How American Exceptionalism Works


Origins of the Term 'American Exceptionalism'
American communists carry posters of Russian leaders during a May Day parade in New York City in 1935. Dick Lewis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

It's tempting to say that Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French diplomat and sharp commentator on the political and cultural character of the early United States, invented the term American exceptionalism. The evidence is found in his landmark work, "Democracy in America," when answering the question of whether the example of America proves that democratic nations don't care about science, literature or art.

Tocqueville doesn't defend America's intellectual rigor — quite the opposite. "It must be acknowledged that in few of the civilized nations of our time have the higher sciences made less progress than in the United States; and in few have great artists, distinguished poets, or celebrated writers been more rare," he writes.

Instead, Tocqueville argues that America is "quite exceptional" in several important ways — its practical Puritanical origins, its innate commercial drive, its geographic isolation and distracting natural beauty — that it can't possibly function as a stand-in for all future democratic nations. Just because Americans don't care about art and science, he basically says, doesn't mean that democracy is for dummies.

So while Tocqueville was one of the first to call America "exceptional," it was certainly meant in the "unusual and different" sense, and was not necessarily a compliment.

There's a stronger argument to make that the term American exceptionalism was first coined by American communists in the late 1920s. Yes, communists. Basically, European Marxists started wondering in the early 20th century why the United States was the only capitalist and industrialist nation that hadn't experienced a socialist uprising. Weren't American workers longing for the same rights as their comrades in countries like Germany and Russia?

American communist leader Jay Lovestone argued in 1928 that the economic and social conditions in American were "exceptional" and that a moderate, reformist approach was more suitable than violent class warfare [source: Liberman]. Joseph Stalin wasn't a fan of this theory to say the least. He demanded that Lovestone end his "heresy of American exceptionalism." For his efforts, Lovestone was kicked out of the American Communist Party in 1929 [source: Zimmer].

Again, the American communists and Stalin employed the term American exceptionalism to explain the oddity of the United States, certainly not to hold it up as a shining light to the world.

But Lovestone was on to something. Unlike most European democracies, America has no history of monarchy or feudalism, and therefore less deference to the state, as well as less class consciousness. This could translate into citizens being less interested in joining trade unions (or communist parties) as well less interested in having their government dictate policy. Political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset argued that Americans identify with the social class they aspire to rather than the one they are in, so they are more sympathetic to the concerns of the small businessperson (who would be forced to pay for these benefits) than to those of his or her workers [source: Kurtzleben]. This could be one explanation for why a policy like paid maternity leave has never been a vote-getter.

Next, we'll explore how American exceptionalism came to be embraced by conservative politicians as a badge of pride and patriotism.

More to Explore