Monday, March 8, 2010

American Exceptionalism Debate Goes On

The concept of American exceptionalism has been kicked around for many years, including on the pages of this blog. The most recent manifestation of the debate among conservatives is the renewal of the argument over whether Barack Obama believes in American exceptionalism, and if so, in what form.

The two sides line up with one side saying that Obama is from the Howard Zinn gang which thinks American exceptionalism is either a creature of fiction or a substitute way of saying oppression of the "people." The other side says Obama believes in it, but gets it all wrong. Much of the debate comes from Obama's statement: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

Some of our conservative friends say that this conclusively proves that Obama thinks that American exceptionalism is unexceptional since it is nothing more than a statement of narrow "we're number one" thinking. Yet if one goes farther into the speech, the issue becomes less clear. Obama refers to his enormous pride in America, and its role in world history. And then, left out of most criticisms of his thinking, he said: "I think we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional." Quite frankly, that latter statement is almost exactly how I described American exceptionalism in an earlier post: Can A Liberal Be Right About American Exceptionalism.

Liberals have largely argued that Obama (and his fellow progressives) believe that America is great, but not great enough. Said Peter Beinart at Time: "It isn't about honoring and replicating the past; it's about surpassing it." If he had said "it isn't just about honoring and replicating the past," I might have been able to agree with him, at least in part. Understanding that American exceptionalism must not rely solely on the past is a true conservative idea. Relying on the past as the only guideline is simple fundamentalism which doesn't recognize that the world changes constantly. It's like saying the First Amendment doesn't apply to television, since television didn't exist when the Constitution was written. It's not conservative, it's reactionary.

Back to the conservative debate. Let's say that the concept of American exceptionalism is: Our history, our Constitution, and our national character set us apart from other nations." I do that for the sole purpose of defining how the two conservative camps view Obama. There are multiple definitions available and all have their points. But for purposes of this discussion, that's the one I'm going to go with.

On one side we have those who argue that Obama does not believe in American exceptionalism in any recognizable form. National Review, for instance has made an editorial comment that: "The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama's programs. It is why that debate is so charged. In his first year, Obama tried to avoid the cultural hot buttons that tripped up Bill Clinton, and created the 'gays guns, and God' backlash of 1994. But he has stoked a different type of cultural reaction. The level of spending, the bailouts, and the extent of the intervention in the economy contemplated in health-care and cap-and-trade legislation have created the fear that something elemental is changing in the country. At stake isn't just a grab bag of fiscal issues, but the meaning of America and the character of its people: the ultimate cultural issue."

That statement implies that what the president proposes and has done since he announced he would bring about "a fundamental change in America" is in fact a complete disavowal of the basic principles that are American exceptionalism. By his acts shall ye know him. They have concluded that Obama has simply denied American exceptionalism, despite his occasional verbal nod to it.

But what about Obama's ongoing praise of what appears to be American exceptionalism? "America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity." And here is where the other conservative argument begins. They say: "The question the NRO (National Review Online) writers should have asked is: Does Obama believe in the traditional definition of American exceptionalism? I think we can safely say that he does not. Instead, he has substituted a new paradigm embraced by the left that holds America to be a work in progress; it holds that the ideal of America is exceptional, but the reality is not. (Rick Moran writing at"

This is not a bad summation of Obama's beliefs. At best, he believes in American exceptionalism in the way Satan believes in God. He thinks there is such a thing, but he doesn't like it much, and it's his duty to re-define it. Says Moran: "What informs President Obama's love of America is the promise of what America can be, not what she is today. Similarly, his idea of exceptionalism is animated by the belief that we can be so much more than what we are, and that in order to achieve that lofty goal, radical surgery is necessary to excise the ghosts of racism, sexism, homophobia, aggressive militarism, evil capitalism--and tens of millions who don't have health insurance. To Obama, there is no difference between the evils of slavery and the fact that so many have no insurance. Each is a hindrance to achieving the American ideal of an 'exceptional' society as envisioned by the president."

