American exceptionalism, explained

September 12, 2013

From the right, President Obama has often been attacked for failing to embrace the concept of “American exceptionalism.” And now, Russian President Vladimir Putin contends that Obama has gone overboard with it.


Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted President Obama at the G20 Summit  in St. Petersburg last week.  (Getty Images)

Which raises the question: What is American exceptionalism, anyway?

It is actually an old idea, one that until recently was rarely talked about outside of think tanks and academia. But in the Obama era, American exceptionalism has opened up a new political battlefront.

According to the late political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, who was considered one of the foremost authorities on the subject, America’s unique ideology "can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire."

American exceptionalism has been a subject of fascination, going as far back as the 19th century, and particularly among Marxists. The concept of exceptionalism was used to explain “why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party,” Lipset wrote.

On his first overseas trip as president in 2009, Obama was asked during a news conference whether he subscribed to American exceptionalism.

The first part of his answer has given ammunition to many of his critics on the right. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism," Obama said.

Quoted far less often is the rest of his answer. It was an affirmation of exceptionalism, though arguably a redefinition of the concept. In addition to the world's largest economy and military, Obama said:

"We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.... I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

In his nationally televised speech on Syria Tuesday night, Obama turned to American exceptionalism as a call to action for an endeavor in which this country stands isolated in the world.

“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama said. “ But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.” He added: "That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

Skeptics wrote off that passage of his speech as desperate and opportunistic.

Obama employed American exceptionalism as “a useful rhetorical tool to help him escape the trap that he is in, and the trap is one of his own making,” said conservative columnist Peter Wehner, a former George W. Bush White House official who is now a a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

But others saw Obama’s words as evidence that being president has given him -- as it has everyone who has sat in the Oval Office -- a different perspective on America’s unique role in the world.

“I sat up a little straighter in my seat when he said it, because the contrast with his dismissal of American exceptionalism in the fall of 2009 was stark,” said William A. Galston, who was a top adviser to President Bill Clinton and who now is a senior fellow at the left-of-center Brookings Institution.

“I think he probably understands better than he did four years and eight months ago that collective action is a lot easier to talk about than bring about,” added Galston. “We’re exceptional in the sense that only we have the power to do what is necessary. … I think he understands that now, and Syria has brought that into high relief for him.”

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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