January 28, 2011

American Exceptionalism again

This time, it is John Boehner criticizing Obama for not using the words, because as he says "you can't get the left to talk about it."

Here is how he defines American Exceptionalism:
We are different than the rest of the world. Why? Because Americans have -- the country was built on an idea that ordinary people could decide what their government looked like and ordinary people could elect their own leaders.
He adds to that the fact that our economy is still 20 times bigger than China proves that we are exceptional.

I guess we have to decide a few things. A) is Boehner's description of the founding accurate? And B) are we the only nation to have those ideals?

As for A, I think this is a very interesting historical question, and one that Gordon Wood answered, or attempted to answer in his magisterial "Creation of the American Republic" and "The Radicalism of the American Revolution." Because this is not an easy argument to make. For one, the founders most explicitly did not think that ordinary people should even vote--certainly not anyone of color, female, or anyone who didn't own enough property. But as Wood points out, the language of equality is there in the language of Republicanism and the Declaration, and the founders who believed in the elite, found it increasingly difficult to keep the masses from actually acting on the language of equality.

So I don't think it is a simple thing to reject, but his take is, much like Palin and Bachmann, very overly simplified and lacking the nuance of the actual history.

The second question, I think, bothers me even more. Because Boehner assumes, as do many conservatives that we have greater opportunity in this country. The fact that upward mobility is higher in many other western democracies than it is here seems to completely pass them by. And that is my beef with Boehner and Palin and the rest when they do this. It is blind jingoism that misses where we are not as good as some other countries in key areas. It stops us from really addressing and making our system work.

Anyway, I welcome anyone's contribution to this.


leighton said...

I mentioned in my FB reply that I think this is probably trying to set up "American exceptionalism" as meaning two completely different things, but I didn't mention that it is likely part of the politics of provocation. When people on the left respond "Of course I don't think American exceptionalism is a good idea, you f'n jackass, we need to abide by our agreements with other countries," the Republican base and indecisive voters (who never absorbed the term's first definition) will hear only the first part and have their belief that liberals hate America confirmed.

Streak said...

Ok, this makes more sense to me, Leighton. I thought in your FB post, you were suggesting a purposeful con, of sorts. I really think that most people have never asked themselves the question "what is American exceptionalism." They just hear exceptional and it plays into their sense of patriotism.

leighton said...

Well, I do think it is more likely to be an intentional con than an honest miscommunication. But I wasn't precise on whether the con is for the sake of electioneering, or indicative of actual malice toward other countries. And the latter may be implausible; I don't get the sense that Boehner is a Dick Cheney or a Bill Kristol.