America is exceptional in Obama's mind, but in order to achieve that ultimate goal, we must abandon our cultural heritage, get rid of that pesky old Constitution, and establish a new rule of law that will be controlled by those who know what's best for the future of America. When conservatives say "we want our country back," Obama believes that is a summary of everything that misunderstands what makes America exceptional. It's the "goal" that counts, and since we have been imperfect in the past, our exceptionalism lies in getting it right by throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Thus, as Obama said in his inaugural address: "The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness." Note where the emphasis is. Spirit, idea, promise. Apparently nothing we have done so far has really meant much, because we haven't achieved the goal of perfection. American exceptionalism is only a concept we must strive for, having failed thus far in the reality.

So the second argument is that Obama hasn't rejected the concept of American exceptionalism, he has simply eliminated all the elements of traditional American exceptionalism. By his mode of thinking, the Brits and the Greeks are right in feeling exceptional. Because in Obama's mind, American exceptionalism of the "old brand" is much the same as theirs. He adopts much of their thinking, and attempts to make it an "American brand" of exceptionalism. Like the difference between smoking Marlboros or smoking Gauloises. He's wrong, and it's how why is working so hard to destroy America in order to save her.

Left out of Obama's formula is the fundamental concept that America derives its rights from nature and nature's God. The government cannot give what does not belong to it. The Constitution that Obama thinks is old-fashioned and an impediment to modern governance is built on the concept of natural rights that government cannot take away, not on rights the government creates and grants to its citizens. Take away that fundamental understanding of where rights come from, and American exceptionalism ceases to exist in any meaningful form.

I'm not sure that both sides of the debate don't ultimately reach the same conclusion. Obama's lack of belief in American exceptionalism, or his skewed version of what that exceptionalism is, leads to the same end. Either his beliefs prevail, and America continues its current descent into statism and international insignificance, or his beliefs, whichever of the two they are, are rejected by the American people, his party goes down to devastating defeat, and America begins to return to its roots, its culture, its rule of law, and its ever-evolving status as leader of the free world.


Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk, in my view, Obama feels the great promise of America has fallen dreadfully short due to western erucentric mindset and capitalist greed which has exploited labor (particularly African American) for the enrichment of a few wealthy white men who have gamed the system.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: I certainly see that as a gut-level issue for him. Eurocentric doesn't bother him as much as ethnocentric. He sees the Europeans as good social welfare liberals, and blinds himself to the racial and religious hatred that is growing rapidly there while it was shrinking into insignificance here before he decided to stir everything up again. He's the first black president, as well as the first to say "why can't we be more like the Europeans?" Be careful what you wish for, Barack.

AndrewPrice said...

Obama strikes me as guy who is deeply involved in the grievance business. Has America made mistakes? Yep. But the great thing about America is that we try to fix them and then move on.

Unfortunately, too many on the left are into the grievance business and not only refuse to move on, they blow the mistakes of the past way out of proportion, attribute them to some deep evil within all Americans, and then sooth themselves that the reasons for their own failures are that the rest of us still secretly want to continue all the bad things of the past and thus are causing their failures.

This is utterly ridiculous.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Well said. Obama doesn't understand the difference between righting present wrongs and nursing ancient grievances which frequently no longer bear any resemblance to America as she is today. A divider can't exist without his special pleaders. If everything was well with the nation, why would he need to fundamentally transform it? Because he truly believes that the grievances far outweigh the evolving realities.

What could be worse than slavery? Not much. But didn't we fight a Civil War over that? Did we not pass substantial legislation in the 60s to eliminate legal barriers to equality. Have we not spent another forty years working to see that words match deeds? Obama thinks no. He could never get elected president of a nation united in its Herculean efforts to achieve a color-blind rule of law. So he has to turn people against each other, and promise to be all things to all men. How's that working out for him?

Unknown said...

Unsurprisingly, National Review today felt it necessary to defend its position against an attack by The New Republic. Although it's largely a conservative/liberal argument, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru also clarify points brought up in my article. It's an interesting read: America The Exceptional.

Writer X said...

With Obama's view, there's only one right way. That's troubling. He pays lip-service (and his actions demonstrate) when he says he wants to build consensus and even bipartisanship in his decision-making. That kind of thinking is the exact opposite of what defines American exceptionalism and makes it great.

StanH said...

American Exceptionalism is a state of mind, you know it when you see it. A certain moxy, or a swagger if you will. And whether you be a titan of industry, or a street sweeper there’s a certain pride in being American, foreigners call it arrogance, a belief in the possibilities, the need to win.

Barry is a creature of Academia, where the moral equivalence argument prevails. This is why you get his British, Greek analogy, in his pea brain there is no difference. In my mind he’s at such great odds with the electorate, because of this glaring fact. I love a statement in the movie “Patton”…George C. Scott, to paraphrase, “America will not abide a loser,” in short Barry is counter to a basic American belief.

Time to watch, “24!” …see you in a bit!

Unknown said...

WriterX: I think I would add that consensus is something we've been able to reach much of the time regardless of who's in power. From the day Obama said his form of government would be based on "I won," we knew that this was going to be different. For him, consensus means "agree with me."

Unknown said...

StanH: I think you hit on an important point. When politicians aren't stirring up European-style class resentments, American of every stripe are proud to be Americans. In most instances, about half of us will agree with the government in power, and the other half will disagree. But Obama has changed the dynamic. For the majority of Americans, deep distrust of the government prevails, and for a smaller percentage who don't understand American exceptionalism, trust in the government has become a surrender of most of what we have held dear for over two hundred years.

StanH said...

It’s not easy being free. Many will subjugate themselves for the buzz word “security!” …a popular zeitgeist that must be kicked out of the American psyche. Freedom of opportunity, doesn’t mean a guaranteed result, failure is a real possibility, this is where the human spirit excels, in risk comes innovation …sus…American Exceptionalism. The good news is, the real number of hard core statist is 20 to 30%, there just real noisy. The bad news for the statist, the 70 or 80% are paying close attention their BS is not being spewed in a vacuum, and in several election cycles, we can get back to our winning ways. Go America!

Unknown said...

StanH: That's exactly what soft socialism is all about. Nobody fails, but nobody wins either. It's all warm and fuzzy and boring as hell. Ultimately it destroys creativity and freedom of thought.

Franklin is often misquoted about security. He knew that a certain amount of it was necessary for the concept of ordered liberty. What he really said was that those who would give up essential liberty for a little temporary security deserve neither, and will lose both.

HamiltonsGhost said...

Lawhawk--Obama definitely believes in American exceptionalism. He loves to point out that we're the exception to European-style socialism and European-style modernized serfism. He wants us to cease being exceptional. He's going to lose.

Unknown said...

HamiltonsGhost: I like your thinking.

Individualist said...


I am not sure if you have ever read it but I would like to express a point from Dr Thomas Sowell's Book "A Conflict of Visions", a great read.

Essentially Sowell stratifies political ideology along a line between a constrained and unconstrained view of the world. He classifies typical conservatism as a constrained philosophy i.e. that mankind is constrained in his ability to control the world. Thus conservatives value tradition, set laws, religious institutions because these things have been developed over decades, perhaps even centuries and thus are more likely to work. Liberalism on the other hand is defined as an unconstrained ideology, the belief that man has great ability to control his surroundings. Thus the belief in things like the constitution as a living document, the call for social programs and monitoring and the lack of consideration for tradition, religion etc. because if there are problems it is because someone failed to fix them.

What was interesting was Dr. Sowell’s description of communism. Communism was to his mind constrained in the past but as mankind moved to the future became unconstrained. Thus the old ways of capitalism to a communist were a system that left mankind little ability to control his environment however as we progressed to more communistic systems we would gain more control over the world.

In reading your post I think I am beginning to understand how this philosophy explains former communists and Barack Obama today. The fact that every time they have implemented their ideas they have failed is not given much weight because they understand this to be due to the constrained ways of the past. They are thus able to convince themselves that in the future there plans will finally work and improve things, because we will be considered to have progressed politically.

Thus the idea of American Exceptionalism is at its core at odds with their viewpoint. How can documents written by the founders in 1776 be the best plan for our society today. They did not have the benefit of the future understanding that society will move to a utopian goal. Just my thoughts!

Unknown said...

Individualist: I have indeed read Sowell's book (and almost everything else he's written). He has a brilliant mind, and his writing is unusually readable. I recommend that book to everyone.

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