How Joseph Stalin Invented 'American Exceptionalism'

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The phrase is often attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, but the real author was the Soviet dictator -- and it wasn't a compliment.

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Reuters (Gingrich); Wikimedia Commons (Tocqueville and Stalin)

Rick Santorum and the rest of GOP presidential gang all have a man-crush. Considering he was an outright intellectual elitist, a shaggy-haired liberal, and -- horror of horrors -- French, the object of their adoration seems a bit surprising, but the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville and his 1835 United States travelogue, Democracy in America, have surged into national politics this campaign cycle -- often linked to the nascent expression "American exceptionalism."

Across the nation, from Plano, Texas, to Keene, N.H., Santorum has brandished Tocqueville, lecturing on how America got revolution right while France didn't. Last year Gingrich published A Country Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters, a book overflowing with praise for the Parisian writer. Going further still, the former speaker narrated a 2011 documentary called City Upon a Hill, which is produced by Citizens United (yes, that Citizens United). If you guessed that it leads with Tocqueville, you're right.  

The trailer opens like something out of Lord of the Rings: inspirational music, horses galloping through verdant terrain, and the soothing voice of the biggest hobbit of them all -- Gingrich. "During his travels in 1831, French writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed that America was an exceptional nation with a special role to play in human history," he intones. "American exceptionalism has been at the center of our nation's experience for nearly 400 years."

There's only one problem with that: It's not strictly true. Although a superiority complex has long pervaded the national psyche, the expression "American exceptionalism" only became big a few years ago. (In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton called on Americans to "vindicate the honor of the human race.") What's more, Tocqueville didn't invent the term. Who did? Joseph Stalin.

In the 1920s, the lingering specter of World War I and austere German reparations battered Europe's market-based economy, giving rise to class tension and stark inequality. For worn-down workers, socialism and communism started sounding like pretty good ideas. A world revolution -- indeed, the rise of the proletariat -- seemed possible, and the Communist International was stoked.

But the Americans just wouldn't fall into line. The United States had long since passed the United Kingdom as the world's largest industrial power, but hadn't yet plunged into the Great Depression. To members of the U.S. Communist Party, it was a paradox. Why, in the what appeared to be the purest capitalist Western economy wasn't there any desire for egalitarianism? Had Marx been wrong when he wrote socialism would, inexorably and universally, emerge from the ruins of capitalism? 

America's radical left considered the national condition, contrasted it with Europe, and concluded leftism would be a hard sell stateside thanks to characteristics forged along the frontier. Americans were different: individualistic, profit-crazed, broadly middle class, and as tolerant of inequality as they were reverent of economic freedom. The nation had "unlimited reserves of American imperialism," lamented Communist propaganda at the time. 

In 1929, Communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn't interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this "heresy of American exceptionalism." And just like that, this expression was born. What Lovestone meant, and how Stalin understood it, however, isn't how Gingrich and Romney (or even Obama) frame it. Neither Lovestone or Stalin felt that the United States was superior to other nations -- actually, the opposite. Stalin "ridiculed" America for its abnormalities, which he cast under the banner of "exceptionalism," Daniel Rodgers, a professor of history at Princeton, said in an interview.

Stalin, to say the least, wasn't happy with Lovestone's news. "Who do you think you are?" he shouted, according to Ted Morgan's biography of Lovestone. "(Leon) Trotsky defied me. Where is he? (Grigory) Zinoviev defied me. Where is he? (Nikolai) Bukharin defied me. Where is he? And you! Who are you? Yes, you will go back to America. But when you get back there, nobody will know you except your wives."

As the Great Depression enveloped the United States, Stalin's argument -- if not his bluster -- seemed well grounded. "Exceptionalism was a disease, a chronic disease," wrote communist S. Milgrom of Chicago in 1930. "The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism," the American Communist Party declared at its convention in April 1930. 

Communist leader Jay Lovestone said the American proletariat wasn't interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this "heresy of American exceptionalism."

Of course, the predictions failed: with the help of war, and despite Franklin Roosevelt's new welfare state, the U.S. economy stayed on the capitalist track. As American communism receded, so did talk of exceptionalism in leftist circles. Dismissive references appeared in academic research now and again, but usually in relation to communism's failure in America. Not until the 1980s did it suddenly reemerge, charged with a new connotation of national superiority. According to a Factiva survey, The New York Times was the first mainstream outlet to revive "American exceptionalism," when in 1980 Richard J. Tofel implored Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to defend this distinctive cultural aesthetic: "As our unquestioned supremacy recedes, we need to decide what "America" means to us, and what it means to the world."

Sound familiar? Over the following 20 years, there was a lot more talk like this; exceptionalism appeared in national publications 457 times. The next decade had it 2,558 times. But since 2010, it's gone viral, leaping into print and online publications roughly 4,172 times.   

How did a phrase intended as derision become a rallying cry of American awesomeness? As significant portions of the electorate -- think Southern Democrats -- shifted toward the GOP in the 1960s and 1970s, conservative thinkers charted a new Republican identity emboldened by triumphalism and uncompromising patriotism. Doubting exceptionalism became "un-American." Looking to history for more evidence, conservative intellectuals stumbled across Tocqueville, who in Democracy in America had described a nation as "exceptional" for its devotion to practicality over art or science. He lent enough oomph to credibly define America as categorically transcendent, Rodgers said.

It worked. In a 2010 Gallup Poll, 80 percent of Americans agreed that based on history and the Constitution, the United States was the "greatest country in the world." American exceptionalism, along with flag pins shining from one's lapel, is one of the rare issues where Republicans and Democrats agree. In 2009, President Obama said in Strasbourg, France, that he subscribed to American exceptionalism (just as other nations, he stressed, should feel the same about their own country). Gingrich used the phrase 44 times in his recent book. For whatever reason, its author, Stalin, didn't even get a cameo.

Then last year during a debate in early September -- with dissatisfaction toward the economy as high as late 2008 -- Republican presidential candidates harped on American exceptionalism time and again. Before that, not a single incumbent or candidate had employed the expression in a presidential debate, transcripts at the American Presidency Project's website show.

It's hardly surprising such talk has accelerated recently. Everywhere you look, headlines, pundits, and academics prophesy the demise of Pax Americana and the "rise of the rest," as Fareed Zakaria termed it. We're gripped by concern we'll soon be a nation of austerity and dependency, not opportunity, that America's spiraling into insolvency with Greece. It's the same context in which Tofel revived the term 32 years ago.

In 2008, candidate Obama said fear makes people cling to religion, guns, and xenophobia. He was flayed for it in the media -- and, in some respects, rightly so. But there was an element of truth to his remarks, and there's a powerful parallel to the nation overall. In our secular state, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are as close to sacred relics of an established religion as it gets. Just look at how their air-tight casings in Washington, D.C. mimic saints' reliquaries. 

Belief in America has taken on the desperate certitude of zealotry, as if the more we express it and the firmer our conviction, the more we might somehow succeed at wishing it true. And that it will stay true forever. Peel a few layers back and the rise of faith in American exceptionalism doesn't evince superiority. It indicates fear.

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Presented by

Terrence McCoy

Terrence M. McCoy is the Gordon Grey Fellow of International Journalism at Columbia University.

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