American exceptionalism is under attack. At least, that’s what many conservatives have been claiming. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin have all argued that liberals are out to dethrone America’s exceptional place in the world as a beacon of God given liberty. Ironically, though, the term “American exceptionalism” was first coined by Marxists on the left.
Over at U.S. Intellectual History, Oklahoma University professor Ben Alpers has an incredibly in-depth post where he digs into the history of the term “American exceptionalism.” The long and the short of it is that while ideas about America being a special country date to its founding, the term “American exceptionalism” originated among Marxist theorists between World War I and II as a way to explain why America did not develop a strong socialist movement.
Capitalism should lead to class conflict and eventually to a revolution and socialism, these Marxists argued, but America was an exception to this rule. Alpers points out that it was the neoconservative interventionist foreign policy of the 1990s and the two Bush administrations that prompted folks on the right to claim American exceptionalism as its own.
Lurking in the background of this unilateralist approach to foreign policy was the older meaning of American exceptionalism, though of course spun positively and shorn of its Marxism: America could have an exceptionalist foreign policy because it was different from other nations. And not only different, but superior. Although in the strictly Marxist usage “exceptionalism” only referred to a way in which the U.S. was different from, rather than superior to, other countries, the long history of American beliefs in U.S. superiority could easily be retroactively attached to the concept.
Part of the Marxist baggage that follows “American exceptionalism” is its teleology. Marxism posits a history of progress towards a goal. There will be a revolution and it will lead to equality. Similarly, today’s conservatives deploying American exceptionalism have a goal in mind—the establishment (or reestablishment) of a Protestant moral order that intertwines evangelical Christian ethics, “limited government,” and “individual liberty.” Gingrich has called this the “historic understanding of the relationship between God, the citizen and the state.”
The right’s notion of American exceptionalism is vague but it is still tied up in claims about America’s heritage as a “Christian nation” and the Founding Fathers’ love of liberty. It’s a shorthand that envelops the whole project of the religious right and social conservatism more generally. Where Marxists envisioned historical progress, conservatives use American exceptionalism as a call to the past. It’s a return to a mythical Christian founding and a time when evangelical Protestantism dictated cultural and moral norms.