TAC contributor and Front Porch Republic senior editor Patrick Deneen has an article on American exceptionalism in the same journal as James Ceaser’s article discussed here. Prof. Deneen identifies three historical stages of American exceptionalism:
I will adopt the categories of “exemplarist” and “expansionist” and discuss how these tendencies were first manifested in both “communitarian” and “liberal” American traditions. I will discuss three broad categories, corresponding as well to historical stages, in which exceptionalism has been manifested: first, a form of “communal exemplarism,” especially prevalent in early American history; second, a form of “liberal exemplarism” (although this stance is complicated by the fact that statements of such exemplarism were accompanied by forms of domestic expansion in the form of manifest destiny); and third, “liberal expansionism,” expressed in more recent history.
Deneen identifies what he sees as the common traits of all three historical stages and both the “exemplarist” and “expansionist” types:
Regardless of the differences to be drawn between exemplarist and expansive forms of American exceptionalism, all share in common a rejection of an Augustinian understanding of the biblical phrase “city on a hill.” The rejection of the Augustinian understanding is the precondition of a belief that a nation’s political destiny can be seen in some way to be in accord with, or even advance, the will of God. The belief that there is a continuity between a vision of “Zion,” or “the Promised Land,” and the history and trajectory of an existing nation—as has been the tendency in American history from its very outset—invests politics with a missionary ambition, whether oriented toward domestic, international, or even cosmopolitan ends. This tendency to collapse the “two cities” is perhaps the defining feature of modern liberalism, particularly the belief that human effort could advance, accelerate, or even precipitate the realization of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
If this right, the debate over American exceptionalism doesn’t normally pit exceptionalists against anti-exceptionalists, but involves disputes between the different strands of American exceptionalism over interpreting and applying it in the political sphere. It is fair to say that adherents of the “liberal exemplarist” form are less inclined to invoke American exceptionalism in their arguments, because it has had associations with foreign wars for such a long time, and those associations seem to have only become stronger in the last decade.