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Posted at 11:18 AM ET, 11/29/2010

American exceptionalism: Does the U.S. have a unique character? Give us your examples

By Katie Rogers

The idea of 'American exceptionalism' has become an attack against President Obama, who Republicans claim is reluctant to embrace the notion.

"The proposition of American exceptionalism, which goes at least as far back as the writing of French aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, asserts that this country has a unique character," the Post's Karen Tumulty wrote in a much-discussed piece published Monday. In an press conference over a year ago, President Obama argued that every country likely believes itself exceptional -- prompting outraged responses from high-profile Republicans. See some examples of Republicans touting "exceptionalism" here. Some voices you can expect to hear more from in this debate: Sarah Palin, who has dedicated a chapter of her newest book to the concept; Newt Gingrich, who thinks Obama's views on exceptionalism are "truly alarming" and Mike Huckabee, who went so far as to say denying exceptionalism is denying "the heart and soul of this nation."

As the pressure for the GOP to find their 2012 horse mounts, we can expect to hear a great deal more about the concept and the president's view.

YOUR TAKE:Do you believe America is inherently special? What does 'American exceptionalism' mean to you? Give us your examples in the comments below or use #exceptionalamerica to respond on Twitter.

Some of your responses:

It depends on what part of the country you are talking about. I think egotistic might be a good word if one is needed #exceptionalamericaless than a minute ago via web

Occupying Afghanistan longer than the Soviets #exceptionalamerica that's pretty uniqueless than a minute ago via web

@washingtonpost Yes, the US is exceptional and unique: only experiment in true federalism by design with true freedom #exceptionalamericaless than a minute ago via Twitter for BlackBerry®

By Katie Rogers  | November 29, 2010; 11:18 AM ET
Categories:  44 The Obama Presidency, Your Take  
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Politicos and their followers are deliberately misusing US "exceptionalism" to score points. It is not about denying America's virtues at all. "Exceptionalism" refers to abiding by one set of standards for American policy and a different set for other nations. It is about legal arrogance and denial of a universal rule of law for conduct. What is a "crime" for others is OK if done by Americans. All moral principles must be capable of being universalized or it is simply not a moral behavior at all. Our government arrogates to itself the perogative of misbehavior without accountability or culpability. This is what critics mean when they decrie "American exceptionalism". To put it crudely the implication is "might equals right." But this can never be so. The bully may get away with overbearing presumption for a while, but not forever. The US will ultimately be reigned it and brought to account and it won't be pretty. I needs to start with prosecuting President George W. Bush and his cohort, Dick Cheney for war crimes against humanity. We need to return to a rule of law which allows no exceptions.

Posted by: michaelhamrin | December 1, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

You guys should stop complaining because, one the health care we have now isnt as good as it was supposed to be. also the law has just been signed so give it some time. so if u want to say u have the right to choose tell that to ur congress men or state official. If you do not have insurance and need one You can find full medical coverage at the lowest price check .If you have health insurance and do not care about cost just be happy about it and trust me you are not going to loose anything!

Posted by: robertjimeniz | November 29, 2010 11:33 PM | Report abuse

dianeb181 - One way words can be used is CONCISELY. Give it a try sometime.

Posted by: AIPACiswar | November 29, 2010 9:57 PM | Report abuse

jfv123 - Wow you been watching too many John Wayne movies!

Americans raped this land to make the capital that made us rich, we pillaged trees, mineral, water, the people who were here, and anyone who got in out way.

We've build a country so accustomed to bullying the world we've become the target of religious terrorists.

Have a nice dream, please don't let me wake you up.

Posted by: AIPACiswar | November 29, 2010 9:55 PM | Report abuse

Words can be utilized and defined in so many ways - narrowly or broadly - in widely varying shades of meaning - and to all manner of agendas.

The concept of "exceptionalism" coined by DeTocqueville and other enlightenment philosophers and writers, including Jefferson - stikes me as a more expansive, perhaps even poetic construct, embodying the ideals of that era. (Even when it isn't explicitly phrased in that exact wordage). Like the lanquage of our founding documents, it appeals to our humanity, reason and "better" nature, and seeks to inspire others towards higher ideals.

