We have suddenly been overloaded with a recycled, pre-Civil War idea that will again be used by ambitious politician to enhance their election efforts. "American exceptionalism" is the political coin of the realm as potential candidates for the 2012 presidential election grope for the magic words for success. The user is unapologetically asserting that the United States is superior to other nations and has a unique destiny to fulfill.
The sudden interest in this old idea is a reaction to remarks made by President Obama early in his presidency while visiting France. Those who were offended assert that Obama called the idea of "American exceptionalism" into question. Others are equally strong in asserting that the president gave a qualified endorsement to the idea. Whatever the case, the claim of an "American exceptionalism" deserves some attention.
A look at the timing and the sources of the term "American exceptionalism" will shed some light on this idea uniquely suited for use by demagogues. The timing factor is the 2012 presidential election. The source is a list of early contenders such as Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. All have written books or given speeches that promote the idea of America's special perfection and destiny. How can we be sure that these politically ambitious people really believe this idea in view of the fact that it is an attractive, crowd-pleasing sound bite?
As indicated earlier, the theme of "American exceptionalism" can be placed as early as 1831-32 when the French author, Alexis de Tocqueville, reported its presence. A corollary of this idea was equally popular. "Manifest Destiny" pronounced that it was our obvious fate to possess all the territory between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This was the justification for our dispossession of all land inhabited by Native Americans and the conquest of what became all or part of seven states from an impotent Mexican government.
There is surely room for pride when we reflect on the impressive accomplishments that came about because of the ambition and talent of the American people. Our Constitution, our many creations in the arts and the sciences, our overall social stability and general sense of optimism is laudable. But much of our greatness came about because of the circumstance of geographical location and the gifts of natural resources. We were protected by two oceans and absent of any credible threats on both borders.
In a word, we should exercise a humble caution about how great we are and remember the maxim, "pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall." There is a very practical reason for putting the brakes on too much bragging to the whole world how big, strong and rich we are. Rightly or wrongly, every culture from earliest records until the present, studied by anthropologists and sociologists, had claimed to have a very special origin and destiny or that they are a chosen people.
This phenomenon is called ethnocentrism and refers to the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own group and culture. Usually there are signs of contempt for the culture of other groups. Ethnocentrism is to a group, what egocentrism is to a person. Just as we are offended by the antics of extreme, self-centered individuals, we are ill at ease with the conceits of other nations. This plea for a rational display of national pride will not be of interest to Glenn Beck, Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin because they are always on the lookout for slogans that are crowd pleasers.
The only true measurement of our accomplishments in history is not a comparison to other countries that may be simply handicapped by geographical location and lack of the natural resources required to be a major world power: Our only worthy standard of achievement is a comparison to our past record. When we can see clearly that we have gradually improved in the provision for the health and general welfare of our people; that we have opened the door to adequate education; that our system of justice is fair to all ranks of citizens and that ample opportunity for self fulfillment is possible for all can we suppose that we can take time out to boast.
Until then, these empty platitudes about "American exceptionalism" and "manifest destiny" serve only the aims of demagogues.
Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.