Recently, Media Matters caught Jonah Goldberg using, in an essay he published in the Los Angeles Times, language “strikingly similar” to that found in Sarah Palin’s America by Heart to accuse Barack Obama of not adhering to “American Exceptionalism.” As literary transgressions go, this one is minor. After all, when an idea has been abused as much as the right has abused “American Exceptionalism,” what matters a wee bit of plagiarism? Over the last year, the term has become something of an idée fixe among conservatives, fueling the fear that the first African-American president is turning the United States into, if not Zimbabwe, then just another run-of-the-mill European social democracy. Obama either “doesn’t believe“ in American Exceptionalism, says Glenn Beck, or “doesn’t understand” it, thinks Newt Gingrich. Just last week, John Boehner, in his response to Obama’s State of the Union address, complained that the Democrats refuse “to talk about American Exceptionalism.” With the Republican coalition pulled in different directions, it seems that a bedrock faith in the uniqueness of the United States is the only emotional glue—apart from rising Islamo- and Latino-phobia—holding the party together. Google “American Exceptionalism” and you will be led to the musings of all the leading Republicans—Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, Gingrich, Liz Cheney, Dinesh D’Souza and, of course, Palin—who, using America as their mirror, preen their own awesomeness.
Perhaps because I work primarily on Latin America—where many too believe in American Exceptionalism, yet America defined as all of the Western Hemisphere and not just the United States—I began noticing early on the right’s revival of the phrase. Gingrich says it “comes from the Declaration of Independence.” Um, I hate to break it to the Republicans’ house intellectual, but it actually doesn’t. The phrase itself, as far as I know, was first coined as a Stalinist slur against Trotskyists and Lovestonians in the 1920s, part of the great doctrinal debates that eventually split the Marxist left, an irony likely lost on many of its current promoters.
In the hands of Palin, Beck, et al., American Exceptionalism boils down to little more than a synonym for the tautology “we are powerful because we are God-blessed; we are God-blessed because we are powerful.” Yet sweep away the congratulatory cant about a “city on a hill” and “light unto the world” and you will find two fundamentals that do in fact underwrite US uniqueness: a stronger stress on individual rights, particularly property rights, than that found in other democracies (particularly social democracies), balanced against an equally strong commitment to anti-populism, meant to diffuse the passions generated by a too extreme pursuit of individualism. I’m sure those familiar with other areas of US foreign policy can point to other examples, but I’ve found repeated instances, running from the American Revolution through the cold war, where US political elites defined their brand of sober republicanism against what they labeled an irresponsible variety in Latin America, which not only trespassed against private property in the name of social justice but whipped up a crowd to do so.
So here’s an even greater irony: even as the right defines individual supremacy as the essence of American Exceptionalism, it forsakes a Madisonian restraint in pursuit of electoral gain. It is hard to think of another moment in US history where one half of the political establishment is, as the Republican party is today, so dependent on fanning the extremes and playing to the paranoia in order to win at the polls. American Exceptionalism does seem to be dead or dying but at the hands of those who embrace it the most tightly.