The Left and the Right Have Abandoned American Exceptionalism

Democrats don’t think America lives up to liberal democratic ideals. Republicans don’t think Americans need to.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have a lot in common. They’re both courteous, charismatic and wonky. They’re both people of color who rose from modest means in part because their mothers fought to get them a decent education. They were both community organizers. And at tender ages they both challenged older, entrenched House Democrats, though Obama—in his 2000 race against Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush—lost.

One difference lies in the way they talk about America. Obama consistently acknowledged America’s racist history. He would never have declared, as George W. Bush did in his second inaugural that, “From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this Earth has rights and dignity and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of heaven and Earth. Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave.” I suspect Obama would have gagged on the words.

But Obama did suggest that America naturally ascends towards greater equality and justice. In his famous March 2008 speech in Philadelphia on race, he argued that, “The answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law.” In implying that progress was preordained, Obama was not trying to slight those Americans who struggled against injustice. To the contrary, he honored them frequently. But he depicted their struggles less as clashes of interests and values than as the unfolding of ideals and aspirations that most Americans shared. In the 2004 Democratic convention speech that first won him national attention, Obama spoke of the common “hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs” and of “immigrants setting out for distant shores.” To which Ta-Nehisi Coates acidly noted that, “Some of those same immigrants had firebombed the homes of the children of those same slaves.” Obama, Coates charged, “ascribed the country’s historical errors more to misunderstanding and the work of a small cabal than to any deliberate malevolence or widespread racism.”

Ocasio-Cortez does not. She depicts American history less as an arc of progress than as a circle, in which America repeats—rather than rises above—its past. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE’s) treatment of people of color, she told The Intercept, continues an American tradition: “The very first immigration policy law passed in the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1800s, and so the very bedrock of U.S. immigration policy, the very beginning of it was a policy based on racial exclusion.” She told New York magazine that, “child separation is a barbaric new iteration of what is going on, but for a very long time.”

Some of this difference can be explained by context. It’s easier to stress the continuities between America’s racist past and present when you’re running for Congress in a bright blue, fifty percent Latino district, than when you’re running for president. But Ocasio-Cortez isn’t unique. Democrats who likely are running for president have begun speaking about America in harsher ways too. In 2015, Bernie Sanders called America “a nation in which [in] many ways was created … on racist principles.” This February, Elizabeth Warren told the National Congress of American Indians that, “For generations — Congress after Congress, president after president — the government robbed you of your land, suppressed your languages, put your children in boarding schools and gave your babies away for adoption.” And she explicitly linked that past to the present, declaring that, “The kind of violence President [Andrew] Jackson and his allies perpetrated [against Native Americans] isn’t just an ugly chapter in a history book. Violence remains part of life today.”

Compare that to 2013 when Obama, in his only visit to an Indian reservation as president, told a crowd at Standing Rock merely that, “throughout history, the United States often didn’t give the nation-to-nation relationship the respect that it deserved” and that “There’s no denying that for some Americans the deck has been stacked against them, sometimes for generations. And that’s been the case for many Native Americans.”

What explains the change? One obvious answer is Donald Trump. When Obama spoke about American history as a narrative of unfolding progress, his own election served as Exhibit A. And while he acknowledged the conservative backlash it sparked, he described that backlash as temporary, a “fever” that would eventually “break.” But Trump shows that, far from breaking, the fever has intensified. Which raises the possibility that the real historical aberration was not the racist reaction to Obama’s presidency, but his presidency itself.

The shift, however, predates Trump’s election. Obama launched his political career in the 1990s and 2000s, an era relatively devoid of large-scale progressive activism. Cornel West has called it “an ice age.” That ice age began melting during Obama’s presidency, as the Occupy Movement (2011), immigrants’ rights protests (2012) and Black Lives Matter (2013) rose in rapid succession. These movements have given activists greater influence in the Democratic Party than they enjoyed a decade ago, and Democratic politicians have responded by adopting their angrier, less sentimental, language about America. After Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted Sanders’ rallies in 2015, he hired a supporter of the movement as his press secretary, and began adopting its rhetoric in his speeches. When explaining her decision to run for Congress, Ocasio-Cortez often cites her experience at the 2016 Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, where “I saw how a corporation had literally militarized itself against the American people, and I just felt like we were at a point where we couldn’t afford to ignore politics anymore.”

Her experience toggling back and forth between electoral politics and street activism—she worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign in early 2016, participated in protests at Standing Rock and Flint, Michigan late that year, began running for Congress in early 2017 and then left the campaign trail days before the election to protest immigration detention at the border—shows how intertwined progressive protest and Democratic politics have become. And that interconnection is bringing the language of leftist activism into the Democratic Party.

In different ways, Obama and Bush both spoke about America as embodying a set of ideas. Now neither Republicans nor Democrats are as likely to do so. Donald Trump doesn’t care about human rights. For him, America isn’t an idea; it’s a nation. And when it pursues universal ideals—by admitting refugees, eschewing torture, agreeing to environmental norms or aiding other nations—it gets ripped off. For Ocasio-Cortez, human rights matter intensely, but the United States has no special claim to embodying them. It’s hard to imagine her saying, as Obama often did, that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

On this July 4, the American left and right, which disagree on almost everything, are both turning against American exceptionalism. Democrats don’t think America lives up to liberal democratic ideals. Republicans don’t think Americans need to.