The recent right wing adoptation of the word "exceptionalism" (just as their reiterations of "socialism","liberalism", etc) seem reductive, limited and exclusionary.

Employed as a defense for
devisive, unilateral and often patriarchal and imperialistic policies, then declaring that we are so "exceptional" that "OUR" God has ordained all our actions and even our very existence, so everything we do is A-Okay and "hunky-dory".
No need to question or debate - we are self-annointed.

We don't have to ask twice, or "play nice" with other nations (unless that's what we want) and everyone else should just kowtow to us because we are, of course, so 'exceptional'!

This concept is used to defend invading Afghanistan and Iraq (Vietnam, too) and can be summed up by someone I encountered at an anti-war march who said:
"I don't care about Iraqis".

Because it's only American lives that are "exceptional" and no one else matters, except for how much they might enable us to ever more grandiose heights of power and glory and ambition.

Gee, any idea why the rest of the world might have some kind of problem with this???

But we are ALL mortal beings - requiring healthy food, clean water and air to survive - No "exceptions" to that!!
- and while some of us may be more privileged in access to a greater share of life's assets, I see it more as "the luck of the draw" rather than that being more fortunately situated automatically makes someone inately "better".

How sad that some devote so much of their brief existence on this planet in denying the worth and humanity of others.

Why is that when the right likes something they label it "exceptionalism", but they disagree with a concept (even when they don't fully comprehend it) they dismiss it as "elitism"?

My label for that is: "false dichotomy".

Posted by: dianeb181 | November 29, 2010 9:49 PM | Report abuse

Vietnam Conflict is classic Americana. You kill one million or more innocent people for no good reason, social upheaval finally ends the mistake.

Forty years later you hear young guys saying, "Yeah Vietnam, we should have kicked their butts!"

Violent hubris is very much at home here.

Posted by: AIPACiswar | November 29, 2010 9:49 PM | Report abuse

America is exceptional because. . . .

My father liberated Europe from the Nazis and asked for nothing in return.

Washington liberated our country and resisted the temptation to rule it. So far, over 40 successors have followed the peaceful tradition of handing over government power peacefully to successors who were often their political opponents.

American workers resist the temptation of politicians who offer to tax the 2% to pay for the 98%. In most countries they believe in the free lunch the other guy has to pay for. Americans know their liberty depends on resisting that temptation.

America continues to accept One Million LEGAL immigrants a year, which is more than the 200+ countries in the rest of the world combined.

Americans are endowed with unalienable rights by a Creator. People in other countries are randomly evolved creatures whose governments give and take rights as the government determines.

America was the richest country in the world and decided that fostering other countries becoming wealthy was a positive idea. How often do the rich decide its in their interest for others to become rich? Many people measure wealth on a comparative basis. One is wealthy because another is poor. Americans have believed in working to increase the size of the pie is more productive than fighting over the size of the pieces.

Note that I didn't cite economic, academic or other achievements. Believing in American exceptionalism doesn't mean we believe Americans are smarter or stronger than people in other countries. American exceptionalism is about a culture that has for over 200 years produced positive long lasting benefits that either don't exist in other cultures or that have not been sustained in the same volume for long periods.

If you don't believe these things, if you focus on the times these values didn't prevail, I am sorry you are missing out on the wonder that is America. I wish you well and hope you find the path to the light.

Posted by: jfv123 | November 29, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

As a non-American, the whole idea of "American exceptionalism" bugs me for a number of reasons:

I have only a vague idea why the right was so offended by Obama's remark. Why can't Brits or Greeks be exceptional in their own way? Greeks may not have had the Founding Fathers but they had their own exceptional flourishing of culture and knowledge. And surely there's nothing wrong with a Greek loving his country even if it's so unfortunate as not to be the USA?

Next, some of the things the right claims as "exceptional" about America aren't. People can come there from foreign countries and make good? Yes, but they can make good in Canada too - or Australia, or Argentina. Plenty of countries that may not have the distinctive US form of government nevertheless have free speech, free presses, equality of opportunity, and prosperity.

