The bashing of American exceptionalism

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  • Everyone's special, which is another way of saying no one is

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In 2008, when asked if he believed in American exceptionalism, President Obama responded, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

This reminded me of the wonderful scene in Pixar's The Incredibles in which the mom says, "Everyone's special," and her son replies, "Which is another way of saying no one is."

"By all means, Democrats, listen to the sophisticates who chortle at the idea that there's anything especially good about America." -- Jonah Goldberg

But at least the president made room for the sentiment that America is a special place, even if he chalked it up to a kind of benign provincialism. Not so Michael Kinsley, who recently penned an essay for Politico titled "U.S. is not greatest country ever," in which he mocked those who traffic in this exceptionalism nonsense.

What's bizarre about Beinart and Kinsley's rendition of American exceptionalism is that it hinges on the premise that the idea of American exceptionalism is an artifact of right-wing jingoism, xenophobia, or ignorance.

Not to be outdone, Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart railed against the GOP's "lunatic notion" of America's exceptionalism. In particular, Beinart was infuriated by Senator-elect Marco Rubio's claim that "America is the single greatest nation in all of human history." Doesn't the Florida politician know, Beinart wonders, that China and Brazil are opening opportunities to their citizens too? According to Beinart, Rubio--the son of Cuban exiles--is too ideologically blinkered to know that "the American dream of upward mobility is alive and well, just not in America."

What's bizarre about Beinart and Kinsley's rendition of American exceptionalism is that it hinges on the premise that the idea of American exceptionalism is an artifact of right-wing jingoism, xenophobia, or ignorance. Even Obama flirts with this sort of thing every time he chalks up opposition to his agenda to the fear, bigotry, or small-mindedness of the "bitter" souls "clinging" to their antiquarian beliefs.

Forget that every Fourth of July we celebrate the fact that we fought the 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.

"The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, "and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one." Ever since, historians have argued that America's lack of a feudal past, its Puritan roots, the realism of its revolutionary ambitions, and many other ingredients contributed to America's status as the "first new nation," to borrow a phrase from Seymour Martin Lipset, who spent his life writing about American exceptionalism.

E. L. Godkin, the Irish-born editor of The Nation, observed in 1867 that the lack of a class-based system, the existence of an open frontier, and an optimism that comes with political and economic liberty marked the U.S. as a very different land from Britain, never mind the European continent. In 1906, German sociologist Werner Sombart released his book Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? in which he pointed to similar factors.

Ever since, left-leaning intellectuals have been taking dead aim at American exceptionalism. The notion that America has its own way of doing things--separate and distinct from Europe's--has been one of the greatest impediments to Europeanizing America's political and economic institutions.

Now that Europe has turned its back--at least temporarily--on lavish Keynesian spending, folks like Beinart must turn to developing countries such as China and Brazil for inspiration. Countries that pay millions of workers pennies a day are not normally role models for the Left. But, hey, if it makes Republicans appear backward, they'll give it a shot.

Ultimately, it's not that liberals don't believe in American exceptionalism so much as they believe it is holding America back, which might explain why they're lashing out at the people who want to keep it exceptional. But that too is nothing new. "The Coolidge myth has been created by amazingly skillful propaganda," editorialized The Nation in 1924 about the unfathomable popularity of Calvin Coolidge. "The American people dearly love to be fooled."

For the record, I'm with Rubio. America is the greatest country in the world. That doesn't mean it's perfect. But it is, and remains, the last best hope of Earth.

But, by all means, Democrats, listen to the sophisticates who chortle at the idea that there's anything especially good about America. That will solve Obama's "communication problem."

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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About the Author

 

Jonah
Goldberg

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    A bestselling author and columnist, Jonah Goldberg's nationally syndicated column appears regularly in scores of newspapers across the United States. He is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a member of the board of contributors to USA Today, a contributor to Fox News, a contributing editor to National Review, and the founding editor of National Review Online. He was named by the Atlantic magazine as one of the top 50 political commentators in America. In 2011 he was named the Robert J. Novak Journalist of the Year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He has written on politics, media, and culture for a wide variety of publications and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. Prior to joining National Review, he was a founding producer for Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg on PBS and wrote and produced several other PBS documentaries. He is the recipient of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Tyranny of Clichés (Sentinel HC, 2012) and Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2008).  At AEI, Mr. Goldberg writes about political and cultural issues for American.com and the Enterprise Blog.

    Follow Jonah Goldberg on Twitter.


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    Email: jonah.goldberg@aei.org

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