In 2008, when asked if he believed in American exceptionalism, President Obama responded, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
This reminded me of the wonderful scene in Pixar’s The Incredibles in which the mom says, “Everyone’s special,” and her son replies, “Which is another way of saying no one is.”
But at least the president made room for the sentiment that America is a special place, even if he chalked it up to a kind of benign provincialism. Not so Michael Kinsley, who recently penned an essay for Politico titled “U.S. is not greatest country ever,” in which he mocked those who traffic in this exceptionalism nonsense.
Not to be outdone, Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart railed against the GOP’s “lunatic notion” of America’s exceptionalism. In particular, Beinart was infuriated by Senator-elect Marco Rubio’s claim that “America is the single greatest nation in all of human history.” Doesn’t the Florida politician know, Beinart wonders, that China and Brazil are opening opportunities to their citizens too? According to Beinart, Rubio — the son of Cuban exiles — is too ideologically blinkered to know that “the American dream of upward mobility is alive and well, just not in America.”
What’s bizarre about Beinart and Kinsley’s rendition of American exceptionalism is that it hinges on the premise that the idea of American exceptionalism is an artifact of right-wing jingoism, xenophobia, or ignorance. Even Obama flirts with this sort of thing every time he chalks up opposition to his agenda to the fear, bigotry, or small-mindedness of the “bitter” souls “clinging” to their antiquarian beliefs.
Forget that every Fourth of July we celebrate the fact that we fought the Revolutionary War to become an exceptional nation. From their dismissive condescension, you’d think these three educated men didn’t know that American exceptionalism has been a well-established notion among scholars for more than a century.
“The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, “and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” Ever since, historians have argued that America’s lack of a feudal past, its Puritan roots, the realism of its revolutionary ambitions, and many other ingredients contributed to America’s status as the “first new nation,” to borrow a phrase from Seymour Martin Lipset, who spent his life writing about American exceptionalism.
E. L. Godkin, the Irish-born editor of The Nation, observed in 1867 that the lack of a class-based system, the existence of an open frontier, and an optimism that comes with political and economic liberty marked the U.S. as a very different land from Britain, never mind the European continent. In 1906, German sociologist Werner Sombart released his book Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? in which he pointed to similar factors.
Ever since, left-leaning intellectuals have been taking dead aim at American exceptionalism. The notion that America has its own way of doing things — separate and distinct from Europe’s — has been one of the greatest impediments to Europeanizing America’s political and economic institutions.
Now that Europe has turned its back — at least temporarily — on lavish Keynesian spending, folks like Beinart must turn to developing countries such as China and Brazil for inspiration. Countries that pay millions of workers pennies a day are not normally role models for the Left. But, hey, if it makes Republicans appear backward, they’ll give it a shot.
Ultimately, it’s not that liberals don’t believe in American exceptionalism so much as they believe it is holding America back, which might explain why they’re lashing out at the people who want to keep it exceptional. But that too is nothing new. “The Coolidge myth has been created by amazingly skillful propaganda,” editorialized The Nation in 1924 about the unfathomable popularity of Calvin Coolidge. “The American people dearly love to be fooled.”
For the record, I’m with Rubio. America is the greatest country in the world. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. But it is, and remains, the last best hope of Earth.
But, by all means, Democrats, listen to the sophisticates who chortle at the idea that there’s anything especially good about America. That will solve Obama’s “communication problem.”
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.