The Strange Career of American Exceptionalism

The Strange Career of American Exceptionalism

The Strange Career of American Exceptionalism

…and Barack Obama’s curious role as its most ardent recent champion and prominent victim.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.

The phrase “American exceptionalism” has become a quintessential crisis term. It indicates not the certainty we associate with superpower but the dread that this power is dissipating. It’s arrogant, as many critics point out; that arrogance, however, masks self-doubt. If it were possible to do a Google search to correlate words with emotion, the feeling most associated with the term today would be anxiety, the fear that comes when the world turns suddenly unfamiliar and the ground gives way under your feet—as happened, for many, when a black man was elected president of the United States.

Barack Obama entered the White House in early 2009, in the midst of one of the worst crises in American history, brought about by the combined disasters of neoliberal financial deregulation and neoconservative militarism. Even before he was elected president, early in the 2007–8 primary season, it was Obama—not his main Democratic competitors, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards—who became the standard-bearer of American exceptionalism: “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he told a New York Times columnist a month before the Iowa caucus in January 2008. “Listen to his campaign speeches,” said Douglas Wilder, then the mayor of Richmond, Virginia, in February 2008, “and you will hear something not heard often enough at Democratic rallies: the crowd chanting ‘U-S-A’ and the speaker making the case for American exceptionalism.”

On the stump, Obama offered an inclusive vision of patriotism, using his own success to celebrate the country’s meritocracy and as proof that racial division could be overcome through the gradual extension of liberal political equality. “Our exceptionalism,” he said in 2008, “must be based on our Constitution, our principles, our values, and our ideals.” For decades, going back to the triumph of Reagan in 1980, liberal Democrats had advanced similar themes, in the hopes of reclaiming the mantle of patriotism from Republicans.

Obama, however, invoked the exceptionalism of the United States less as a rearguard action against ascendant Republican nationalism than as a calming technique, a way to normalize his threatening self. The intensity of the birther movement’s racism can only be understood once we realize that it was driven not by a belief that Obama was a foreigner, but by an intuitive recognition that he was archetypally American—albeit with a biography that reminds us of our slaver, settler, neocolonial, imperial, and militaristic past. He was born in Hawaii—which was annexed by the United States in the late 19th century, after Washington supported a planter overthrow of the indigenous sovereign—in August 1961, just two years after that colony became a state. His mother was an anthropologist—a suspect discipline if ever there was one—and his father a left-wing, anticolonial Ken­yan economist who had immigrated to Hawaii largely because of the political turmoil sparked by US Cold War machinations in Central Africa (just a few months before Obama’s birth, the CIA had helped assassinate Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo—one of the most consequential political killings of the 20th century). He was raised in Indonesia in the late 1960s, shortly after the CIA helped engineer a genocidal coup in that country, which resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands. And he identifies as an African American. Obama’s very being serves as an avatar of a history that had long been erased from public discourse. Dinesh D’Souza, in best sellers like The Roots of Obama’s Rage and Obama’s America, has carved out a late-career niche tapping into America’s mass social projection, attributing the settler-colonial frenzy that motivates much of the right to Obama himself.

Obama is no radical, yet unlike past presidents he is aware—and often seems to recognize the legitimacy—of a radical interpretation of American history, even if he doesn’t share it himself. “I’m certainly mindful that there are dark chapters in our own history,” Obama said last March, during his historic visit to Cuba (an island nation that shares much history with the place of Obama’s birth). One gets the sense that the cautiousness of his public statements and the conservatism of many of his policies owe less to economic or psychological factors, as many left critics have it, than to an acute awareness of the backlash that would ensue were Americans forced to reckon with these “dark chapters.” The embrace of American exceptionalism allowed our first black president to use his personal success as a way to present this history in more palatable terms, as a story of progress toward a more perfect union—“my entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism,” he once said—while at the same time signaling to an unsettled electorate that he would seek to solve the multiple calamities inherited from his predecessor not with radical solutions, but on familiar terms.

