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Mugambi Jouet: An Exceptional Distortion

September 19, 2013

“American exceptionalism” does not mean what most people think it means.

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Image from Flickr via Hachi Gatsu

By Mugambi Jouet

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s authoritarian president, has scandalized much of the American public by questioning “American exceptionalism” in a defiant op-ed criticizing Barack Obama’s proposed strikes on Syria. Obama had argued that America should intervene in Syria because American values make it an “exceptional” country. This controversy followed a surge in references to “American exceptionalism” in recent years. But contrary to what most people believe, “American exceptionalism” does not truly mean that America is “outstanding.” The concept instead refers to how America is an exception.

This misconception has been actively promoted by politicians in recent years. Mitt Romney lambasted Obama for not believing in “American exceptionalism,” which Romney equated with the idea that America is “the greatest nation in the history of the world and a force for good.” Rick Santorum agreed that Obama “doesn’t believe America is exceptional.” An anti-Obama campaign book by Newt Gingrich was even titled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. Many other politicians have echoed this claim.

In fact, the concept of “American exceptionalism” has long been used in the field of comparative politics to assess how America differs from other Western democracies. For example, the fact that America is the only Western democracy to lack a genuine universal health care system is a facet of American exceptionalism. Yet, this singularity may be interpreted in a positive or negative light depending on one’s view of universal health care.

When describing America as an “exceptional” nation, Tocqueville meant that it is inherently different, not inherently superior.

Seymour Martin Lipset, a distinguished academic, already expressed concern in 1996 that the concept was sometimes being distorted: “When Tocqueville or other ‘foreign traveler’ writers or social scientists have used the term ‘exceptional’ to describe the United States, they have not meant, as some critics of the concept assume, that America is better than other countries or has a superior culture. Rather, they have simply been suggesting that it is qualitatively different, that it is an outlier.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who famously explored the United States in the early 1830s, notably praised Americans for their trailblazing democratic institutions, sense of civic duty, industriousness, and spirit of innovation. But Tocqueville criticized Americans on other grounds, including their common support for slavery, mistreatment of Indian people, materialism, and what he, as an aristocrat, perceived to be a frequent lack of proper manners. When describing America as an “exceptional” nation, Tocqueville meant that it is inherently different, not inherently superior.

Nevertheless, the distortion of the concept has now reached staggering proportions given how politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens have come to readily conflate “American exceptionalism” with a faith in American superiority. This change partly reflects the efforts of Republican politicians, who have recurrently invoked the concept in recent years in an attempt to impugn President Obama’s patriotism. The GOP cast its agenda as a defense of “American exceptionalism” against an unpatriotic president who aims to turn America into Europe with his “socialist” policies, from health care reform to increased financial regulation. References to “American exceptionalism” thus skyrocketed in the U.S. media since Obama’s election in 2008.

Exceptionalism has nothing to say about whether America should use diplomatic or military means to try and stop the carnage in Syria.

In reality, Obama has regularly expressed the conviction that America is a special country blessed by God, which is far from a novel idea. The notion that America is extraordinary has existed ever since Europeans marveled at their “discovery” of the “New World,” although surging references to “exceptionalism” in recent years reflect more than a variation on this theme. Republicans turned the concept into a rhetorical weapon against Obama, who sought to coopt this weapon in his prime-time speech on Syria.

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When Obama tried to justify strikes on Syria by proclaiming that America is “exceptional,” Republicans were mostly unimpressed and so was Putin. Ironically, Putin’s criticism cemented the distortion of a largely academic concept hijacked by politicians, as he unquestioningly equated “American exceptionalism” with its chauvinistic redefinition.

The ex-KGB officer is not the first Russian autocrat to denounce the concept. The first documented use of the precise phrase “American exceptionalism” has paradoxically been traced to Stalin and fellow Soviets. They used it to disparage the views of American communists who were convinced that Marxism had to be adapted to fit America’s special circumstances.

Stalin and Putin have been unconvinced that America is “exceptional,” yet it has long been an “exceptional” country in the sense that it is an outlier. Most Americans believe that America stands out as an inherently superior nation chosen by God to lead the world, although America is objectively different for other reasons.

There have been periods of history when America was exceptionally isolationist, just as there have been periods when it was exceptionally interventionist.

Compared to the rest of the West—Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand—modern America is exceptional in ways that are not necessarily positive. It is alone in lacking a universal health care system. It offers the least access to medical treatment despite having by far the highest health care costs worldwide. It has sharper wealth inequality. Contrary to clichés about the American Dream, its citizens commonly enjoy less economic mobility. It has the highest incarceration rate globally; and is the sole Western democracy to retain the death penalty. America further stands out due to its extremely limited gun control and far higher gun violence. Finally, religion plays an exceptionally important political role in America, which is also the only Western country where numerous people believe in creationism. Yet, some of these traits can be seen as qualities depending on one’s perspective, as exceptionalism does not mean good or bad per se.

However, there are other dimensions to American exceptionalism. The United States was the first democracy to emerge from the Enlightenment, as the American Revolution of 1776 preceded the French Revolution of 1789. It led the Allies to victory in World War Two. Its universities are among the best worldwide. Americans have equally made vast contributions to science, literature, and art, to name only a few examples. There is much to admire about America even if one disputes the popular belief that it is an inherently superior country.

Exceptionalism has nothing to say about whether America should use diplomatic or military means to try and stop the carnage in Syria. There have been periods of history when America was exceptionally isolationist, just as there have been periods when it was exceptionally interventionist. Obama has now grudgingly accepted Putin’s deal on chemical weapons, although he insists that unilateral strikes are still an option if Syria ultimately refuses to comply with American conditions. The outcome of the situation is unforeseeable but one thing is clear: invoking the chauvinistic view of “American exceptionalism” to urge strikes on Syria, as Obama did, only inflamed passions and further spread a misconception.

Mugambi Jouet is a lawyer, scholar, and journalist living in Paris. His publications include articles for academic journals, as well as for Salon,The Huffington Post, Truthout, AlterNet, Collier’s Magazine, Slate France, and Le Monde. He is the author of an upcoming book on American exceptionalism.

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