Say one thing for Newt Gingrich, he has a way with buzz-words. During the run-up to the 2012 election the former-Speaker-turned-political-gadfly published a book on the subject of American Exceptionalism, and ever since then the expression has become a catchphrase among conservatives. In addition to Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum made it an integral part of their presidential campaigns, and more recently Sarah Palin trotted it out in her never-ending bid for whatever it is she wants to become.
Due to Gingrich’s careful elision, the expression was widely thought to have been coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic account of an 1831 tour of the United States, Democracy in America; however, it turns out the phrase ‘American Exceptionalism’ never actually appears in said book. In fact, according to Terrence McCoy in a 2012 article appearing in the Atlantic, the phrase is attributable to none other than Joseph Stalin, who meant nothing favorable to the United States by it. While refraining from plagiarizing another’s work, it seems Mr. Gingrich is not above passing off his own words as those of another author, especially a celebrated one.
Despite its fraudulent pedigree, the expression remains popular among conservatives, who seldom let a little thing like facts get in the way of a good talking point. Take the debate over global warming for example. Rather than accept observable facts such as the shrinking of the polar ice caps, the rise of sea levels and a steady increase in mean temperatures, it has become politically expedient for many to chalk the whole thing up to a vast left-wing conspiracy involving 97% of the scientific community, not to mention global warming’s latest acolyte, Pope Francis.
But then, science is so… wonky. For would-be demagogues, the real appeal behind American Exceptionalism lies in its ability to distort history, to reach deep into the American psyche and call forth shopworn myths going back to grade school, where the Founding Fathers are typically presented as demi-gods whose unimpeachable genius and rectitude led to the creation of the ‘Greatest Nation the World Has Ever Known’–another expression, like ‘American Exceptionalism,’ that ought to be stricken from the lexicon of all rational adults.
The challenge for serious students of American history is to see beyond such myths and recognize the human (and truly humble) origins of a country whose subsequent “success” has threatened to go to its head. For starters, Americans did not invent modern democracy, which evolved over centuries of European history, emerging as a shared legacy among colonists of several nationalities. Nor can the Founding Fathers claim credit for the particular language in which our democracy was first proclaimed. Key parts of the Declaration of Independence, after all, were taken verbatim from the work of English philosopher John Locke, who was writing a century before the American Revolution. (To his credit, Thomas Jefferson never claimed originality for his work, only that it represented an “expression of the American mind.”)
As for military exceptionalism, let us not forget that, apart from a handful of lesser engagements, Patriot forces in the Revolution were driven from battlefields across the length and breadth of the thirteen colonies, managing to survive only with the help of professional French army and naval forces under French leadership. It was a Frenchman, Lafayette, who created the opportunity to trap the British at Yorktown and called upon Washington and Rochambeau to join him in cutting off Cornwallis’ escape. And it was a French fleet that drove off a British rescue expedition, sealing the enemy’s fate. It is no exaggeration to say that we owe our independence to the French, who were kind enough in later years–despite our refusal to help them with their own revolution–to gift us with a nice statue of Liberty into the bargain.
Of course, there is always the Constitution for conservatives to feel exceptional about. Now there was a document to be proud of… with some, uh, exceptions. Sure, it managed to institutionalize slavery, but where business interests were involved, what could the Founders do? I mean, slave-owners had to feed the bulldog like everybody else, didn’t they? Besides, that whole slavery thing was sorted out a long time ago in the Civil War, after which we got back to being exceptional again. Consider also our insistence on asserting an 18th-century right to keep and bear arms despite its horrific consequences in modern times, a piece of legal lunacy that every other developed country in the world has long since abandoned. Exceptional.
For conservatives the best thing about American Exceptionalism is its ability to appeal directly to the national ego, making Americans feel good about themselves and, by extension, about those candidates willing to flatter them with fables of their superiority. At the same time it works to sanctify the past, thereby impeding political change. As a bonus, it can be used to impugn the patriotism of anyone who doesn’t happen to believe that Americans are exceptional. Such people are by definition un-American, maybe even evil-doers, people to be shunned… because politics.
Let’s face it, fellow Americans; we are not exceptional. We have only to look around us to see the evidence of our unexceptional-ness in the many problems that remain for us to solve. We are human beings, with all of the attendant flaws and weaknesses, and yes, the potential of human beings, but no more potential than any other nationality. It is both unseemly and irresponsible for us to think otherwise. Indeed, we do ourselves harm when we think that way; it weakens our resolve to be better, to improve ourselves and our institutions, which is really the whole point of a popular democracy.
Meanwhile, with another presidential election in the offing, conservative candidates can be counted on to keep on promoting a feel-good version of American history in an effort to distract voters from the hard work of political progress, which must inevitably move against the moneyed interests who finance their campaigns. These interests seek at best to maintain the status quo, and at worst to return us to a halcyon past that has never existed by promoting policies that have never worked. We can’t allow that to happen. While forbearing to call ourselves exceptional, we need to recognize that we’re better than that.