Finally, what does this attitude mean for the rest of the world? Would it be used as a justification for Bush-style pre-emptive invasions? Or for an assumption that the rest of the world must jump when the US whistles, because it is the USA? Or merely a general sympathy for the rest of the world because they aren't lucky enough to be Americans?

I'm glad Americans love their country. There's nothing wrong with that - I love mine too.

Posted by: WeeNelson | November 29, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

RuEb10 ... Republicans don't seek to deny healthcare to the poor. One objection to Obama-Pelosi-Reid CARE is that the scheme to pay for the new benefits is a fraud and an already overtaxed middle class is going to be taxed more under he Plan.
Republicans have not prevented anyone from seeking healhcare through hospital emergency rooms - where anyone can get medical help!

Outsourcing jobs? Surely both parties have participated in the adoption of economic policies which caused US manuacturing jhobs to leave the USA - Remember, Bill Clinton signed the NAFTA legislation!

Partisan poliical conclusions are not an exercise in intellectualism, so why do you insist of relaying your partisan vitriol?

Posted by: Hazmat77 | November 29, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

NotoriousBIVALVE... please provide a citation for the evidence that gingrich and Hukabee define American exceptionalism as you assert they believe.

Alexis de Tocqueville initiated the phrase and he was baaing it on the uniqueness of a government actually created by and for the People to "the most enlightened and free nation of the earth".

Posted by: Hazmat77 | November 29, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse


Nice try, to bad the complete destruction of the democratic party is taking place right before you eyes. Sure, it's a Republican conspiracy------keep thinking that and you will only speed the process.

When will you people learn, that when you start calling people names, you have already lost the arguement.

Posted by: GaGator | November 29, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

American exceptionalism, as expounded by Gingrich, Huckabee and the like is not just the idea that we're pretty good because we're democratic and capitalistic -- it's the idea that the US is inherently right regardless of what it does, therefore anything it does is right -- it is in fact excepted from the rules that govern everyone else due to its inherent blessedness.

This idea is not only wrong on its face, but is antithetical to the governing concepts behind the Constitution -- Enlightenment humanism -- which understands that we as a nation are expressly NOT any different, just as there are no people who are above the law. The real shame is that the purveyors of this exceptionalist claptrap aren't obviously considered unfit for public office by the voters.

Posted by: NotoriousBIVALVE | November 29, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

What it means today: Exceptionally inane blowhards referring to themselves as exceptionalist while at the same time threatening people like Senator Lugar to keep in line or else. Also used in political posturing in order to malign our President.

What these John Birch Society Republicans are doing to Senator Lugar is exceptionally ludicrous.

This is what happens when you give someone as destructive and extreme as Roger Ailes free reign.

You ruined your own party.

The current Republican party is emotionally disturbed, incredibly inept, and exceptionally embarrassing.


Posted by: jKO2010 | November 29, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Only an anti-American liberal (progressive)
needs to have America's exceptionalism explained to them. Frankly boys and girls I don't have the time or inclination.

Posted by: GaGator | November 29, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Only an anti-American liberal (progressive)
needs to have America's exceptionalism explained to them. Frankly boys and girls I don't have the time or inclination.

Posted by: GaGator | November 29, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Only an anti-American liberal (progressive)
needs to have America's exceptionalism explained to them. Frankly boys and girls I don't have the time or inclination.

Posted by: GaGator | November 29, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Yes, we are exceptionally arrogant

Posted by: JaneDoe4 | November 29, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps those on the right who like to write about American exceptionalism should explain why they consistently try to destroy the American middle-class by supporting the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs,the denial of access to health care, and the refusal to hold accountable those Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers who wrecked the economy. Their agenda consists of tax cuts for the rich, no regulations of bankers or polluting industries, and austerity for everyone else. Pay for billionaires' tax cuts by cutting Social Security.Prove that you believe in American exceptionalism by trying to save the exceptional middle-class, not kill it to make rich people richer.

Posted by: RuEb10 | November 29, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Going back to when the first English Puritans landed in America, "exceptionalism" has meant "better than" others in every way. Politically it means "better than" and, viewed from other countries comes across as arrogance, something Americans brag about, a place we look down our noses from. In today's poisonous political parlance, it has become a way of identifying who is "for" us and who is "against" us and is therefore an "enemy" who seeks to destroy us.

