The Problem with the New American Exceptionalism
By Charles P. Pierce
There were a couple of moments in the course of my trip to Florida for the final debate these last few days that came to illustrate for me that the whole idea of American Exceptionalism has become something that is theological and beyond politics and, therefore, a burden on our national character, a limitation on our national political imagination, and a hindrance to the ability of our politics to be the vehicle to find solutions to our most vexing national problems. We have become so musclebound in our self-regard that we no longer are flexible enough to cope with the challenges that arise in a changing world.
Often, it is simply a rhetorical trope: A rousing finish to a long day on the stump in Iowa or Nevada. The Greatest Nation on Earth. (Founded, apparently, by Ringling Brothers.) The One Indispensible Nation. The Shining City on the Hill. (Copped that one from icebound Puritans who were really talking about the ties that bind a political commonwealth. Ho, ho.) Sometimes, it sounds like we’re all reciting the formulas from the old Nicene Creed: God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made, or one, holy, Catholic and apostolic. Emotionally, we have internalized the litany to the point at which it has moved beyond all critical examination because to do so is the equivalent of critically examining why we laugh at piefights, or cry at the end of Old Yeller, or find inexpressable solace in the rituals of the solemn High Mass. The problem is that this kind of reflexive credal reassertion of our own exceptionalism — as though it were a hard and fast historical fact, rather than a profession of a kind of civic religion — can blind us to the mendacity in our midst and anesthetize us to the point at which we don’t notice the wounds to self-government until we’ve started to bleed out from them.
Which brings us to the two moments in question. The first came in the debate on Monday night, and it came when Willard Romney was floundering around trying to justify his long-expressed untruth that the president engaged in an “apology tour” upon first taking office in 2009. Romney said: “America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.”