The Value of Reasonable Exceptionalism

The clear and present danger of terrorism, two long wars, and an economic downward spiral have wrought changes, both large and small, in the American fabric of life. One change that I am noticing, and that I find deeply disturbing, is that we seem to be abandoning our sense of exceptionalism.

Here, first, is a disclaimer, which is that the thoughtless and bewilderingly implacable triumphalism of the Bush years is not a sustainable viewpoint. Our leaders have erred gravely by anyone’s standards and both America and the rest of the world are paying the price. We began a war in the heart of the Middle East that has caused untold devastation and suffering in the region and we are undisputedly at the epicenter of a global economic crisis. Perhaps the two core foundations of modern American identity, our proud promotion of democracy and our enthusiasm for capitalism, have both been called into question within a matter of five years. To remain optimistic, outward-looking, and unquestioning in the face of this information seems mildly delusional.

I think, by the way, that this is one of the main reasons that John McCain and Sarah Palin did not prevail in 2008. For all their talk of being mavericks, they essentially supported the status quo—the military industrial complex and the economy, which McCain assured us was strong— while the status quo was tumbling around them. McCain wanted to reinvigorate America through muscular, nationalistic moves in the style of Teddy Roosevelt. But we did not want Teddy Roosevelt, that wise yet aggressive promoter of American power, because unlike in 1901 when we were full of untapped potential and bursting to show it, in 2008 we were shaking to our very foundations. Instead we wanted Barack Obama, that cool, cerebral operator, to set us quietly to rights.

All of this is natural, as I have said, but it also creates ambiguity. We are being challenged, but we are still mighty. We are chastened and shaken and yet still in a position of tremendous power. On some level we are in the middle of an identity crisis: if we can no longer be the satisfied, victorious, uncurious power of the 1990s, what are we?

What troubles me is that some of the answers currently being offered to this question discard the idea of American exceptionalism altogether. The strain of thought I am hearing is that America is, contrary to popular belief, no better than other nations, that we are one of many, and that our current crisis will humble us so we recognize our own insubstantiality.

This reasoning is flawed on two counts. First, while there may be something romantic about contemplating obscurity from a position of power, there is nothing breathtaking or particularly rewarding about obscurity itself. If American power meaningfully decreases, so will the opportunities for success for the majority of our citizens.

The other reason that I dislike this line is that America is, in fact, unique, in the truest sense of the word. We are the inheritor of centuries of European thought, a clean slate on which political theorists tested a radically new conception of republican governance. We are the product of these thoughts—“formed by philosophy,” in the words of Margaret Thatcher—and the fluidity, individualism, and free-market dynamism of modern American life can be directly traced to the passion and brilliance of these visionaries. It is a vision to which the majority of the world now subscribes, but we are the original source, and in many senses we are still a beacon of democracy for the world.

This sense of American exceptionalism is real and it deserves to be preserved, though with more tact and realism than Bush’s approach; which is to say that we need to admit our mistakes while promoting our virtues. Balancing these two imperatives creates an interesting challenge for President Obama, who has so far approached the issue with his now-trademark ambivalence. On a recent trip to Europe, he was asked if he believed in American exceptionalism and he responded yes, in the same way that “the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism.” On balance—and despite conservative rumblings—this was a wise remark since it both offered the world a needed reprieve from Bush’s rhetoric and took the United States off the map for a bit. The benefit in not trumpeting your own virtues is that you do not give the world incentive to prove you wrong; at the moment the globe is rife with evidence of the dark side of American exceptionalism. This is why we elected Obama and not McCain.

There are, however, signs of overreach, which is always the risk when a leader is as ambitious and confident as Obama. He apologized to long-time U.S. nemesis Daniel Ortega for aggressive actions like the Bay of Pigs, leveling an implicit criticism at John F. Kennedy in the process. On another stop, he intimated that the United States has special moral responsibility to reduce atomic weapons since we have been, to date, the only country to use them. I do not think as many on the right apparently do, that Obama is willfully blaming America, but I do think he is fundamentally misperceiving his role as president. He was not elected to cast doubt on the foreign policy decisions of the past sixty years but to right the most obvious wrongs of the past eight. His job is to wisely preserve and enhance American greatness, not to rewrite history as he might wish. We have made mistakes, but we are an exceptional and powerful nation with a predictably mixed past, sometimes illustrious and sometimes troubling. Undoubtedly, both sides of that past need to be represented, but offering indiscriminate mea culpas about our entire history in order to make up for the Bush years is not an effective strategy in the long-term.

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