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American exceptionalism: an old idea and a new political battle

Now that the 2010 midterm elections are over, tongues have already started wagging over who the potential Republican presidential candidates may be in 2012.

"The nation's ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire," wrote the late political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the leading scholars of the subject.

Indeed, exceptionalism has often been employed to explain "why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party," Lipset wrote.

The proposition of American exceptionalism, which goes at least as far back as the writing of French aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, asserts that this country has a unique character.

It is also rooted in religious belief. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: "God has granted America a special role in human history."

Gingrich says Obama fails to understand that "American exceptionalism refers directly to the grant of rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence," and that it is a term "which relates directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God."

But White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer noted that Obama has declared exactly that on many occasions - including in his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the moment that first brought the then-Illinois state senator to national attention.

"Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy; our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over 200 years ago," Obama told the delegates in Boston. " 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' That is the true genius of America."

Pfeiffer contended that the new criticism of Obama on the subject says more about the race for the Republican presidential nomination than anything else.

The GOP contenders know that this kind of argument - with its suggestion that Obama is undermining American values - was "a huge piece of what Sarah Palin did in 2008," Pfeiffer said. "They want a little bit of Sarah Palin magic, because she has a lot of enthusiasm and support among the base."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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