of their thinking to promote and share the ideals of liberty and self-governance, and most laudable when such ideals have immediate political result contrary to America’s apparent short-term political self-interest(s).

The reason the United States has never developed a significant working-class political movement is because our “exceptionalism” is exemplified by Horatio Alger. Americans have come to believe, and rightly so, that, in the main, each of us is responsible for our own well being and improvement in circumstance.

In hindsight today Americans can look back at the dark days leading into WW II and see that as a diverse people we can rise to meet the greatest of challenges if we are but consulted and capably led toward a common goal. American exceptionalism was the unique elixir that allowed a colony originally no different in souls, wealth, land, climate or “divine providence” from other colonies throughout history to become these United States.

Emerging from WW II as the most powerful nation in the world, both economically and militarily, America has conducted it’s foreign policy with restraint if not always with wisdom. It unilaterally made a conscious choice to rebuild Europe and Japan instead of repeating the errors of the victors of WW I, thus creating economic partners essentially friendly and more or less self supporting.

I wish it had also unilaterally dictated at the end of the war that the proliferation of atomic weapons could end life on earth, and that any nation aspiring to such weapons would henceforth be deemed an enemy of mankind. Given America’s demonstrated accomplishments and monopoly of design, production and delivery, this was possible, however briefly. No challenger could have assembled a meaningful threat to the world before being disarmed; by force, if necessary. But we did not, and so man has subsequently been condemned to live with petty national squabbling and the distinct possibility that someday humanity will likely destroy itself if unable or unwilling to “get along” in the long run.

Obama is correct 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.” We must understand, however, that America’s imperfections are largely those implicit in man; and therefore American society must be one governed by law and not man.

Unfortunately that is less and less the case; and may well be our downfall as the legal profession increasingly dominates our politics and citizen representation, feathering it’s own interests at the expense of those of “we, the people”. America today can no longer afford to be all things to all people if it ever could. We soon will choose the people who must define what kind of nation America is to be in the future and adopt goals and priorities consistent with available resources to lay a solid foundation for the future. We must choose wisely.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

You said, that any nation aspiring to such [atomic] weapons would henceforth be deemed an enemy of mankind. Given America’s demonstrated accomplishments and monopoly of design, production and delivery, this was possible, however briefly. No challenger could have assembled a meaningful threat to the world before being disarmed; by force, if necessary.

Germany developed the expertise and technology concurrent with us, and then the U.S.S.R. followed quickly behind. We did lead the way, but only because we gathered most of the world’s top engineers and scientists in one place. Once the genie was out of the bottle, there was no way to put it back. And there was no way we could have disarmed the U.S.S.R. or defeated it in a conventional war. Attacking the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons would have made us highly unpopular with the rest of the world.

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive

Newt primarily likes to reference the Declaration of Independence because of this phrase, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration simply sets forth the reasons we broke away from the United Kingdom, a noble undertaking in and of itself.

He doesn’t like to reference the Constitution as much, because god is not mentioned in it, and the separation of church and state is clearly delineated. The Constitution does set us apart from most others (as exceptional) in that it clearly defines and sets forth the laws that would govern us, even before we became a nation. No republic or nation that I can think of ever set down the laws that would govern it in one document before uniting together and consolidating itself into a nation state.

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive

“American Exceptionalism”, if examined closely in the context of what this country promises versus what it actually delivers in any category you care to name, either domestic or foreign throughout its entire history, has been one of the greatest failures in modern history.

What it does “exceptionally well” is make sure the wealthy stay that way.

The rest of it is nothing more than a chimera.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

It is great to look back and wax poetic on the accomplishments of our forefathers in creating the foundation of our country and our leadership during world events of 70 years ago that positioned us as the world’s superpower.

The problem is there are too few who actually understand most of what our forefathers stood for and the stark contrast with the history of some recent presidents and politicians.

The greatness that emerged from WWII was accompanied with many recently minted laws that supported effective tax rates to pay for our efforts and effective use of goverment to facilitate capitalism without being overtaken by Oligarchs and Plutocrats. Soon after social safety nets and infrastructure were set in place that have offered a national sense of security that supports our workers and entrepeneurs alike. Unfortunately, that time is passing away.

The social safety nets and infrastructure are under attack and soon to be destroyed.

After WWII, one of America’s great WWII generals and retiring President warned against the dangers of the Military Industrial Complex. He feared one day the tentacles of this industry and its powerful corporations would overtake our government and grow beyond the control of the American people. In reviewing our expenditures the past thirty years (especially the last ten), it seems his words are horrifically prophetic.

There was a term used decades ago “Jingoism” that defines what I see as a more representational word for what represents the American Exceptionalism bandying about by so many Republicans. It smacks of the propaganda used by Goebbels when the Nazis were gaining power in Germany. They too believed in their own brand of exceptionalism, and became intoxicated by their own B.S. Most of their better leaders were voted out or chased out of office. Look where that got them…

When you are a great Democracy, you don’t need to go around telling everybody how great you are or invading countries using military might. You are simply the sum of your actions and achievements, and you continue to build on them…not stand back on your laurels and tell everyone how great you are.

When America under W. Bush attacked and invaded a country as a ‘preemptive’ measure on less than reliable evidence and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, our brand of exceptionalism was no longer supported, even by some of our closest historic allies. When America under W. Bush engaged in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, not a single American was asked to sacrifice a little more income to help pay for the efforts and hold the deficits in check. When America under W. Bush failed to regulate the banks, financial, and insurance industries sufficiently to stave off a collapse, our economic exceptionalism was rightfully questioned. Given the root cause of some of our recessions, America under each of the last five presidents has failed to steer America towards energy independence and innovation, our exceptionalism is again less than it could be.

