The Old and New Exceptionalisms Revisited
Rod Dreher recently pointed out a new Pew survey on Americans’ views of the country’s standing in the world. Since 2011, there has been a noticeable decline in the percentage that thinks that the U.S. “stands above all other countries”:
The overall number has dropped 10 points to 28%, and one reason for this is the sharp drop among Republicans. That is a little surprising, since Republican politicians and pundits have been placing special emphasis on a particular sort of American exceptionalism over the last five years. During the same period when their party elites have been obsessed with using “American exceptionalism” as a catchphrase and as a bludgeon against the administration, fewer Republicans now believe that the U.S. occupies the position that their leaders insist that it naturally occupies than they did just a few years earlier. This is probably a product of the related “decline is a choice” argument, which holds that the U.S. should “stand above” all other countries, but that it is failing to do so because of its present leadership. As the phrase implies, those that believe that “decline is a choice” vigorously deny that America’s relative decline is inevitable, and therefore see it entirely as a problem to be solved by the election of a new president. The Romney campaign frequently repeated this wrongheaded idea as one of the central arguments for their candidate. This is the advantage of nationalist rhetoric–it is able to boast about the greatness of a country while simultaneously bemoaning that it is failing to live up to its innate greatness.
Pew’s new political typology report has a more detailed breakdown of how different groups of respondents answered this question:
As Rod has already mentioned, the typology that Pew uses is not without its weaknesses and misleading results, but it may still tell us something useful. While those classified as conservatives are much more likely to say that the U.S. “stands above” all other countries, the more remarkable thing is that majorities of every group identified by this survey don’t agree. A majority of “steadfast conservatives” doesn’t agree with this view, and even most “business conservatives,” who are otherwise very supportive of an activist foreign policy, also don’t agree. The hard-line proponents of the hegemonist version of “American exceptionalism” don’t speak for most conservatives, and they definitely don’t speak for anyone else.
While Pew treats these results as a measure of Americans’ belief in “American exceptionalism,” I have to note that believing that the U.S. is exceptional in certain respects because of its political traditions and institutions doesn’t require one to endorse the idea that the U.S. “stands above” all other countries. Indeed, as Richard Gamble explained in a 2012 article for TAC, the two views are at odds with one another:
The old exceptionalism was consistent with the ethos of American constitutional democracy; the new is not. The old was an expression of and a means to sustain the habits of a self-governing people; the new is an expression of and a means to sustain a nationalist and imperialist people. The old exceptionalism suited a limited foreign policy; the new suits a messianic adventurism out to remake the world.
Pew’s question suffers from the same flaw as the cheerleading for the odd hegemonist form of “American exceptionalism”: it seems to treat America’s political and military power as the appropriate way to determine whether America is still “exceptional” or not, but that is the last thing that makes America distinctive. After all, a country doesn’t have to be set “above” all others in order to be set apart in some ways. Notably, fewer than 40% endorsed the claim that the U.S. “stands above” all other countries three years ago, and less than a third agree with it now. There is no doubt that what Gamble calls the “new exceptionalism” still has a following in the country today, but if this result is any indication it is a surprisingly small one. Perhaps the frequently absurd rhetoric associated with this idea over the last few years has had the effect of making more Americans embarrassed to support it.