Obama’s election didn’t just touch a nerve; it drove an ice pick into the medulla spinalis of his opponents. In the Tea Party and the Republican Congress, on Fox News and talk radio, conservatives were hysterical in their denunciations of Obama as an existential threat to “America.” Over the course of his two terms, American exceptionalism has, for his right-wing enemies, become a catch-all for conveying Obama’s perversity. All of the GOP leadership, especially those who hoped to replace him in 2012 or 2016—Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, Rudy Giuliani, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, even Tim Pawlenty, among others—serially accused him of not believing that America was unique, taking every instance that Obama recognized there were limits to American supremacy, every time he acknowledged “dark chapters,” as an apology for American power. “I’m convinced he wants Americans to be ashamed of success,” Romney said at one point. Down-ticket Republicans joined the fray: South Carolina Representative Jeff Duncan, who in 2012 promised to “unleash American exceptionalism” on his own constituents, ran against Obama’s supposed faithlessness.

For eight years it’s gone thus, with Republican leaders and their rank-and-file fire-eaters effectively terminating the ideological utility of “American exceptionalism,” transforming a concept that once had the power to reconcile competing, contradictory ideas about what it meant to be American into a political cudgel, a buzzword on par with “Benghazi” or “Sidney Blumenthal” that might arouse a rump core of supporters but had become increasingly meaningless to a majority of voters. “We believe in American exceptionalism,” affirms the first sentence of the 2016 platform of the Republican Party, which then nominated Donald Trump as its presidential candidate. “I don’t like the term,” President-elect Trump says.

It remains to be asked, though: What was American exceptionalism?

* * *

The term entered the public lexicon in the late 1940s, at the start of the Cold War, and was used mostly by sociologists and political theorists to describe the things that America lacked—feudalism, for example, or class consciousness—to explain why its history was different from Europe’s (often to answer the question “Why is there no socialism in America?”). It wasn’t until decades later, after Reagan’s election as president, that politicians and intellectuals began to use the term as a counter to the cynicism generated by the multiple shocks of the 1960s and ’70s: the defeat in Vietnam, racial conflicts and urban riots, assassinations, Watergate, the Church Committee report on US covert activity and CIA crimes, and the breakdown of postwar Keynesianism. For a rising New Right looking to remoralize American militarism, the concept of American exceptionalism became a useful organizing principle. Recently, Elliott Abrams, a prominent neoconservative intellectual and former policy-maker in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, defined the phrase in vague, amorphous terms as “a belief in the goodness of America and in the benefits of American power and of its use.”

In 1981, however, at the start of the Reagan Revolution, Abrams was more specific about the problem such a belief sought to remedy. “We need a military response to the Soviets,” he wrote in an influential State Department memo, but “we also need an ideological response. Our struggle is for political liberty.” Jimmy Carter’s human-rights policy was a good start. “Human rights,” said Abrams, who would later plead guilty for withholding information in the Iran-contra scandal, “is at the core of our foreign policy because it is central to what America is and stands for.” But “human rights” as understood in the late ’70s and early ’80s was too fluid a concept, too easily used to criticize allies and condemn US policy.

Ultimately, Abrams thought, the phrase was unsalvageable, associated as it was with social and economic rights. He recommended that the State Department begin to “move away” from its use altogether and instead substitute “individual rights,” “political rights,” and “civil liberties.” “We can,” he added, “move on to a name change at another time.”

The name change that the right would eventually settle on: “American exceptionalism.”

By the early 1990s, the crisis generated by the loss in Vietnam appeared to be over. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had collapsed, leaving the United States as the world’s sole superpower. By the last year of Bill Clinton’s first term as president, upwards of 75 percent of adults, according to Seymour Martin Lipset’s American Exceptionalism, were “proud” to be Americans, by far the highest patriotic ranking of any Western nation. In retrospect, though, the end of the Cold War created a new set of uncertainties. With the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the first Gulf War in 1991, militarists had been stunningly successful in restoring a sense of purpose to American power. Power certain of its purpose, however, is a highly unstable element if it doesn’t have a credible enemy to stand against. And so, in the early months of the Clinton administration, then–UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright kicked off the golden age of post–Cold War humanitarian interventionism, which would see the deployment of American military force for ends not exclusively related to matters of national security, with this question: “What’s the point of having this superb military,” she asked Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Colin Powell, who had expressed reluctance for an armed US intervention in the Bosnian War, “if we can’t use it?”

