Our Common Good


Amusingly enough, the expression was apparently first used by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1929 in a disparaging way about the US but was later embraced without a hint of irony by American neo-cons and right-wingers.

It also harks back to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the United States as “exceptional” in the 1830s. Essentially it embodies a belief that Americans are in some magical way a ‘special people with a special destiny’.

I don’t know about you, but I find it very helpful and a great time-saver whenever someone asserts a belief in American Exceptionalism.  It’s as if they have obligingly stamped ‘IDIOT’ on their forehead in indelible red marker.

This instant idiot-identification makes it so much easier for the rest of us to completely ignore anything else they may say from that point on.

Complete agreement.

Restoring American Exceptionalism” has recently become an important Republican slogan. It’s a featured theme for Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Glenn Beck. Mitt Romney and Ron Paul at least bow in its direction, as do Rick Perry and Sarah Palin. Last month, there were hundreds of “Restoring American Exceptionalism” events during National School Choice Week (Jan. 22-28, 2012), under the leadership of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, founded by David H. Koch.

The odd thing about this is that “American Exceptionalism” was originally a Communist doctrine motivating a moderate and reformist approach to revolutionary organizing, developed and fiercely argued in the 1920s and 1930s; and the term was revived, with a similar meaning but a different motivation and emphasis, by liberal political scientists in the 1950s.

This unchallenged faith in American exceptionalism makes it harder for Americans to understand why others are less enthusiastic about U.S. dominance, often alarmed by U.S. policies, and frequently irritated by what they see as U.S. hypocrisy, whether the subject is possession of nuclear weapons, conformity with international law, or America’s tendency to condemn the conduct of others while ignoring its own failings. Ironically, U.S. foreign policy would probably be more effective if Americans were less convinced of their own unique virtues and less eager to proclaim them.

What we need, in short, is a more realistic and critical assessment of America’s true character and contributions. In that spirit, I offer here the Top 5 Myths about American Exceptionalism.