American Exceptionalism: A Nicer Way to Say Obama Isn't One of Us?

Why every Republican presidential contender is talking about an obscure scholarly term these days

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Is America awesome or too awesome? This question appears to be the most pressing campaign issue among the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and a handful of other hopefuls have weighed in on whether President Obama believes in "American exceptionalism," a phrase once relegated to history departments that now serves as a rallying cry to many conservatives, The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty reports.

It all began 18 months ago when Obama commented on America's role in the world in France, saying that other countries probably think they're pretty exceptional, too. "Some," Tumulty writes, "wonder whether Obama's conservative critics are sounding an alarm about the United States' place in the world - or making an insidious suggestion about the president himself. With a more intellectual sheen than the false assertions that Obama is secretly a Muslim or that he was born in Kenya, an argument over American exceptionalism" is a classier way to imply that Obama isn't like the rest of us. After all, Obama has repeatedly referenced the greatness of the U.S., particularly in the 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention that made the then-Illinois state senator famous. Then, he recalled the words of the Declaration of Independence, saying it was "the true genius of America."

  • A Rallying Cry for Sarah Palin's Aggrieved White Voters, Amanda Marcotte writes at The Guardian. In her latest book, Palin writes at Americans aren't "saying we're better than anyone else," and then proceeds to say exactly that, Marcotte writes. "The hint (if you missed it) should be clear for her readers – America is better than everyone else. At least, their version of America. Which is another way of saying that they – aggrieved white conservative voters – have some unique, if hard-to-pin-down quality of awesomeness lacking in all foreigners and all merely technical Americans whom Palin has excluded from her beloved category of Real Americans."
  • This Explains the Tea Party, Ed Morrissey writes at Hot Air. Pointing to Bill Whittle's video series about what conservatives believe--one that concludes with a discussion of American exceptionalism--Morrissey observes that American dominance can't be an accident, given that we have just 5 percent of the world's population. "We have achieved leadership in military, economic, scientific, and cultural arenas because of the environment fostered by the American state — a state that allows its citizens the widest latitude for creativity and innovation, where success gets rewarded without government approvals and bureaucratic interference. That environment is in danger of disappearing, which is why the Tea Party has arisen: to stop the trend towards nanny-state stagnation and the inexorable erosion of the very freedoms that have put the US into the position of global leadership."
  • American Exceptionalism: Works for Pretty Much Any Argument, as in Matt Lewis's post at Politics Daily on Americans' revolt against the new nudie scanners at airports. "This skepticism of governmental authority is healthy. What is more, it is patently American. I may be wrong, but I'm unaware of others around the world sparking similar uprisings over airport security. Americans are, in fact, exceptional. We're seeing it more and more these days. ... The TSA passenger rebellion is merely the latest example of American exceptionalism and is perfectly in keeping with the nation's ethos."
  • This Is Not Jingoism, Jonah Goldberg insists in the Los Angeles Times. Goldberg defends Marco Rubio's declaration that America is the "greatest nation of all time" from the likes of Michael Kinsley and Peter Beinart, adding that they've wrongly argued that "that the idea of American exceptionalism is an artifact of right-wing jingoism, xenophobia or ignorance. ... Forget that every Fourth of July we celebrate the fact that we fought a 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."
  • Yes It Is, Daniel Larison retorts at The American Conservative. "Goldberg manages to write an entire column on this without addressing or even acknowledging the Rubio claims that Beinart was attacking. If he did this, he might notice that Rubio’s claims are empirically false and not worth defending. This is typical of the point-scoring sort of argument that many conservatives make these days. ... Thus, if Rubio engages in embarrassing nationalist hyperbole, Goldberg will rally to his side with a few scholarly references to show that his embarrassing hyperbole has the backing of learned men. The trouble is that the references do not support or validate Rubio’s claim, but merely underscore how detached Rubio’s rah-rah Americanism is from any serious study of American history. Indeed, Goldberg has effectively proved that American exceptionalism as historians mean it is not what we have been debating. What we are debating instead is the nationalist distortion of the concept into a cause for arrogant boasting."
  • Is This Blasphemy? Cathy Lynn Grossman wonders at USA Today. "Republicans are making political hay by reviving this idea -- as old as the first colonialists -- that this is a land favored by the Lord with an exceptional destiny... But not all Americans are on board with it either and some theologians consider it blasphemy to imply that God waited from the time of creation to find one small nation to be the special favorite above all others."
  • Troubling for Foreign Policy, The National Interest's Michael Scheuer argues. Applied to foreign policy, American exceptionalism has led to four presidents straight trying to remake the Muslim world. Scheuer says that "all these presidential initiatives amount to an intentional use of U.S. foreign policy to define America’s worth by what we do abroad. More women voting, more secular democracies, and a defanged Koran that more resembles the mamby-pamby substance of modern Christian doctrine would all be good things in the American mind and would allow Americans—or at least their governing elite—to feel good about what they have accomplished. And it must be stressed that there is nothing inherently evil in these presidential initiatives..." but they've caused major blowback, as Muslims around the globe see the U.S. as engaged in a war on Islam.
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