I've never seen exceptionalism as a healthy concept, but as a built-in instrument of persecution, bullying and privilege ... which probably puts me on Sarah Palin's and Newt Gingrich's enemies of the Republic list.

"C'est la vie", as they say in my great-grandfather Martin Gerard's country of origin.

Posted by: gwpolley | November 29, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Ever heard of narcissism?

Posted by: klause | November 29, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Exceptionalism? Didn't some other culture try promoting that? I believe they refered to it as the "Master Race". We all know how that turned out. Does history always have to repeat itself? You betcha!

Posted by: Brianwithaneye | November 29, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Here's a hint: Everybody thinks their country is 'exceptional'. No exceptions. Those Americans who insist that we are 'exceptional' are just demonstrating how "un-exceptional' we really are. In Europe, this kind of irrational hyper-nationalism being used as an excuse to demonize people would be called 'fascism', and that's just what it is.

Posted by: DaveHarris | November 29, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

"The president’s answer began, as his critics note: 'I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.' That is the part of the statement upon which critics seized."

And why not? It's a perfectly reasonable statement that shows both intelligence and deep humility.

The whole notion of American exceptionalism is just monumentally idiotic. It reflects nothing so much as kids on a school playground boasting to support their claims of superiority.

This kind of asinine posturing -- cultivated to horrific proportions during the GW Bush administration -- obscures our true value in the world and sets other democratic governments against us purely out of principle.

Our image worldwide needs a good dose of humility.

Posted by: haveaheart | November 29, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

There are those who believe America's future prospects are slim because we are too greedy, too corrupt, too arrogant. I say those people are peddling a lot of ignorant twattle.

I will not comment on the dystopian hand-wringing that appears cyclically throughout the history of the United States, other than to say that is a long-established tradition.  What I will say is that *America is and will remain the world's essential, indispensable nation*.  

Seriously, what is the viable alternative to capitalism?  A socialist system?  Socialism can only survive in an environment where excess wealth is continually produced, for socialism does not create wealth, it merely redistributes it.  The same goes for communism, except that communism snuffs out wealth and the mechanisms that produce it, leading to misery and destitution. North Korea, the sole remaining example of strict Stalinist communism, would utterly collapse were it not propped up by subsidies from it prosperous southern neighbor and Chinese patrons. Communism, too, can survive only in the near presence of excess wealth.  What's left? Feudalism?  Autocracy? Dictatorship?  Is it America's inevitable fate to choose from among these bleak alternatives?  I think not.

It's been suggested that China will take our place.  But is the next century to be a Chinese Century, an autocratic century?  No!  How can it be?  The current economic crisis merely emphasizes the growing, irreversible interdependence of the world system.  There will be no going back to the old balance of power system that characterized the modern world from the late 1400's through the end of the Cold War.  It's no longer a zero-sum game where more for China means less for the United States, where more for America means less for Europe.  If China is becoming more prosperous, it is *because* there is a United States, not in spite of it.  

America represents the greatest system for creating wealth in the history of the world, and without America, and its wealth, its rule of law, its robust mechanisms for providing easy access to capital markets, its stable Constitution and political system, and above all its commitment to the free exchange of ideas - without all of these a rising China would be impossible - utterly unthinkable.   The wealth that keeps the world turning, the wealth that maintains the lavish lifestyle of  dictators around the globe, has to be created somewhere, and no other nation, *NO* other nation creates wealth with the steady reliability of the United States. No other nation is, or has ever been, so founded and so conceived to do so.

Is America exceptional? Yes it is.

Posted by: jlm656 | November 29, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

We're becoming an exceptional country of rubes who are easily drawn in to inane discussions and distracted from the real issues this country is facing.

