How American Exceptionalism Works

By: Dave Roos

American Exceptionalism as Political Stance

William Temple, Patrick Henry, CPAC 2018
William Temple of Brunswick, Georgia, dressed as Gov. Patrick Henry, participates in an opening prayer during CPAC 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. The American Conservative Union hosts this annual event to discuss conservative issues. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In 1980, nearly 350 years after the Puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay, then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan invoked John Winthrop's words to describe the Republican party's vision for America. It was time for America to be that "shining city on a hill" that not only serves as a beacon of good governance, but also stands up for the downtrodden the world over.

Not incidentally, that very same year marked the first time that the term "American exceptionalism" appeared in a mainstream American newspaper [source: McCoy]. It was part of an editorial in The New York Times highlighting the issues that mattered most in the 1980 presidential race between Reagan and Democratic incumbent President Jimmy Carter.


Topping the list, wrote Richard Tofel, was the "spiritually troubling question" of American exceptionalism. "Is America different from other nations?... In the past, our leaders unhesitatingly accepted an exceptional role; recently, others have derided this view as naive, imperialistic, or worse. As our unquestioned supremacy recedes, we need to decide what 'America' means to us, and what it will mean to the world."

Reagan clearly believed in America's exceptionalism and inherent greatness, and his landslide victory in 1980 marked the arrival of conservative ideals to the White House. It was Reagan who embodied the modern conservative political values of limited government, a strong military, the paramount importance of faith and family, and the unquestionable defense of liberty, at home and abroad. And perhaps more importantly, Reagan's faith in these exceptional values of American life came in response to a world in which America's top spot was under threat.

Subsequent generations of conservative politicians have taken up the flag of defending American exceptionalism while simultaneously mourning its demise. After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush and his neoconservative policymakers leaned on themes of American exceptionalism to justify the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as extensions of America's impulse to do good in the world [source: Grandin].

But it was the 2008 presidential race where the actual term "American exceptionalism" was first uttered in a presidential debate and took on its current meaning as political shorthand for patriotism in the face of perceived threats to liberty, both external and internal [source: McCoy]. As the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama embraced his own definition of American exceptionalism, one based on inclusion and opportunity, calling his entire career "a testimony to American exceptionalism."

Despite Obama's efforts, Republicans have essentially owned the term politically in the modern era. Newt Gingrich's 2011 book, "A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters," is a shining example of conservative's full-throated embrace of the term, although no presidential candidate captured the dual essence of American exceptionalism quite like President Donald Trump.

Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," boils the American exceptionalist rhetoric down to four simple words on a red hat. America is by nature the greatest nation on the planet. Ascendant superpowers like China are beating America because it has drifted from the Founding Fathers' vision of a limited government and put "globalism" ahead of "America first."

Ironically, liberal political analysts have called Trump's election "the end of American exceptionalism," arguing that the 2016 election proves that Americans aren't immune to the same populist forces of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment that placed right-wing hardliners in power worldwide and won support for Brexit in the U.K. [source: Zeitz].

Author's Note: How American Exceptionalism Works

In President Barack Obama's final State of the Union speech in 2016, he stated, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism". The difference, and I suspect the reason why American exceptionalism is a topic of global political concern, is America's outsized influence on the world. Perhaps it's less important of America's values and system of government are truly unique on the face of Earth, and more important that we use our very conspicuous position for good. Interestingly, when Donald Trump was asked on the campaign trail what he thought of American exceptionalism, he responded, "I don't think it's a very nice term... I think you're insulting the world." Maybe our politics aren't as divided as we think.

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