‘American Exceptionalism’ Next Political Hot Button?

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Many Americans have not heard the expression "American exceptionalism," but that could soon change.  Political analysts say it's likely to become one of the buzzwords of the 2012 presidential race.

The modern concept of American exceptionalism generally refers to the notion that America is a special country because of its unique beliefs in liberty, individualism, equal rights and a laissez faire marketplace. 
The expression has already been a major talking point at CPAC-the Conservative Political Action Conference.  It's the focus for a chapter in former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's latest book America by Heart.  It was also the theme at this year's Ronald Reagan Symposium at Regent University.
Symposium speaker Dr. Daniel Dreisbach says interest in the issue makes sense.   

"I think this is an issue that goes to the core of who we are as a people, as a nation, our identity in the world, and the role we play in the world." he told CBN News.

A Term Dating Back to Early 1800s
The idea of American exceptionalism dates back to the nation's early days when Alexis de Tocqueville was the first writer to use the term "exceptional" to describe the U.S.     

In the 1960s, "post-nationalist" scholars rejected the idea, arguing that the U.S. had not broken from European history and still retained class inequalities and imperialism.   

Ronald Reagan is credited by most with reviving the belief.  The late former president masterfully communicated the idea of exceptionalism as America's national purpose with catch phrases like "city on a hill."  Reagan did not, however, use the actual word "exceptionalism."   

"So far as I know, he never used the precise term 'American exceptionalism,'" Ronald Reagan Symposium speaker Dr. George Nash said.

Modern Political Weapon
Today, the term has become a potent political weapon thanks in part to President Obama, who used the expression while on his first trip overseas.

"I believe in American exceptionalism - just like I believe the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism," Obama said.
Conservatives wasted no time in using that comment as a battering ram.  But political analysts note the issue works for liberals as well.
"It can be used to say 'Oh, you just think America is just like any other country? It's kind of un-American to think that!'" symposium speaker Dr. Hugh Heclo said. "And then the other side can say 'Oh, you think America should unilaterally throw its weight around in the world and go invading other countries?'"
The concept is also bubbling up at the grass roots level.  For instance, during last year's textbook wars in Texas, the chairwoman of the state Board of Education told CBN News that teaching American exceptionalism is a top priority for the social studies curriculum.  

"I want students to understand the basic principles that have made America great-the concept of American exceptionalism," Chairwoman Gail Lowe explained.

Most Believe America 'Exceptional'
Lowe is not alone.  A USA Today/Gallup poll in December 2010 found that 80 percent of adults living in the U.S. believe that America has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.  And it found that just 58 percent believe that the president believes likewise. 

The survey also found that three-quarters believe America is at risk of losing this belief. 
"I think a lot of citizens worry that we're not living up to our principles, that President Obama -- he said this -- thinks we can move more in the direction of Europe," symposium speaker and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol said.
Kristol and others at the symposium believe exceptionalism will be a big issue next year.  Just how much Americans buy into the idea stands to affect not only our national identity, but our foreign policy.

"The question is -- how alive are these ideas in America and in the world today?" Dreisbach said.  "Are these ideas that America rightly should export or try to export to the world?"

A Form of Idolatry?
It's not clear whether the faith community will embrace the idea in the next year.  Many evangelicals do believe that America has a divine destiny as a nation -- but not everyone. 

"It can become a kind of idolatry, raising up the nation to be the redeemer, the last best hope of mankind," Heclo said. "Well, there are many faith voters who say there's another best hope of mankind and it's not a given nation."
Today, President Reagan's oldest son, Michael Reagan, is continuing in his father's footsteps, calling for America to promote its unique brand of government to the world. 

"As I travel the globe all the time myself, people come up to me and say 'America cannot fail.  The world cannot afford America to fail,' he said. "We are an exceptional, exceptional country and we have to sell that."
As the country tries to understand itself and its role in the world today, this powerful idea will no doubt shape our debate whether or not we use the world "exceptionalism."

--Published March 30, 2011.

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Heather Sells

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