United States / American Exceptionalism

The Battle for American Authenticity

In February, conversations reignited about American exception- alism, as the state of Oklahoma and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani made headlines for separate incidents. In Oklahoma, legislators reviewed and later pushed for a cut in funding for AP United States History courses because, in the words of Oklahoma State Representative Dan Fisher, the AP framework “trades an emphasis on America’s founding principles of constitutional government in favor of robust analyses of gender and racial oppression and class ethnicity and the lives of marginalized people, where the emphasis on instruction is of America as a nation of oppressors and exploiters.” While it remains important to note that this bill has not passed into law and it appears that it will not, the proposed legislation brought up new conversations about how to teach American history. Supporters of bills such as Oklahoma’s believe that AP US History should emphasize more of America’s successes instead of its failings. CNN recently reported that six other states have proposed similar bills that aim to emphasize the successes of the United States while speaking little to its failings, such as the issue of slavery. Critics view these attempts by lawmak- ers as an effort to sanitize and narrow American history courses.

In the case of Mr. Giuliani, he came under pressure for a statement he made in a speech at a private dinner, which also featured Presidential candidate and Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker. In his speech, Mr. Giuliani questioned President Obama’s loyalty and love for the United States: “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the President loves America… He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” Mr. Giuliani later elaborated on his comments but did not back down. He stated that the President, “sees our weaknesses as footnotes to the great things we’ve done.”

Comments and events such as these highlight the rising debate sur- rounding what it means to be an American. The argument is quite partisan in nature. According to a recent Pew Poll, eighty-one percent of “business conservatives” feel pride in the United States; only forty percent of liberals polled felt pride for America. That pride for the United States has led many to question political leaders. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, recently accused President Obama of purposely undermining the United States in regards to the recent Iran nuclear deal, stating, “if you had somebody as president who wanted to take America down, who wanted to fundamentally weaken our position in the world and reduce our capacity to influence events, turn our back on our allies and encourage our adver- saries, it would look exactly like what Barack Obama’s doing.”

Mr. Cheney’s comments about the President do not stray far from the current dialogue in regards to the Iranian nuclear deal. Republican Sena- tors stated as much in regards to their open letter to the Iranian govern- ment this past March, explaining that any potential nuclear treaty would be revoked in 2016 with the election of a Republican president. When Sen- ator Tom Cotton, author of the letter, was pressed further by The Atlantic, he did not shy away from his criticism of the President or the Democratic Party. When Mr. Cotton was asked about whether or not the criticism of his letter resonated with him, Mr. Cotton was blunt in his response: “No… What we did was certainly more measured than what past senators had done, in conciliating with people like Manuel Noriega, Bashar al-Assad, or Leonid Brezhnev. The difference is we openly stood up to a dictator, and in a lot of those past precedents, Senate Democrats privately conciliated
and coddled dictators.” Senator John McCain’s recent statements against the Obama administration’s deal further irked the Obama administra- tion. McCain stated in regard to the deal, “I think you’re going to find out that they had never agreed to the things that John Kerry claimed that they had”. The debate was marred even further by the increasingly hostile debate between Democrats and Republicans in regards to Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before Congress over the Iranian nuclear peace agreement. Dem- ocrats viewed the invitation as a direct attack on President Obama’s stance on the Iranian nuclear deal, a view that differed greatly from Mr. Netanya- hu’s views; fifty-eight Democrats did not attend Mr. Netanyahu’s speech.

The focus on the Iranian nuclear deal highlights how the debate over American exceptionalism has changed. One end of the spectrum has painted President Obama as the new Neville Chamberlin, while the oth- er side has painted the opponents has war mongering and imperialistic. Neither side is entirely right or wrong, but neither side has productively contributed to the conversation. The President, for example, should be expected to do what is best for the United States, even if that means esca- lating sanctions or threatening military action against Iran. However, in regards to general American exceptionalism, it is not the President’s job to impose upon others the United States’ way of thinking. The President, for example, cannot be criticized for stating that he believed in American ex- ceptionalism in the same way that British citizens living during the height of the British Empire believed in British exceptionalism or Greeks during the Classical Greek Period believed in Greek exceptionalism, as he did in 2011.

The Tea Party’s rise lies at the very crux of this argument. Through homegrown values and a focus on the vision of the United States as the “City on the Hill”, the Tea Party emphasizes the need for the United States to impose itself on the world. Walter Russell Mead, writing for Foreign Af- fairs in 2011, described the Tea Party as a return to Jacksonian populism. While questioning elites and the political status quo can be beneficial for debate, the Tea Party’s stance on foreign policy issues has reared its ugly head. Embracing uber-nationalism, the Tea Party embraces, in the words of Mr. Mead, “total war…They are prepared to support wholesale violence against enemy civilians in the interest of victory; they do not like limited wars for limited goals…” In short, the Tea Party is not interested in inter- national diplomacy and bilateral treaties that would act as a limitation on American action abroad. The Tea Party seeks a free-reigning, free-wield- ing American super power, that can impose itself on others. While in cer- tain instances that may be required, the Tea Party’s views run counter to the current status quo and in many cases, could serve to further alienate or harm America’s standing abroad. The Tea Party’s role, both in regards to the removal of Republican moderates for Republican extremists, and its role in shifting the debate towards emotions rather than fact, has helped bring about this new debate regarding American exceptionalism. As a na- tion, the good and the bad must be recognized. Neither Democrat nor Republican has been immune to buying into American exceptionalism. Both Democrat and Republican Presidents have committed heinous acts in the name of American exceptionalism, whether it be American imperi- alism in the late 19th century, CIA covert actions during the Cold War, or recent efforts in the Middle East. By acknowledging both the good and the bad, America will move forward as one instead of dividing into many.