There being no escape from the recent efflorescence of evocations of American Exceptionalism by Republican presidential candidates and conservative commentators, I felt compelled to investigate the phenomenon. For insight I turned to Berry College’s own Dr. Michael Bailey, whose scholarship focuses on the ideas that animate American Politics. Surprisingly, his answers point to something positive.
Hickman: First, am I correct in thinking that there a lot more discussion about American Exceptionalism now as opposed to the past? Why are we seeing it now?
Bailey: Actually, the idea that America is exceptional—both different and superior—is a familiar and very old theme in American political thought, especially as it pertains to the common understanding that the United States has a distinct role among the nations of the world. We can note this theme from the time of the Puritans and moving forward. It’s one of those themes that does, from time to time, go subterranean, as it were, but it has yet to disappear permanently. I think it went into abeyance a touch after the end of the Cold War, but it surged back after 9/11. President Bush was having a hard time forging a strong global coalition to fight Saddam Hussein, and the question emerged about what kind of warrant the United States had to go rogue, as it were, when much of the civilized world—the world of our allies—seemed so dead set against the war. Remember when Democratic candidate John Kerry said that under certain conditions he’d rely on international consensus to help inform his opinion about matters. Actually, this opinion is perfectly consistent with, say, James Madison’s, but he was pilloried by conservatives as being anti-American for the thought. The implication of their attacks was that unilateral action is more American than multilateralism. Whereas we consider other nations that refuse to join in partnerships as rogue nations, American Exceptionalism carves out a space for the United States to go solo when it fits our needs—in large measure because advocates of American Exceptionalism believe that what is good for the United States is good for the world.
Hickman: And what is it about Obama for conservatives that drives this?
Bailey: I think several things drive this concern. One is his rhetorical commitment to multilateralism, a commitment that allows for American leadership but that more-or-less requires that the United States approach global problems in partnership with others. Of course, the reality is that Obama goes solo nearly as often as Bush—as evidenced, for example, by the raid on Osama bin Laden’s stronghold in Pakistan. Another is Obama’s penchant early in his administration to apologize for American excesses. This truly was the unforgivable sins for conservative, and even now, some three years later, Vice President Cheney calls for Obama to apologize to the Bush administration for his early criticism—a kind of astonishing demand, if one thinks about. Obama’s big domestic push, healthcare, absolutely stunk of Europeanism for many folks, of course—and made lots of folks wonder whether Obama truly understands and appreciates America’s unique (i.e. exceptional) commitment to market forces to solve our social problems. But the most insidious reason for the renewed interest in American Exceptionalism is—how should one word this?—Obama’s difference. His name and his race clearly set a very small but very vocal group of persons on the right on edge. Doubts about his place of birth, his religion, the American loyalty of his friendships, and whether he has dabbled in friending terrorists—all of these paranoid concerns are given expression in interrogating his belief in American Exceptionalism.
Hickman: Am I also correct in thinking there are several different American Exceptionalisms on offer? Or are Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, James Bennett and Joseph Bottum discussing the same thing?
Bailey: Political scientists think of American Exceptionalism largely as difference, as measurable difference, and this need not entail any normative claims. More, lots of European social observers have noted how the United States is simply different—exceptional as difference. But it also has a normative element—exceptionalism as superior or especially blessed—and it is this strain that is given popular and political expression most often. One kind of American Exceptionalism—perhaps best described as naïve exceptionalism—holds that the United States simply outperforms other nations on a host of categories crucial to the quality of life. Another strain, essentialism, holds that America is different not so much because of any particular trait or sum total of traits but because America is uniquely blessed or set apart by a loving divine god. If we are not a chosen people, we are an almost chosen people. Lastly, and overlapping with all of these, is a kind of missional exceptionalism, the belief that because of America’s unique place and role in the world, it enjoys—or has the obligation of meeting—a unique errand or mission in the world’s nations. Either through our example, or through our influence, we are called to remake the world in our blessed image.
Hickman: What is gained or perhaps lost with these assertions of American Exceptionalism? Am I right in suspecting that, like the Family Values rhetoric of conservative Republicans of a few years ago, a great deal is being excluded by the way this discussion is being framed? For example, Family Values rhetoric seemed to mean opposition to gay marriage but not legislation mandating parental leave.
Bailey: American exceptionalism as a descriptive claim holds some interesting prospects to improve our public life. The best part of American Exceptionalism is, in my opinion, its comparative claims. In setting the United States aside as uniquely excellent, it begs for comparisons with other nations. To claim we are the best is to invite an examination about what does, in fact, contribute most to a high quality of life as well as an examination of how nations satisfy these criteria. The reality is that America’s Constitution is indeed unique among the nations’ democracies, at least taken as a whole, and our performance on a host of criteria—quality of life; economic equality; crime rates; voter turnout; and so on—is middling or even poor. It’s worth asking the question whether there’s a connection between our unique Constitution and our middling performance, I think. What’s lost in the purely normative claims of American exceptionalism is virtually the opposite. It approves of American difference such that our oddities—such as not having universal health care or paid parental leave requirements—become by definition enviable traits. They’re enviable because, well, they’re uniquely American. It also invites a kind of double-standard in which the United States holds some nations to a standard but exempts itself.
Hickman: I’ve noticed that conservative elites busy deploying American Exceptionalism rhetoric seem to make few comparisons. They name few other countries. Why is that?
Bailey: It depends upon what’s being stressed. I don’t think this is all that much of a problem, really, if we are looking at American Exceptionalism as a purely descriptive quality. I think when comparing the performance of the United States, for example, it’s appropriate to compare us to our advanced democratic peers. Of course we perform well when compared to non-democratic impoverished nations. But what’s more telling is how we do not always perform as we would like when compared to our allies. And when it’s being made as a normative claim—say, that the U.S. has a special mission in the world with foreign policy—a nation-by-nation comparison isn’t really the point. It’s being used as a rhetorical tool aimed at the heart more than the head, I think.
Hickman: Is there a silver lining to this rhetorical cloud?
Bailey: I do. I think claims of American Exceptionalism invite real scrutiny about the American way of life. Like most folks, I think much of what America does is enviable throughout the world. Our attraction for a home of immigrants reveals the ongoing power of the United States as a draw. On the other hand, I think the American Constitution and our broader political system is ripe for a kind of conceptual overhaul. Several “exceptional” features about our political system warrant scrutiny. Our penal system and incarceration rates; our strong bicameralism; our electoral college; our interminably long presidential campaigns—all of these features truly are exceptional in the world (or approaching exceptionalism), but none of them in my opinion makes the nation safe, strong, just or democratic.