Wednesday, January 19, 2011

American Exceptionalism

What does "American exceptionalism" mean, and why have we been hearing so much about the idea from conservative leaders since the election of Barack Obama as president?   The historian Ian Tyrrell says the idea refers to "the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty." There is also a good summary of the debate about this idea in this recent Washington Post article.  The idea of exceptionalism could be thought to arise from the new and unique character of the American government at the time of its founding.  Some, like Newt Gingrich, think that the United States was divinely ordained to be exceptional, sort of like the special covenant of the Jewish people with God.

President Obama has been criticized for not believing in American exceptionalism (based largely on one remark seeming to equate Americans' belief in their exceptionalism with the beliefs of people in other nations in their own exceptionalism).  But President Obama has also frequently recognized the special character and history of this country.  As quoted in the Washington Post article cited above, President Obama has said 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." That's about as ringing an endorsement of American exceptionalism as anybody has a right to expect from someone who also has to appreciate that the American ideals of liberty and equality were denied to so many in this country for so long.

Liberals and conservatives ought to be able to agree that this country has a unique character, and a special set of values; that the United States can still be seen, as Lincoln saw it, as the "last best hope of earth." Or, as Lincoln described it the Gettysburg address, as a "new nation" based on liberty and equality and popular sovereignty, that still needs to be tested periodically to find out whether it can long endure.  But liberals also have a right to be squeamish about how far conservatives seem to be willing to push the idea of American exceptionalism.  It should not be used, for example, to justify imperialistic adventures abroad.  (If we are exceptional, that does not give us the right to act like a bully.  In fact, we have a special obligation to act in a more enlightened way than previous empires.)

What brought the idea of American exceptionalism to my mind today was the renewed health care debate, kicked off by the partisan passage of a repeal bill in the House of Representatives.  Those who are opposed to health care reform seem to feel no obligation to take into account the experiences of every single other industrialized country in the entire world, all of whom have found it necessary to adopt some form of universal or near-universal health care system.  Most all of them spend much less than we do, and achieve as good or better results for a greater number of people.  Opponents of reform also feel no obligation to point to one example, anywhere in the world, of a working model health care system based on free market principles, that the United States should emulate.  This disdain for having to prove one's assertions with evidence, illustrates the dangerous side of a belief in American exceptionalism.  The idea is that the American medical system is just better, because it's American, and regardless of any flaws in that system that anyone might be able to point out; the idea is that we should be suspicious of any other country's system, whether or not it can be shown to have better results, just because those systems are not American.  This is why it seems impossible to have a rational argument about health care with the more doctrinaire members of the right wing, which seems to have captured pretty much the entire Republican party, judging by the almost perfect party-line vote today.  (Every single Republican House member voted for the repeal bill, while only three Democrats voted for it.)

Is it possible to appreciate our uniquely American history and values, while at the same time acknowledging that other people's experiences elsewhere in the world, might have some relevance, or something to teach us? The ongoing health care debate might help answer those questions.

(Alex Brandon/AP photo)


  1. I enjoyed the comments on exceptionalism.

    It was a partisan vote yesterday but voting for repeal of the bill doesn’t mean a Congressman is opposed to health care reform.

    Nearly everyone supports health care reform. Our system is not working for nearly enough of us and it is far too expensive. However, the bill that was passed by a partisan vote last year is a poor bill. It's not going to be repealed but it won't stand as is either. I think it is healthy that the far left in Congress understand they didn't get this right. Back to work! Let's get it right!

  2. This was not a case of the far left not getting it right. The far left hates the health insurance reform act. They wanted single payer or at least a public option, and were disgusted that they did not get either. This was a bill that was crafted to satisfy conservative Democrats like Blanche Lincoln and Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson. It is basically what Mitt Romney sponsored when he was governor of Massachusetts, and that is why the fact that not a single Republican in Congress will support it shows that the repeal movement is purely political.

  3. << It is basically what Mitt Romney sponsored when he was governor of Massachusetts, and that is why the fact that not a single Republican in Congress will support it shows that the repeal movement is purely political. >>

    Not necessarily. Why do you think Mitt Romney's plan represents Republicans or the middle today? I think it shows Mitt Romney got it wrong. He tried; but got it wrong. This is an incredibly difficult problem. Since you are mostly if not totally correct about the far left and it's discomfort with the bill, it appears we (you on the left, me in the center, and those on the right) should consider a bill that includes both parties. We saw it happen in December. It is the way to go. Especially if you want Obama re-elected. I do understand your frustration. Lots of us in the medical business and those of us who care about the welfare of our fellow human beings have been frustrated for a long long time. You are not alone. We don't have to vote the same to be frustrated.

  4. KP, my understanding of Medicare, Social Security and other big legislation is that they didn't arrive full-blown. They all were crafted amidst a lot of resistance, but they passed. And as time passed they were amended -- sometimes to make them better -- sometimes not. But like the constitution, legislation like ACA is "living" and amenable to change.

    When ACA was passed I don't remember anyone saying, "Well, this is it. Perfect. Nothing more to do here." The point is that it took SO long just to pass this. That is a big deal.

    I remember how long ACA stayed in committee(s). How the Blue Dogs and Joe Lieberman kept grinding away until they lessened the benefits. I believe I remember Lieberman taking out an option for a buy into Medicare at age 55 -- or some other very positive feature -- at the last minute because Rep. Weiner praised it.

    At the time the legislation was being discussed I remember looking at our standing in regard to other countries' health systems. The only one that stuck in my mind was maternal health care and the US was 19th globally -- behind Cuba.

    What a waste of time, money, and individual citizens lives to repeal health care. It can and should be made better as we go along, but right now there are millions of people receiving relief from it: they are Republicans, Democrats, independents and people who don't vote.

    The Republicans were invited to participate in ACA repeatedly while it was being crafted. And as I remember it they did. To me the repeal is politically motivated, not based on concern for the deficit or American lives or health.

  5. Hi Suzzane -- you have pretty much stated my position, and very clearly. We agree. It's not perfect. We all understand it's not going to be repealed. It needs a bunch of work over time. I'm okay with that. I have repeatedly stated my position on this blog about the reforms I like and those I'd still like to see. I do understand the left's frustration with the Republicans (a much stronger word is probably more appropriate) but am puzzled by the incendiary remarks about political stunts. The right could easily say they are just doing what they ran on in November. Not entirely true, but sounds like the same thing Obama supporters were saying when the right threw verbal flames at him. I'm doing my best to stay objective.

  6. KP, I appreciate your desire to be objective. I visit Hope and Change because of Joe's balanced viewpoint. There are few political web sites that I visit anymore because of arguing in the comments. I reacted to something you said. I like Joe's perspective and will be more careful about comments in the future.

  7. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Suzanne. To be clear, I didn't mean to imply your comments were incendiary in anyway. Quite the opposite! Like you, I visit Joe's blog because I like Joe, his style and I want to hear what he thinks -- as well as what he may be able to teach me. Best regards.