So which is ‘more American’ – ‘more exceptional’?

The citizen who calls into question some of our failings and how we might consider or act to correct them, or the citizens who continue to wave the flag and tell everybody how great we are even as we have descended into economic and political chaos?

If America witnesses tens of millions of its citizens falling into poverty as countless numbers of businesses are exporting jobs without penalty, moving their HQ’s to overseas tax havens and then importing products made by non-democratic states to sell to our citizens at a massive profit, how are We The People exceptional again? If we witness the erosion of our Constitutional rights and freedoms such that our government can detain an American citizen indefinitely without proof (habius corpus) under the guise of ‘homeland defense’ then how is that exceptional again? Counting the numbers of citizens in prison matters, counting the mortality rates of citizens matters, counting the numbers of engineers and doctors and those graduating matters, counting the numbers of people who fall into poverty matters, counting the costs of healthcare matters…and when you find we are entering the bottom of these categories when ranked against our industrialized peers…counting that matters.

But by all means, go ahead and wave the flag with vigor and enthusiams and tell everyone who will listen how great America is absent thought beyond waving the flag with vigor and enthusiasm and get mad as hell if anyone asks why. That is exceptional, isn’t it?

Posted by NobleKin | Report as abusive


Germany was working on atomic weapons, but never solved crucial design problems. They had NO production or delivery systems substantially underway that would have made them “contenders” on the battlefield even had they not been defeated well before Japan. Russia relied on a spy network to steal American technical progress and lagged even further behind. I stated my personal wish that our leaders had had the backbone to stop nuclear proliferation when they could have, and they COULD have.

I didn’t say it would be easy or popular. Bombing civilians wasn’t popular either, and yet it served a valid military purpose. Yes, “Once the genie was out of the bottle, there was no way to put it back” and so speculation as to what might have been at this late date is a waste of everyone’s time.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive


Your ranting about “Oligarchs and Plutocrats identifies precisely your “politics” and not-so “hidden agenda”. You state that: “The social safety nets and infrastructure are under attack and soon to be destroyed.” Well, my wife and I substantially live on Social Security, and we don’t think that prepaid “entitlement” is in new danger since it was American politicians years ago that took the money from the trust fund and replaced it with IOUs to fund new social givaways, etc. Obviously no one today can “prove” which dollars were spent where.

Our infrastructure has been allowed to deteoriate intentionally because politicians KNOW “we, the people” will pony up MORE tax revenue to FIX what good faith government would have maintained and expanded as our population grew. This is a prime example why “we, the people” can’t trust our own government.

America has been shovelling out dollars as fast as it can print them and yet when we “do the math”, America is BROKE and it’s present level of spending is unsustainable. Politicians on both sides of the aise have long believed that “if they spend it we will pay” and so have never learned to prioritize spending. America can have anything it wants, but it cannot have EVERYTHING it wants!

The coming election will choose the people who must define what kind of nation America is to be in the future. If America is to survive goals and priorities consistent with available resources must form a solid foundation for the future. Obviously we must choose these people for intelligence, courage and leadership and not for the freebies they might promise. They will have to reconsider all “safety nets” as part of descretionary spending.

Equating Republicans with Nazis reveals your personal bias, but serves no other purpose. Today’s “military-industrial complex” is a legacy of success. Our government allowed the Soviets to gain the lead in space and fortunately learned that to underfund our military capabilities is to condemn our warriors and our country to eventual defeat. No one knows where or when the next conflict will be fought, or how. That is why we must preserve superior capability for all credible threats.

If the engineers that design and supervise production of weapons systems come and go as contracts are awarded, eventually crucial capability is compromised that, once lost, can only be re-established starting from the beginning. That is where the Russians are today with their space program, having fallen well below China’s current capability. I’m glad you agree America MUST “continue to build on our actions and achievements.

Our fighters, tanks, etc. are in demand around the world…they are the “state-of-the-art” best and undefeated. Those who design, produce and sell these products are part of America’s middle class and those sales help a LOT with America’s import-export imbalance in goods. If you have some two-bit dictator who is a big frog in a small pond, you take him out in HIS country rather than wait until you have to fight him or his people in yours.

Today’s terrorist/radical is too cowardly to wear a uniform and stay out of hospitals, mosques and homes. He is a “whack-a-mole” enemy whose life is worth nothing even to him that uses women and children as human shields. That makes hard to protect our country and/or our people following Marquis of Queensbury rules. When there is no end to “jihad” and you don’t want to have to capture the same people again and again you have limited choices…take NO prisoners or have a place like Guantanamo.

Saddam invaded Kuwait, which was the first step to his controlling the oil of the middle east. Of COURSE that put his ambitions in conflict with America’s dependence on middle eastern oil. The difference is that America doesn’t steal oil or “take” it. We buy it like everybody else.

America is the land of opportunity, NOT the land of entitlement. The number of Americans in American prisons is a failure of our culture and our parents and not our government. But there is no alternative to taking the uncivil and the incorrigible sociopaths OFF the streets. It’s expensive, but necessary, whatever it costs.

America can and is exceptional even though it is not and never will be perfect. When you can point at a proven alternative that is economically sustainable, I’m interested. (Hint…Europe and the Euro isn’t it)

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

To the GOP True Believers it seems to be nothing but the old British Foreign Office motto brought to life: never explain, never apologize.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

This is a really interesting debate and there have been some interesting books written on the subject. Andrew Bacevich has a good book called “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism” and the book The Rhetoric of American Exceptionalism I just got done reading and it provides a good anatomy of this debate over the past two hundred years. It seems to be the biggest dichotomy with Republicans is between Romney and Paul. Interesting to see how this turns out.

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