National Review Revives 'American Exceptionalism' Debate

Do the left and right hear those words differently?

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Despite what some see as MSNBC's leftward tilt, the network's First Read team usually tries hard to stay above the fray. This week, though, a debate over American exceptionalism proved too tempting for First Read's Mark Murray to resist.

Conservatives Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru began it all with a National Review cover story. Building on the familiar idea that the U.S. is "freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth," they argue that Obama's problem is that he doesn't share a belief in American exceptionalism. They see America as a country that, unlike European nations, has a healthy "national spirit" and no "disaffected proletariat." Yet Obama, they argue, is uncomfortable with American exceptionalism. He keeps wondering: "Why couldn't we be more like them--like the French, like the Swedes, like the Danes? Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society?" That's where his ideas on foreign policy and health care come from.

Mark Murray doesn't buy it. He notes that Obama specifically said he believed in American exceptionalism when he was asked about it at the NATO summit. The real issue, he argues, is that the left and right have different views of it: "the conservative definition of American exceptionalism--particularly in the National Review article--is aimed at Obama's efforts to reform the nation's health-care system, enact cap-and-trade (which, ironically, is based on market principles), etc." By contrast, looking at Obama's speeches, "you see a president with a different idea of American exceptionalism: America's unique ability to evolve and become a more perfect union."

Murray explains that historians have an different, narrower conception: they "typically regard American exceptionalism as why the U.S. didn't have socialist revolutions or strong working-class movements like most of Europe did in the 19th and early 20th centuries."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.