In 2000, Paul Wolfowitz—who as deputy secretary of defense under George W. Bush would soon help execute the Iraq War—applauded Clinton’s hawkishness. “American forces under President Clinton’s command have been bombing Iraq with some regularity for months now,” Wolfowitz noted, and the president had been using “American forces in operations involving tens of thousands of troops in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq—and to conduct military strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan.” But the bombing was “facile and complacent.” Without a real threat to snap America out of its belly-patting smugness, Wolfowitz worried—echoing a lament common among neoconservatives before 9/11— Washington’s projection of military power was too easy. There was no real burden to shoulder, “virtually no American casualties” in Clinton’s wars. It sounded like a complaint.

Clinton often left it to Albright, who had become his secretary of state, to answer the charge that his foreign policy lacked focus. “We are America,” Albright said in 1998; “we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” She made those remarks in reference to the siege of Iraq, not long after she infamously said that starving half a million children was “worth” the “price” of containing Saddam Hussein, and not long before Clinton launched a four-day cruise-missile assault that killed scores of civilians.

* * *

Of course, Albright was talking about war when she defined the United States as the indispensable nation, for American exceptionalism is unmistakably a war cry, born out of violent Christian schism. That exact phrase is relatively new, but the idea that America represents a rejuvenating force in human history is old, emerging out of Europe’s interminable religious conflicts in the 16th and 17th centuries. Starting in the early 1600s, Protestant reformers, depending on the baroque intricacies of their particular theology, might have understood New World migration as a way of escaping European war. Or they might have seen colonial settlement as a chance to extend the battlefield, winning those wars on new soil, with the salvation or elimination of Native Americans as part of the final eschatological victory. Either way, America was a redeemer, an idea renewed during various religious awakenings, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the pacification of western lands, a war against Mexico and then one against Spain, and two world wars.

With the shock of 9/11, the narcissism at the core of American exceptionalism turned manic—but not immediately. At first, in the days just after the attack, columnists and letter writers more often than not referenced the term as a criticism, worried that Washington would react with too jingoistic a retaliation. The Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman, writing in the Los Angeles Times, held out hope that the suffering might offer a chance to forge a new, humane internationalism, to end the United States’ “famous exceptionalism.”

But starting around late 2002, with the war in Afghanistan under way and the Bush administration making its case for invading Iraq, American exceptionalism became the property of neoconservatives: the idea that Washington, with boots on the ground and bombs, could force what it called a democratic revolution on the Greater Middle East. “Faith, freedom, and American exceptionalism” became, according to the journalist Craig Gilbert, “pet themes” in Bush’s speeches, especially those prepping the public for war.

From the conservative National Review to the mainstream New York Times, a stream of articles appeared using the concept of American exceptionalism to justify this or that aspect of the coming war. As some US allies began to balk at invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, one influential columnist announced that our “exceptional” history meant we had the right to “disregard other nations.” To those who thought oil was the reason we were going into Iraq, another opinion-maker said no, it was because of American exceptionalism, our “impulse to do good in the world.”

Charlie Rose began regularly asking guests on his show if they believed in American exceptionalism. Oh yes, most said, there is something different about America. Mainstream historians—the kind PBS and NPR roll out during presidential elections—were asked if American exceptionalism was real. Oh yes, “we have always believed in American exceptionalism,” as one put it. Another scholar, who had spent his whole previous career stressing the “realist” roots of US foreign policy, suddenly turned face, reporting that the origins of Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” could be traced to the idealism of America’s founders.

The failure of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq did little to confirm that exceptionalism. Faith dies hard. For many Americans, the reports coming in from Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Falluja, and elsewhere established that the war was not just illegal in conception, but deceptive in its justification and immoral in its execution. Those who continued to support it, however—especially those who hoped the Iraq adventure would once and for all change America’s domestic culture, overcoming the “Vietnam syndrome” and creating a citizenry willing, even eager, to wage war as part of its national purpose—adopted an increasingly strident version of American exceptionalism.

Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush had emphasized lofty versions of the creed, designed to transcend the divisions of the 1960s. Counternotes of aggrievement, common to all nationalisms, were muted under the main chords of unity, high purpose, and good cheer. But with the Iraq War, especially with the never-ending debate on torture illustrated by those photographs from Abu Ghraib, appeals to American exceptionalism turned into a truculent nationalism, a rallying cry for a people that believed itself under siege. “Necessary roughness,” Max Boot called the torture; don’t let international law get in the way of carrying out Bush’s Freedom Agenda.

Unilateralism, offered by the neocons first as a policy doctrine, evolved into shrill sentiment—an injured refusal to feel guilt or admit wrongdoing transmuted into what only its adherents believed to be a positive virtue. During one famous interview on Meet the Press, Dick Cheney argued that what made Americans exceptional was that it was they, and they alone, who were worth being considered victims of torture. Asked about the legality of his administration’s policy, Cheney said: “I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture. It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.” There’s no comparison between that, he added, and “anything we did with respect to enhanced interrogation.” Americans can only be tortured; they can never actually torture, even when they are by definition torturing. As a reflection of pure ideology, it might be the most honest thing Cheney has ever said.

* * *

Then came Barack Obama and his efforts to rehabilitate the term. Why did he drive them so crazy? Race and racism is the answer—the fact that Obama was not just America’s first African-American president, but someone whose life trajectory shadowed America’s neocolonial and interventionist history. I don’t mean race as a stand-alone mechanical variable, in opposition to, say, class or sex. Rather, I mean it in the way that race is imprinted on this country’s political culture: the way in which, in both domestic and foreign policy, the antagonism between individual and social rights is inescapably racialized.

A settler-colonial nation founded on the elimination of Native Americans and the subjugation of Africans and African Americans, the United States did indeed develop an exceptional political culture. At its core, that culture, once it is stripped of its alternating moods of optimism and ressentiment, is a fundamentalist faith in the virtue of inherent individual rights, understood to be “natural” in the terminology of philosophers—among them, the right to property, the right to the product of one’s own labor, the right to guns, and, most important, the right to call on the power of the state to protect those rights. It is this conception of individual rights that Elliott Abrams and other Reagan-administration officials successfully sought to codify as official policy. As a corollary, any positive action by the state to protect or extend collective social rights is reflexively understood to be an “unnatural” threat to freedom.

Over the course of centuries, as Obama points out in his progressive version of American exceptionalism, heroic struggle has expanded the original promise of liberalism to cover more and more people. But one consequence of the New Right’s successful ideological project in the 1980s was to re-racialize individualism, albeit in coded, often subconscious form. Put another way, the fever of individual supremacy that today grips the modern American right is, whether its members know it or not, white supremacy. This helps explain all those Confederate flags that started appearing at Tea Party rallies and later at Trump rallies, and why conservative politicians can’t help equating federal policies they don’t like with chattel bondage. Believing in the “right to health care,” Rand Paul once said, is “basically saying you believe in slavery.”

Barack Obama isn’t a socialist. I hold to the left-wing critique that his two terms in office were a missed opportunity to move America, after the catastrophe of the Iraq War and the 2008 financial collapse, toward more sustainable economic and foreign policies. The codification of extrajudicial assassination through the use of drones and the unaccountability of finance and corporate capitalism are moral outrages; the ongoing, even increasing, reliance on fossil fuels is terrifying. Yet Obama clearly believes in public policy, including government intervention in the economy to correct market imbalances. And any kind of public policy, even Obama’s mild to-the-right-of-Eisenhower, to-the-right-even-of-Nixon variety, violates the absolutism of American conservatives, who now hold that the sole function of the state is to protect individual rights.

That Obama was a person of color who had come to power during a severe social crisis, when citizens’ trust in markets and militarism was more wobbly than at any time since 1974, and that he put forward a progressive interpretation of American exceptionalism at a moment when the neocon version was devolving into the failed faith of a belligerent remnant, added to the rage. When Obama’s opponents charge him with trying to turn the United States into both Sweden and Zimbabwe, they are voicing two sides of a single fear, in which social rights (Sweden) would produce an irresponsible, unvirtuous state governed by racial criminals (Zimbabwe).

