We should pause for just a second to reflect on how the actual term “American exceptionalism” was first used in print. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was Marxist periodicals of the 1920s that adopted “exceptionalism” in recognizing that labor conditions in America suggested a strategy distinct from that which communists were using to advance their cause in Europe.
With or without Newt Gingrich, the tone communicated by the ever-evolving term “American exceptionalism” will continue to be an indicator of one’s political identity. It is unfortunate that the political discourse these days dictates that you can’t love your country if you don’t believe in its exceptionalism. Such oversimplification is one of the reasons why national campaigns focus on symbolic language instead of substantive problems and the alternative plans candidates propose to resolve them sensibly.
Exceptionalism seems to mean, “We lead, others follow.” Instead, let’s try: In spite of our commanding power, we lead judiciously by consulting with allies and seeking widely agreed-upon solutions to international crises. Can’t America be unique among nations without dictating? That seems to be the true articulation of President Obama’s view of the contested term. His restrained view of exceptionalism (the Brits have theirs, the Greeks theirs, too) is an attitude, a sensibility, responsive to recent history; it flows from the recognition that the Bush-Cheney crowd promptly squandered the goodwill of the world after 9/11 by making unilateral decisions, and invading Iraq under false pretenses. But in a speech at Liberty University last fall, Gingrich insisted that Obama’s reference to the Brits and Greeks “proves” that he doesn’t have “any idea what American exceptionalism is.””