Some days, living in Canada you have to be a farseeing optimist to stand up for the United States. However, America’s best friends will steadily pull away if resurgent nonsense about “American exceptionalism” is not challenged, especially within the Party of Lincoln and Eisenhower.
This is not a call for another “apology” to sensitive neighbours. American democracy is at its best when it’s rough. And its continued success is of vital interest to its Western allies. However, America’s future influence is not assured and is undermined daily by the rhetoric of exceptionalism that now appears to dominate the world view of prominent Republicans. It insults our intelligence as well as our equally well-demonstrated attachment to Western values.
For over a year now, Barack Obama has been attacked for a polite statement he made on the subject in Europe. Trying, as he was then, to make everybody feel comfortable, he said that he believed in American exceptionalism in the same way the “Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Imagine! Putting American pridefulness on the same level as Brits and Greeks—two of the principal authors of Western values, industrialization, and modern empire.
“Appalling,” Sarah Palin exclaims in her latest book, America By Heart. Shrewdly, appreciating that the readers like to be thought of as nice, she unsheathes:
“Sad to say, many of our national leaders no longer believe in American exceptionalism. They—perhaps dearly—love their country and want what’s best for it, but they think America is just an ordinary nation and so America should act like just an ordinary nation. They don’t believe we have a special message for the world or a special mission to preserve our greatness for the betterment of not just ourselves but all of humanity.” Click on: http://www.nationalpost.com/todays-paper/America+Exceptional/3949230/story.html
(I can’t say whether it’s a great book. I’ve only read excerpts in the press. However, what I’ve read is clear and premeditated. Sarah Palin is serious, has a talented organization, and is already a dominating influence among active Republicans. The next Republican candidate may be Sarah Palin or someone effectively imitating her words.)
To tens of millions of those of us on the outside, the way she brands Obama brands America too. Imagine how Palin’s claims for America echo amongst America’s best friends.
Did Franklin D. Roosevelt—a mean communicator in his own right—ask the US Congress to help Great Britain in 1940 because the English, and their Canadian and Commonwealth allies, were too ordinary to defend themselves? Did Churchill and Roosevelt draft “four American freedoms” as their allied mission statement and, later, as the basis of the Charter of the United Nations? Are we in Afghanistan, if not to protect US interests, only to uphold made-in-the-US ideas about liberty and equality?
Surely, it is not what is unique, but what is universal about what Americans believe that is the basis for our fraternity and the West’s solidarity in a challenging world. Common cause cannot be freely sustained between the “exceptional” and the ordinary.
The Romans at their zenith, in fact, decided to grant Roman citizenship to all free people in the Roman Empire. They kept their pride and their power intact for another two centuries. America, not being an empire in the literal sense of the word, would be well to question whether claims of special status go with global influence.
De Tocqueville did say that in the 1840s America’s cultural and physical circumstances provided an “exceptional” opportunity for liberty and human progress to flourish. But he didn’t suggest that America’s values were wholly American inventions or that Americans were graced with super insights about how to navigate the future.
De Tocqueville was a social analyst, not a stone mason: he left nothing solid behind to protect America’s relatively superior circumstances from misuse and decline.