Slouching Towards the Old World

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

When Barack Obama said this in 2009, a lot of conservatives—me included—rolled up our sleeves and got our whacking sticks.

Now, there’s a legitimate argument that we were unfair to Obama if you read his quote in full. But that’s beside the point. It’s also true, as I’ve argued countless times, that this whole framing of “American exceptionalism”—starting with the question from Ed Luce—was misguided. American exceptionalism in its original meaning never referred to American foreign policy leadership or the idea that America was better than everyone else, as Luce implied. The word “exceptional” has come to mean “superior”—“exceptional students,” “exceptional rice pudding,” etc. But the obvious core meaning of the word is different—an exception to the norm. In a Seinfeldian way, you could call someone’s very ugly baby “exceptional” and the parents would take it as a compliment even if you meant something different. Going back to Alexis de Tocqueville or the German political scientist Werner Sombart or even the Communist Jay Lovestone, the idea behind the term was that America was just different from other advanced nations. We were more religious, more violent, more skeptical of government, more bourgeois, and less class-obsessed than our European counterparts. That last bit—not being obsessed with class—was seen as central by many theorists. The legacy of centuries of feudalism made socialism much more attractive to Europeans, while Americans (the white ones at least) descended from people who wanted a fresh start in the New World.

But again, that’s all beside the point, or at least beside my point. Even if American conservatives were being unfair to Obama, they were nonetheless expressing a view of America as different to—and, yes, in their telling, better than—Europe. Not everyone argued that we’re better according to some objective metric (though many did); some merely noted that we’re better by subjective metrics. In America we do things our way, and we like it better than the way they do things over there.

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