American exceptionalism is a flawed idea, but Obama should still use it.

Has the United States always been an exceptionally free and virtuous nation? If you have to ask the question, you are already well on the road to unpatriotic perdition—or so every Republican about to run for president seems to think. “Don’t kid yourself with the lie,” Rick Santorum recently told a group of college Republicans. “America is exceptional, and Americans are concerned that there are a group of people in Washington who don’t believe that any more.” Mike Huckabee gives the same indictment a quasi-spiritual spin: “To deny American exceptionalism,” he told Politico last August, “is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.” In his new book, Mitt Romney adds a messianic note: “Billions of people today live in freedom, or have the hope of freedom who otherwise would have lived in despair, if not for the greatness of the United States.”
Of course, the main purpose of all this star-spangled chest thumping is to brand Barack Obama an apostate from one of the more venerable elements of our civil religion. At CPAC last week,
Santorum even said Obama “doesn’t believe America is exceptional.” Moreover, an offhand remark the president made in 2009—“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism”—loops repeatedly on conservative websites and talk radio shows. What can you expect, these outlets imply, from a closet socialist with a Muslim middle-name, bi-national parentage, and a fishy birth certificate?

The irony is that the president has sworn his belief in the exceptionalist faith more frequently than did George W. Bush, whom we have to thank for making a flag pin on one’s lapel a requirement for anyone who hopes to get elected to federal office. He’s done so in two ways, one aspirational, the other self-congratulatoryand neither very productive or convincing. But a third way of invoking exceptionalism, and one not tried nearly enough, could be both clarifying and politically beneficial for the president.

 

The first way Obama has used exceptionalism is in claiming that the nation is both exceptionally humanitarian and uniquely able to reform itself through democratic means. He did this often as a presidential candidate. “This country is more decent than one where a woman in Ohio, on the brink of retirement, finds herself one illness away from disaster after a lifetime of hard work,” he said in his 2008 nomination acceptance speech in Denver, “more compassionate than a government that lets veterans sleep on our streets and families slide into poverty.” The memorable line in his stump speech— “in no other country on earth is my story even possible”—brilliantly merged exceptionalism with the civil rights narrative. And Obama repeatedly identified the American creed with social movements that “pointed the way to the promised land” of justice and equality.” These are examples of what Martha Nussbaum calls “aspirational patriotism,” the history of which is as old as that of the nation itself. From Tom Paine’s prediction that the United States would “prepare in time an asylum for all mankind” to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s declaration that “the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right,” reformers and radicals have demanded that the national ideals apply to all citizens and opposed those who tried to reserve their use for privileged groups and belligerent causes.

As president, however, Obama has lately given more prominence to the self-congratulatory mode of exceptionalism, echoing Reagan more than King. In the State of the Union address last month, Republicans understandably applauded just as loudly as Democrats at the lines, “As contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on earth.” Just in case they missed the point, Obama assured those watching that fierce ideological debates “set us apart as a nation,” and that its “leadership” had made the United States “not just a place on a map, but the light to the world.”

Now, contemporary historians tend to view this sort of exceptionalist rhetoric as pompous myth-making that ignores certain basic, if unsavory, facts about America’s past. After all, the new country settled by Europeans and Africans became a continental power only by invading the lands of native Americans—killing many thousands and forcing others to adopt an alien culture. The U.S. abolished slavery several decades after Britain and France—and did so only after a war in which over 600,000 men died. Both the Filipinos who fought against American colonial rule and the Vietnamese who defeated the world’s mightiest military shed a good deal of blood to stop that “light to the world” from burning its way through their lands.

What’s more, the rise of the United States to world power benefitted from exceptional luck. Weakened by disease and intertribal warfare, Native Americans on the Eastern seaboard could not long resist the onrush of settlers whose demographic supremacy kept growing as they spread across the continent. The splendid isolation of America from the tensions of crowded Europe shielded it from the devastation of every global conflict from the Napoleonic wars to World War II. Blessed by geographic fortune, the United States became the Australia of the northern hemisphere—but with an abundance of arable land, excellent ports, and a cornucopia of other resources. To paraphrase Ann Richards’s line about George H.W. Bush, Americans were born on third base yet thought they hit a triple.

Of course, if Obama were to point out these less than glorious details, Republicans would accuse him of insulting the flag or worse. Yet lauding the nation as nearly perfect only exposes the president to another angle of criticism; just two years after campaigning as the hopeful outsider who would move the U.S. closer to being the promised land, this unqualified praise comes off sounding either arrogant or incoherent.

But the president neither can nor should discard the exceptionalism creed. Indeed, there is a third way Obama can employ it, akin to the aspirational mode he used during the campaign, but with an edge. He can use exceptionalism to suggest that the country has yet to live up to its ideals and simultaneously, to garb his policies, from health care to immigration to foreign aid, as what the country needs for this to finally happen. How can our great country spend more money on health care than other industrial nations and yet cover fewer people—or allow one-fifth of its children to live in poverty? How can the nation Jefferson called “an empire of liberty” bar people who came to the U.S. illegally when they were children from becoming citizens? If we believe in freedom and democracy, why do we spend billions to arm dictators in Egypt and elsewhere?

The popular belief that America is an exceptional nation prods us to live up to that ideal and to question when and why it falls short. Our famously pragmatic president would do well to re-read how our greatest pragmatic philosopher came down on this matter. In 1897, during another era when conservatives were mucking up the idea of liberty, equating it to unregulated corporate power, William James wrote, “The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes; they always dwell within their borders. And from these internal enemies civilization is always in need of being saved. The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day.”

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent. His next book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, will be published in August (Knopf).

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.