Wednesday, December 1, 2010

American exceptionalism in the news

One of the more arcane of the keywords of American studies--"exceptionalism"--is currently in the news, as several Republicans have recently either denounced President Obama for not believing in American exceptionalism (despite the fact that he has publicly asserted that he does) or given speeches arguing for a restoration of a belief in American exceptionalism.

Here's a link to a front-page Washington Post story on the subject. I'd be interested in comments from readers of this blog, especially if you've read something about "exceptionalism" that you think would contribute to the discussion.

1 comment:

Kaylyn said...

It is really interesting to see this concept entering the political discourse in such a direct way! I personally don't think Obama's statement, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism," reflects any lack of faith in the United States, but rather, that it does reflect an awareness of the pride and the sense of responsibility that other nations have. The "city upon a hill" mentality is of course most often applied to American politics, but it is not an exclusively American way of thinking about governance.

One reading that came to mind when you asked if we'd read anything on the topic, Dr. Hendler, was Henry Luce's "The American Century." He says that "In the field of national policy, the fundamental trouble with America has been, and is, that whereas their nation became in the 20th century the most powerful and the most vital nation in the world, nevertheless Americans were unable to accommodate themselves spiritually and practically to that fact...and the cure is this: to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit."

This duality between opportunity and responsibility seems to be where most debate around American exceptionalism arises, and why I think Obama might have shied away from making speeches supporting the ideology. To claim American exceptionalism is not just to say that we are best equipped to fix societal problems--it is also to say that we are the only nation who can, so we are morally obliged to do so.

It seems like President Obama is being criticized for talking around the matter of exceptionalism rather than wholeheartedly supporting it, but if Obama really claimed the responsibilities to the world that exceptionalism implies, and then failed to complete them (as he almost certainly would), wouldn't we criticize him for making promises to the world that the United States can't keep?

I know we read more on this in my "America in the 21st Century" class- I'll keep thinking!