It started in 1929 as a communist ‘heresy’ before becoming a ‘conviction’ and then a mere ‘story.
Juliana Geran Pilon
In a recent speech, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton called for foreign policy based on an American exceptionalism that a hostile world “far too often neither understands nor appreciates.” The same day, Democratic political operative Ronald Klain wrote that “progressives should claim one of the oldest ideas in American thought—the concept of American exceptionalism—for their own.” Are they talking about the same thing? Not likely.
The term “American exceptionalism” isn’t as old as Mr. Klain imagines, and the Founders didn’t coin it. Stalin did. When the American Communist Jay Lovestone informed him, in 1929, that America’s working class wouldn’t be joining the party, the Soviet dictator rejected what he called this “heresy of American exceptionalism.”
The term was completely redefined a few decades later. “As significant portions of the electorate—think Southern Democrats—shifted toward the GOP in the 1960s and 1970s, conservative thinkers charted a new Republican identity emboldened by triumphalism and uncompromising patriotism,” wrote Columbia journalism professor Terrence McCoy in 2012. “Doubting exceptionalism became ‘un-American.’ ”
The term didn’t catch on immediately: Before the mid-1990s the term appeared in national publications fewer than 500 times. In 1996, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset used it to explain why the U.S. is an “outlier” when compared with the rest of the world. Noting that “various seemingly contradictory aspects of American society are intimately related”—religiosity co-existed with individualism, optimism with high crime rates—he described America’s uniqueness as “a mixed blessing.”
The term persisted as Americans sought a vision in a post-Cold War era. References to exceptionalism had exploded in print and online publications, to more than 4,000 in 2010 alone. In 2012 the Republican Party platform titled a 12-page section “American Exceptionalism” and defined the term as “the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history.” In 2016 the GOP promoted the idea to its platform preamble, which begins: “We believe in American exceptionalism.”
Candidate Donald Trump, however, didn’t care for the term. As he told a group of Republicans in 2015, he thought it impolite: “I don’t want to say, ‘We’re exceptional. we’re more exceptional.’ Because essentially we’re saying, ‘We’re more outstanding than you . . .’ ” He also questioned the premise: “We’re dying. We owe 18 trillion in debt. I’d like to make us exceptional. . . . We may have a chance to say it in the not-too-distant future. But even then, I wouldn’t say it. . . . Let’s not rub it in.”
In response, progressives have emerged as champions of exceptionalism. In an essay for Foreign Affairs this past January, historian Stephen Wertheim complained that “Trump has distinguished himself in one dramatic respect: He may be the first president to take office who explicitly rejects American exceptionalism.”
But wait—the first president who does what? Ronald Reagan called America a “shining city on a hill,” but he never mentioned “American exceptionalism.” Neither did George W. Bush. The first American president who did was Barack Obama. At an April 2009 press conference in Strasbourg, France, a reporter asked the new president if he subscribed “to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world.”
The answer was ambiguous at best. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” Mr. Obama said. “The fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas.”
America is exceptional, Mr. Obama seemed to be saying, but no more so than anyone else. The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart picked up the theme after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, rejecting another writer’s warning that “Trump’s brand of nativism could be the death knell for American exceptionalism.” Don’t worry, Mr. Beinart counseled: “American exceptionalism is not a set of enduring national characteristics that a president can undermine.” Rather, it is “a story that America’s leaders tell about what makes America different from Europe. As realities on both continents change, and different American leaders emerge, those leaders change the story.”
As Humpty Dumpty said: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” There’s no question America is unique: Our Constitution is the longest-lasting in the world today, and manifestly the most successful in world history. But “American exceptionalism”—a heresy, a conviction, an insult, an ever-changing story—is too susceptible to equivocation and manipulation. Let’s drop the phrase and focus on the meaning of America itself.
Ms. Pilon is a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization and author of “The Art of Peace: Engaging a Complex World” (Transaction, 2016).
Alexis de Tocqueville concluded in the 1830s: “The situation of the Americans is entirely exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be put in the same situation.”
Regarding Juliana Geran Pilon’s “Let’s Take Exception to the Term ‘American Exceptionalism’” (op-ed, April 29): Abraham Lincoln, when searching for meaning in the midst of the tragedy of the Civil War, invariably returned to his belief that the U.S. “shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.” Alone among the world’s nations, Lincoln believed the U.S. had succeeded in preserving liberty and democracy. Unless the U.S. could survive the maelstrom into which it had been flung, he doubted whether this “nation, or any nation” which was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are equal,” could long endure. He believed America was more than exceptional—it was the world’s best hope.
Alexis de Tocqueville identified an exceptional nation when he traveled in the U.S. during the 1830s. Convinced that liberty couldn’t survive in a democracy, Tocqueville tried to understand the anomaly he observed. He concluded: “The situation of the Americans is entirely exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be put in the same situation. Their . . . uniquely commercial habits, even the country that they inhabit . . . had to concentrate the American mind in a singular way in the concern for purely material things.”
The American experience is stained by slavery. Lincoln hoped that the stain could be washed clean once “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” but its bitter legacy persists. Further, the U.S. today is under pressure to abandon much of what has made it exceptional. The frontier has closed, power is being centralized, economic growth is slowing, our schools are, at best, barely average, an entitlement state undermines commitments to hard work and entrepreneurialism, the door to risk-taking immigrants is closing, and in 2016 a socialist nearly won the nomination of a major political party.
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The late Seymour Martin Lipset, under whom I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation, provided the classic definition of “American exceptionalism” as “liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire” to distinguish America’s heritage of classlessness from Europe’s heritage of deeply rooted class structure. This description wasn’t meant as a value judgment. It was meant as a statement of fact.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.