Columns » John Brummett

Exceptional? Because we say so.



American exceptionalism: An old and dormant phrase newly embraced on or around 2010 by conservative Republicans in the United States. They were seeking a partisan political advantage in defining themselves as more devoted than Democrats to the premise that America is special in the world, divinely blessed, better than the rest, because of personal freedoms, free-market economic opportunity, world-dominant and world-saving performance through its history and higher godliness, mostly Christian.

Republicans prevail with the public on most contemporary political arguments. The obvious reason is that Americans generally tend to be conservative.

But another reason is that, whenever confronted by an issue that presents a rare disadvantage, Republicans cleverly call the issue by another and more strategically viable name.

An estate tax or an inheritance tax is a proposition people can support. "Estate" connotes wealth, or at least substantial holdings, and "inheritance" suggests something unearned. 

So Republicans, availing themselves of polling data and focus groups, and wanting to spare the well-to-do much taxation, succeeded in getting people to begin calling the estate tax or inheritance tax a death tax. That sounds horrible, although no dead person has yet written a check to remit this tax.

A "public option" in the health care debate engendered good reaction. So Republicans took to calling it a "government option," which people abhorred. "Public" can mean doing something in the light of day. Government can mean Marxist, socialist, inefficient, expensive, evil, French, Pelosian, Hussein-Obaman.

So now comes this rekindled talk of "American exceptionalism." The phrase first registered with me as a partisan Republican tactic when I heard it used by Tim Griffin, the Karl Rove disciple now going to Congress.

It is euphemistic for American chauvinism, which is not the same as patriotism, but an illogical and extreme version thereof.

The religious right has now embraced the phrase. Abortion can be divisive, working in nullifying ways as a political issue. But just try being against the glorious assertion that America is exceptional, uniquely favored by God among all the earth and all the planets and all the galaxies.

The political advantage is that Republicans can cite American exceptionalism for contrast whenever Barack Obama says something diplomatic and nice about moderate Muslims or dares to tell the truth that America is not a Christian nation, but a free-religion nation.

We saw a variation a couple of weeks ago. Republican congressmen made something of Obama's referring to our national motto as "E pluribus unum," meaning many become one. Actually, "in God we trust" was made America's motto in 1956. The clear Republican intimation was that Obama had revealed himself as neither patriotic nor godly, those pretty much synonymous, and certainly not as patriotic or godly as they.

This is a wedge issue, one that divides us by casting some as "real Americans" and others as not.

But the sad reality that we ought to face is that, in many respects, American exceptionalism has been lost to decline and mediocrity. 

Our educational performance now falls in the mid-range of nations. Our economy, no longer the world's envy, collapsed from greed, which is, by some religious reckoning, a sin.

Yet we must not despair. There remains something exceptionally rare, indeed great, about America. 

It is that we could blow up the world, but we don't. It is that we possess the muscle to conquer and make territories of these places that we, frequently in futility, invade with our young people and military resources. But we don't. We seek to help the people of these distant lands. We let them have their oil. We may be arrogant, but we are not cruel.

But there is no Democratic or Republican advantage in that. All of us rightly share in this exercise of restraint, nobility, benevolence and fair-mindedness. 

That is to say that the best case of American exceptionalism is of no political use whatever.

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