* * *

Since Reagan, the power of the concept of American exceptionalism has resided in its ability to reconcile contradictions and unite opposites, helping people make sense of the gap between the ideal and the real. Obama took office when that gap seemed unbridgeable, when the reality of America as a war-making, torturing, unjust, and economically untenable society made a mockery of his predecessor’s ideal that America was the world’s most effective instrument of “human freedom.”

Obama worked hard, rhetorically, to close the gap. “No American president,” The Washington Post observed, “has talked about American exceptionalism more often and in more varied ways than Obama.” Having inherited an endless global war, faced with a recalcitrant opposition seemingly possessed by the ghosts of the Confederacy, and burdened with governing a profoundly violent nation, Obama strived for synthesis. “I’m big and full of contradictions,” he reportedly told one of his speechwriters, riffing on Walt Whitman, as they worked on a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma. In those remarks, Obama presented American history as a process of becoming, of brave men and women fighting to transcend slavery and racism. Selma, he said, “is the manifestation of the creed written into our founding documents…a permission structure for change.”

Obama’s recomposition of American exceptionalism was tactically successful, at least as measured by his 2012 reelection, which expanded the multiracial and cross-class coalition that had given him the White House four years earlier. But it isn’t sustainable, and it hasn’t even survived his presidency. There are many ways that Trump’s wildfire victory represents the death knell of American exceptionalism. America was unique, we told ourselves, because it was able to keep fringe candidates at the margin—but now Trump and his followers wield the combined power of the federal government. America was unique because its political self-governance was founded on the idea of individual self-governance, on the ability of our leaders to use reason and virtue to contain their impulses and vices (Obama was preternaturally self-controlled and self-regulated). But Trump is pure id and appetite.

As an organizing principle, American exceptionalism—in any version, conservative or progressive—can’t really explain America to itself, or to the world, anymore. Even before the ascendancy of Trump, it often seemed that Obama himself barely believed in it, at least when it came to foreign policy. In 2011, he justified the bombing of Libya by harking back to Madeleine Albright, calling America an “indispensable” force for good in the world. Today, though, as he reaches the end of his presidency, Obama talks more about his struggles to rein in what he calls the “machinery of our national-security apparatus,” taking more pride in having resisted the momentum to bomb Syria than he does in having helped overthrow Gadhafi. Obama presided over a global counterinsurgency, drone, and bombing campaign, but now he hardly tries to defend it, except in terms of national security. Trump takes this disenchantment to its logical end, presenting the objectives of foreign policy purely as achieving national defense and securing economic advantage. He’ll torture, bomb, drone, and trade, and he won’t even pretend to do so in the name of universal humanity.

More importantly, the competing impulses that have historcally comprised American exceptionalism have split apart, moving in two opposite directions. One way, Christian nationalism beckons, driven by the fears of white Protestants—exceptionalism’s core constituency since before the Mayflower—who are still (despite the 2016 election results) declining as a percentage of the electorate. Donald Trump is their standard-bearer. The other way, socialism calls to younger voters who, burdened by debt and confronting a bleak labor market, are embracing the legitimacy of social rights and questioning American-style capitalism. According to a recent Harvard poll, 47 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 believe that “basic necessities, such as food and shelter, are a right that the government should provide to those unable to afford them.” Forty-eight percent think “basic health insurance is a right for all people.”

A belief in its exceptionalism has long been the way that America suppressed these two opposing positions, reconciling both racism and demands for social rights in a vibrant, forward-looking Americanism that presented itself as the highest expression of liberal universalism. I doubt, though, that any post-Trump president will be able to put the pieces back together. Hillary Clinton, in her failed campaign for the presidency, tried, saying that she believes “with all my heart that America is an exceptional country.” But her appeals to American uniqueness were burdened by a discredited hawkishness and were tone-deaf to hardship, incapable of adapting an old idea to new times. “America has always been great,” Clinton tweeted during the campaign. OK.

Rather, coming generations will face a stark choice—a choice long deferred by the emotive power of American exceptionalism, but set forth in vivid relief by this election cycle: the choice between barbarism and socialism, or at least social democracy.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy