"It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."
-John Adams, July 3rd, 1776
Seems like a lot of fuss over a document written to form a political agreement between some loosely unified colonies more than 200 years ago.
When Adams wrote that, a nation had been created, yes, but it had yet to win any significant victories in its war against the most powerful military in the world. Many states were nearly bankrupt and it wasn't certain they'd hang together. And for all its noble ideas about equality, the Declaration did nothing to end slavery, which Adams called "as offensive in the sight of God as it is derogatory from our own honor or interest of happiness."
But despite all that, John Adams understood that the founding of the United States was … exceptional. And since the founding, right down to this July 4th weekend 2011, Americans have sensed that America is unique among the nations of the world - in its liberties, its republic, its resources and its opportunities - and in its unique role as a force for good.
But for the modern left and their media allies, not so much. As the Culture and Media Institute has documented in the past, the idea of American exceptionalism at best makes liberals and the mainstream media uncomfortable. At worst they flatly deny that the United States can stake any claim to greatness, let alone being exceptional. President Obama has shown ambivalence toward the notion that America is exceptional. That, coupled with his administration's European-style government-centered philosophy, have left him open to the charge that he sees America as just another nation, and is as comfortable apologizing for its sins as touting its virtues.
The conservative hopefuls looking to take on Obama in the 2012 election continue to hit him with the charge. This has prompted two often contradictory responses from the left. On one hand, NPR's Tavis Smiley dismisses American exceptionalism as "overrated," while the Washington Post's Richard Cohen calls it a "myth" born of "smugness" and "narcissism," and points to the country's imperfections as proof that America is no more exceptional than Belgium or Honduras.
On the other, the Post's Greg Sargent believes any mention of exceptionalism is part of a plot to make President Obama into the "Other." Times Joe Klein calls charges "subtly venomous" and a Nation columnist asserts that American exceptionalism is based on "racialized hierarchies."
In either case, American exceptionalism as its been traditionally understood, has become a taboo topic for liberal journalists.
So is America exceptional? According to the liberal Brookings Institution, 58 percent of Americans think so, and say "God has granted America a special role in human history."
But not the liberal media establishment. "This notion of American exceptionalism is," in the words of NPR's Tavis Smiley, "overrated."
In his victory speech Nov. 2, Florida Senator Marco Rubio declared, "America is the single greatest nation in all of human history. A place without equal in the history of all mankind." Perhaps liberals heard this as adding insult to injury with the Democrats' electoral rout in November, because they got angry.
In the Huffington Post, Peter Beinart raved about "the lunatic notion that America is the only truly free and successful country in the world." Michael Kinsley penned a column flatly declaring, "U.S. is not greatest county ever."
Apparently, the concept hasn't grown more attractive with age. On May 9, liberal Washington Post writer Richard Cohen penned a column on "The myth of American exceptionalism." Cohen bemoaned a "culture of smugness. The emblem of this culture is the term 'American exceptionalism.'"
"American exceptionalism once applied to the hostility that the American worker - virtually alone in the industrialized world - had toward socialism," Cohen wrote. "Now, though, it is infused with religious meaning …" (Untrue. Many date the birth of American exceptionalism to a 1630 sermon written by Puritan John Winthrop, who declared that the Massachusetts Bay colony would be a "city upon a hill," a Christian example to mankind. But never interrupt a liberal rewriting history.)
Unsurprisingly, Cohen trotted out a litany of the nation's problems and blemishes - the murder rate, the national debt and the "dysfunctional education system - more than 14,000 school districts, lots of bad (but job-protected) teachers, oblivious parents and students who are too dumb to know they're dumb." (Cohen never, of course, acknowledged the culpability of liberal policies in creating or exacerbating these problems.) We can't be exceptional because Japanese kids to much better in math than our kids.
"Let no person think there is not a certain kind of American exceptionalism that I believe in and cherish," Cohen asserted. 'It is our astounding capacity for tolerance." He held America up against the "massacres, pogroms, population transfers and genocides" of European history (no mention of African or Asian history, though) and, except for blacks and American Indians, America comes out looking ok. Wow. That's like being told your blind date "loves pets" and "is great with kids."
To Cohen, religion is to blame for American exceptionalism since its adherents believe "what God has made exceptional, man must not alter." The result is that Americans are taken with "a phrase that reeks of arrogance and discourages compromise. American exceptionalism ought to be American narcissism." Poor Cohen. It must be hard to live in a nation disgusts you so.
An Exceptionally Sinister Weapon
Cohen also hit on a common theme for liberals, that American exceptionalism is merely a weapon conservatives use to beat liberals. "It turns out, however, that some of those most inclined to exalt American exceptionalism are simply using the imaginary past to defend their cultural tics - conventional marriage or school prayer or, for some odd reason, a furious antipathy to the notion that mankind has contributed (just a bit) to global warming." Conventional marriage is a "cultural tic?"
Since liberals will use any tool at hand to further an agenda, they're incapable of seeing a principle for what it is. They're also incapable of seeing an almost comical contradiction: American exceptionalism they say, is a "myth," mere bigotry or narcissism, but tell them the president agrees with them and watch the fireworks.
Liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent gets particularly incensed at "the mindlessness and vapidity of the right's attack on Obama for allegedly not believing in 'American exceptionalism.'" It's an "ongoing attack
that has become "absurd and self-parodic."
When in January Obama, still smarting from his November electoral defeats, seemed to strike a new tone when talking about the nation, Sargent's exceptionalism radar was working overtime. A Kathleen Parker column wondering why Obama hadn't actually used the phrase 'American Exceptionalism' in his State of the Union speech was part of "the nonstop idiocy." The "idiocy" of the Weekly Standard's Bill Krystol's was to assert that Obama calling America "the greatest nation on earth," and "the greatest country in the world" in a January weekly radio address was a concession to the right. Sargent pointed out prior Obama statements about the nation.
But around the same time, over at MSNBC, Sargent's fellow liberals were undercutting his argument. On Jan. 30, Chris Matthews hailed "another good week for Barack Obama's move to the center. And if you need to move to the center, what better way than to talk up American exceptionalism?"
Time magazine editor Rick Stengel agreed. "I think clearly what Obama's self-interest is is that he's mimicking Reagan's style, not his substance. As you say, Reagan was the great prophet of American exceptionalism."
So even Obama's cheerleaders at MSNBC and Time thought touting American exceptionalism was a new tactic for the president.
On Memorial Day, when Sarah Palin criticized Obama for characterizing the U.S. military as "one of the finest fighting forces the world has ever known," rather than the best, Sargent was ready to mock her. "If Obama doesn't say that our armed forces are the bestest, baddest, most a**-kicking-ist fighting forces in all of human history, he's subtly denigrating the troops."
Race to the Bottom
After lambasting Palin, Sargent reminded readers of "what this attack line is really about … part of a much broader effort to insinuate that you should find Obama's character, story, motives, identity, cultural instincts and intentions towards our country to be alien and fundamentally suspect."
In other words, its racism, mixed with some xenophobia and chauvinism, an accusation Sargent and others long ago prepared and hold ready to use in defense of Obama.
In Time in March, Joe Klein wrote of the "subtly venomous notion that Obama doesn't believe in American exceptionalism."
Patricia J. Williams, Columbia professor and columnist the far-left magazine The Nation, wrote in the New York Times observed in May that "The world is changing, however, and the realignment of wealth, power, jobs and resources has been deeply challenging to the notion of American exceptionalism."
And in case you thought this was a bad thing, just remember, "That exceptionalism, consciously or unconsciously, is infused with racialized hierarchies - normative whiteness and masculinity still marking the 'worthiest' inheritors of the American dream."
In February in his "Fact Checker" column, Sargent's Post colleague Glenn Kessler wrote, "it is an article of faith among top Republicans that President Obama has repeatedly apologized for the United States and its behavior. Even more, the argument goes, he does not believe in American strength and greatness. The assertion," Kessler wrote darkly, "feeds into a subterranean narrative that Obama, with his exotic, mixed-race background, is not really American in the first place."
What Kessler was fact-checking was "Obama's Apology Tour," when in his first overseas visits he showed undue deference to other powers and talked too much about American "arrogance." Kesler quibbled over whether Obama had actually used the word "apology" and spun most of the President's suspect remarks as "trying to draw a rhetorical distinction between his policies and that of President Bush."
That may be so, but the President and the first lady have a history of actions, statements and acquaintances that make it hard to give him the benefit of the doubt. There was his pastor of 20 years who was given to saying "God damn America" and characterized 9/11 as "America's chickens coming home to roost." There was his friend Bill Ayers, who had bombed the Pentagon and maintained in 2001 that he wished he's done more bombing.
Senator Obama ostentatiously refused to wear a flag pin on his lapel because "it became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism," he said, which he defined as opposing the invasion of Iraq. On the campaign trail, Mrs. Obama said that "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." She also found America "just downright mean."
If you want to run a nation, is it too much to ask that you pretend to like it?
And there is also the simple fact that, in trying to inject more government into every aspect of American life, in trying to engineer wealth transfers and compounding regulations that stifle entrepreneurial productivity, President Obama has run afoul of traditional American independence and belief in free markets.
Writing in the Weekly Standard in March, Peter Wehner summed it up:
"Beneath the back and forth of daily politics, what we are talking about is the link between public policies and personal character, between the laws we pass and the moral attitudes we produce. Our task is to reclaim the animating ideas of America, including social mobility and equality of opportunity, individual responsibility and republican virtue, and to put government policies on the side of and in the service of the cause of sovereign, self-confident citizens. This has always been, and it will always be, the cornerstone of American exceptionalism. It's time we live up to it."
Get Used to It
The battle over American exceptionalism isn't going away anytime soon. The president's ambivalence towards it and his refusal to back off his European-style welfare state programs have made it a campaign issue for GOP hopefuls. As much as the left and the media want to dismiss it, how Americans see themselves and their nation is central to the choice they're going to make in 2012. Barack Obama has delivered the "fundamental change" he promised. To many Americans, that change is detrimental to what makes their nation exceptional.