In acting unilaterally last week to allow illegal immigrants who have been living in the United States for more than five years to become legal residents, Barack Obama boosted presidential power, stoked right-wing fury, and likely strengthened Hispanic allegiance to the Democratic Party. He also did something else: He struck a blow for American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism, you’ll remember, is something Obama’s critics claim he doesn’t believe in. “Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” Mitt Romney said during the 2012 presidential campaign. In a 2010 cover story in National Review, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru declared, “At the heart of the debate over Obama’s program is the survival of American exceptionalism.” The more Obama implements his agenda, in other words, the less exceptional America will become.
But on immigration, the truth is exactly the reverse. American exceptionalism has meant different things to different people at different times. In the 19th century, many Americans looked at Europe’s constant war-making and declared their own country to be exceptionally unmilitaristic. But one consistent feature of exceptionalist discourse has been the idea that America permits greater upward mobility than does the Old World. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Among aristocratic nations … families remain for centuries in the same condition,” but in the U.S. “new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition.” Karl Marx argued that in America, “though classes, indeed, already exist, they have not yet become fixed, but continually change and interchange their elements in a constant state of flux.”