The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

That Exceptional Feeling


August 12, 2012

A crass, gaudy, all-American display.

Someone named Steven Walt has published an article, wildly posted on the Internet, entitled “The Myth of American Exceptionalism”. I don’t know who Mr. Walt is, but the bio says he is a professor at Harvard University.  Unfortunately we are seeing too much of this type of thinking coming out of America’s college professors. I should take the time to offer a point by point rebuttal to Mr. Walt’s article. …But I have found that people like Mr. Walt don’t really listen to facts or care too much about history. —  D. Hancock,

Academics often use words differently than their less-credentialed counterparts in the general public. The divergence usually doesn’t matter; who cares if most people misuse the phrase “quantum leap“? Yet the consequences can still be disconcerting, as with the ways scholars and the right-wing appreciate the term “American exceptionalism.”

For academics, “American exceptionalism” is a phrase that either has a specific historical meanings (for instance) or that broadly connotes a flawed and ad-hoc theory based on unfalsifiable beliefs. For conservatives, such as D. Hancock, “American exceptionalism” is an unreservedly good thing:

Mr. Walt has the right to speak his mind – this is part of what makes us exceptional.  But I and most Americans have the right to disagree with him, and in this point disagree quite strongly.  Because a large part of what makes us exceptional is the knowledge that we are, and can continue to be, exceptional.  Ideas like those from Mr. Walt and the few who consider themselves part of some sort of world society concern those of us who understand not just the privilege but also the responsibility of being an American.

Steve Walt, cosseted cosmopolitan world-government-loving Harvard egghead.

RedState, something of a Republican answer to DailyKos, has thousands of posts with messages like D. Hancock’s. Last week, a conservative talk radio host criticized the U.S. women’s gymnastic team for a “soft anti-American feeling” for not exercising in red, white, and blue outfits, speculating that the team didn’t want to offend foreigners by “showing our exceptionalism” and lamenting the fact that Americans have “lost, over time, that jingoistic feeling.” (See also.)

Of course, he’s insane. Americans are plenty patriotic, and it’s hardly the case that the NBC coverage of the Olympics has failed to sate ordinary levels of nationalist exuberance. After all, American conservatives and Chinese Communists alike agree that the country that wins the most gold becomes the next hegemon. (I’ve been reloading the medal count table several times a day, too.)

A lot of people using the term think it’s synonymous with “good.”
Google N-gram of “American exceptionalism” and “American
Exceptionalism,” 1920-2008.

But whether conservatives are objectively correct (they’re not) about levels of patriotism in the United States is not the issue. It’s the fact that the term “American exceptionalism” to them is an affirmation of everything good about the United States.

Unsurprisingly, then, a draft history curriculum in Nebraska is attacked because it fails “to promote American exceptionalism“:

“We need to specifically reject this concept that all ideas are equal or all cultures are equal,” [Nebraska Board of Education member John] Sieler told Fox News Radio. “All cultures are not equal. All ideas are not equal and we need to state that in a positive manner instead of glossing over this and having some ‘Kumbaya let’s all get along, everybody’s wonderful’ feeling.”

Sieler said he’s received at least 30 emails from constituents who are upset that the draft process was not open to the public. Among the chiefs concerns — no mention of American exceptionalism.

“I strongly believe in American exceptionalism,” he said. …

Sieler said the state needs to adopt a specific statement recognizing American exceptionalism.

I mention this in part because you may have encountered pushback on this in your classroom (as I have) and in part because you may not realize that you and your students are speaking what amounts to a different language. Assigning Walt’s Foreign Policy article might be useful precisely because Walt (despite D.  Hancock) is no squishy librul. Doing so could lead to a useful discussion of a theme latent in Morgenthau and complementary to contemporary discussions of constructivism: how does power and status generate identity?

For IR scholars more generally, the question is whether such beliefs have independent causal effects. Does it matter if the citizens and a good chunk of the ruling class of the unipole believe that their state is so constituted that it should not be responsible to international institutions?

[Ed. Note: Readers interested in Duck discussions of the nature of American Exceptionalism, particularly in the context of foreign policy and of conservatism, might check out this, that, and also this, and especially this. More good stuff in the labels.]

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