Posted by: raydsg | November 29, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

All these tacky partisan attacks over whose definition of "American exceptionalism" holds more weight is just another typical GOP play to stir the waters.
The truth is that America was founded on a slew of concepts about freedom and opportunity for individuals and families that were radical in an age of monarchies and empires imposed on people in many different regions.
For 220 years, The United States strived to live up to those concepts, with varying degrees of success and periods when the actual experience of those concepts eroded.
During periods when Americans went to other countries to pursue trade and commerce, the term, "The Ugly American" became a staple, as Americans ran rampant through other countries, without any respect for their needs.
During a bad economy, erosion of American ideals is high all around the country.
That's the case now.
We have a lot of hard work to do to stabilize our economy, but unfortunately, we have a rather powerful element in this country refusing to cooperate.
Rather, they're holding the country and our leadership hostage to the very ideas that brought the economy down in the first place.
The insistance on tax-cuts for Wall Street casino players at great expense to any chance for recovery in the rest of the nation.)
They're the last people who have ANY right to talk about "American exceptionalism."
Left up to the neo-cons of the military/industrial complex, the Wall Street profiteers and greedy corporate moguls, the eradication of "American exceptionalism" is a foregone conclusion.
They infest our Congress, our Supreme Court and they want the reins of the country back, so that they can complete the job they began during the Bush years.
They can fool some of the people all of the time, but they can't fool the rest of us.
The days are coming when they'll find out what justified rage really looks like, if they keep this drumbeat up and don't get behind our current leadership and the administration.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | November 29, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

I feel our nation was founded by people who believed in the principles of God as the One True God, and they meant our nation to run under His guidance. We are a nation that has been able to spread the gospel to all countries. We still do. We are held accountable by God for what we do and who we vote into leadership roles. We are protected by God as long as we follow His teachings, support Israel, and have Him as our Leader. If we do not do these tings, we will lose His support and become just another fallen nation.

Posted by: Digimomd | November 29, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

If, when creating the world, God decided that there would be one exceptional country called “America,” who are we to question that decision?

Posted by: tnt_bigpine | November 29, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

If, when creating the world, God decided that there would be one exceptional country called “America,” who are we to question that decision?

Posted by: tnt_bigpine | November 29, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

A few thoughts came to me as I read this article, so I thought I'd share them.

My Mother always told me that if I had to boast about how good I was, I probably wasn't. She said I should simply do my best and let others draw their own conclusions. That advice has always served me quite well. Further, when someone is always bragging to me about how great they are inevitably they end up disappointing me as I discover their shortcomings.

Countries that have tended to tout their greatness have been those such as the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba, Hitler's Germany....I'm not sure that this is company we want to fall into.

Being credited with having humility is generally seen as a compliment whereas being called arrogant is not.

Perhaps instead of running our collective mouths in an orgy of self-congratulations about how "exceptionally good" we are, we take a look at those areas where we are "exceptionally bad" (high school drop-out rates, industrial production, trade deficit, national debt, infant mortality rates--for starters) and start working on those.

Posted by: Coloradem1 | November 29, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

"American exceptionalism" is the equivalent of the phony "patriots" and their flag pins (made in china).

It's all bull - pandering to the lowest common denominator. You know the lowest common denominator - those that claim the earth is 6000 years old, evolution is only a "theory" - and that place no value in education - the ones leading this nations decline. We are "exceptional" only in the race to the bottom.

Posted by: notfooledbydistractions1 | November 29, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

Senator Richard G. Lugar, a Republican who is currently standing against his party on a number of significant issues and has been considered a sane and reliable conservative for at least 30 years, is now being threatened by the current Republican Party members who are planning to run a candidate against him in 2012. Yes, these new Republicans are now proclaiming themselves as "exceptionalists" - a self-aggrandizing, nationalistic term they'd like to award themselves. But these John Birch Society lunatics are the party of venal, intellectual cowardice.

No principled member of any party whatsoever would have stood by to watch someone like Roger Ailes take over the airwaves as president of a station that refers to itself as a "news" channel; it was preposterous but allowed and his brand of destructive lunacy prevailed.

As you sow, so shall you reap.

Posted by: jakrdy | November 29, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

For me, the term "American exceptionaism" conjurs the visual of a group of empty suits billowing rhetoric to the same tune. That's what it has come to mean to me.

Posted by: jhunter1 | November 29, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

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