Putin, Obama, and American Exceptionalism

by John MacBeath Watkins

In his recent Op-Ed, Vladimir Putin criticized President Barack Obama for using the term "American exceptionalism."

He wrote:
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
This is a bit ironic, because one of the things President Obama has been accused of in the past is not believing in American exceptionalism. But I think we may take it that a former KGB man knows the excesses that can come from encouraging people to see themselves as exceptional. After all, look at all the lives lost in the purges and famines of Russia's Communist history, because people thought they had a moral mission. But Putin is overlooking the difference between the way Obama uses the term and the way his domestic opponents do.

When a term moves from the halls of academe and the depths of the think tanks into the political sphere, it tends to be transformed, and this has certainly happened to the term "American exceptionalism."

In my misspent youth, I did a BA and an MA in political science, in which I ran across the term in its original meaning. The term springs from a 1929 conversation American Communist leader Jay Lovestone had with Joseph Stalin, in which he informed Stalin that American workers were not interested in rising up against the capitalists, because America lacked a true class system.

Stalin demanded that he end this "heresy of American exceptionalism." He ridiculed America as abnormal, but non-Marxist American political thinkers were delighted with the term.

The term gained currency in academic circles as shorthand for the curious fact that unlike European nations, America had no strong socialist movement. Communists were intent on proving it wasn't so, but their failure, even in the 1930s, to make much progress toward building a Communist movement in the U.S. seemed to vindicate the idea that America is different, and sociologists and political scientists studied why this was the case.

This is why, when the Washington Post did a story on the meaning of the term, the sources reporter Karen Tumulty contacted referred her to the work of Seymour Martin Lipset. You might say he wrote the book on American exceptionalism, and that book is American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword.

Lipset said it  “can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire.” But he saw it as having potential for excesses, such as an emphasis on individualism that fosters a contempt for the weak, an emphasis on achievement that can lead people into crime if they are denied advancement by legal means, and a distrust of collective enterprises such as government.

Lipset is perhaps best known for his theory of modernization, which says that economic and technological advancement leads to democracy, so it might be said he actually believed that the rest of the world would become more like America, and "exceptional" in the same way.

What Lipset and other academics did not take the term to mean is that America is "exceptionaly great." Yet if you Google "America exceptional greatness" the first thing that comes up is the Amazon listing for Newt Gingrich's book, A Nation Like No Other.

Gingrich, who worked as a history professor at West Georgia College until the school denied him tenure, is aware of the academic meaning of the term. From the blub in that listing:
Our nation is exceptional, continues Newt, because we—unlike any nation before or since—are united by the belief and the promise that no king, no government, no ruling class has the power to infringe upon the rights of the individual. And when such a government attempts to do so, we will vigorously reject them.
We see here both the acknowledgement of the accepted meaning of the term, in his bow to the issue of class, and an emphasis on the individual, showing that he is wielding the other edge of the sword.

At a South Carolina forum in September, 2011, Gingrich said, "What makes American exceptionalism different is that we are the only people I know of in history to say power comes directly from God to each one of you. You are personally sovereign. So you're always a citizen, never a subject,"

The notion of the sovereign citizen is beloved of the far, far, far, and further right. It is incoherent in the theory of society our nation is based on, which says that you need the sovereign -- the authority of the state -- so that your rights will be protected from infringement by those stronger than you.

Prior to the 2012 election, a Republican friend informed me that it would be an election about national greatness, which explains why Republican politicians were so intent on talking about American exceptionalism. They like the sound of the words, which when you first hear it out of context sound like you are saying "America is exceptional!"

Gingrich, who in 2011 dreamed that he might become president, and his wife Callista, also appeared in a film they produced, A City Upon a Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism.

You see, in 2009, President Obama was traveling in France when a reporter asked if he subscribed to American exceptionalism. The first part of his answer is often quoted by conservatives:
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Oh, they said, so you don't think we're better than everyone else?

The second part is more nuanced:
“We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional…. I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.”
Remember, he was in Europe when he answered this question. Aside from the fact that based on his career, what he said is apparently what he believes, how well would it have gone over if he'd said, "Hoo Yeah! America is exceptionally great!"

The nuance was needed so that he could demonstrate that the American exceptionalism he believes in is not mere jingoism. It is also consistent with his statement in his Syria speech that America has a moral imperative to act for justice even when its interests are not directly threatened.