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.)
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)