American Exceptionalism

So now Newt Gingrich, desperately trying to raise his visibility for a possible presidential run, attacks Obama for his perfectly sensible views on “American Exceptionalism.” Even Sarah Palin, who likely had never heard of the term before this month, weighs in by suggesting that Obama is somehow not American enough, given his willingness to acknowledge that other countries may likely see themselves as exceptional as well.

The term American exceptionalism suggests that America has been divinely assigned a role of unique greatness, a superiority to all other nations and peoples, and a corresponding responsibility to be the moral exemplar of the world. It is certainly true that we are the most powerful country; many other countries do look to us for moral and political leadership; many people from around the world want to come here; we are a democracy; our standard of living is high; we regard autocracies with a jaundiced eye. Moreover, our first national war was to achieve the laudable aim of independence and representative government; we fought another just war to cleanse ourselves of the crime of slavery; and we fought a third just war to eliminate the threats of two other self-perceived “exceptional” nations, Germany and Japan. But German exceptionalism, in the form of a purified racial superiority and the thousand year Reich, and Japanese exceptionalism, in the form of a divine emperor at the head of his divinely endowed empire, should give American exceptionalists some pause. One can be proud of one’s country, as I am, without crossing into exceptionalism. The danger of the exceptionalist view, even when divested of bellicosity, is its hubris. Despite the longings of the Old Testament, God does not “choose” peoples and the nations they comprise, and if he did, he probably would not go with the rich and powerful. And those Greek tragedians did have it right: an excess of hubris precedes a fall, as Germany and Japan discovered in the recently concluded bloody century, and as the Southern Confederate aristocracy did in the previous one. Whether we are in the morning of America, or the mid-afternoon, I cannot tell. As Egyptians, Greeks, and Britons will remind us, however, no empire reigns forever. And on that point at least—despite our many virtues—we are not likely to be an exception.