A recent commentary suggests that American exceptionalism has been shattered by the COVID-19 crisis. If we are indeed left “shattered” and “battered” by a mere virus and our response to it, the rest of the world may one day wish that an exceptional America was still on hand to deal with forces seeking to do much more than shape others to their will.
As we total up the collateral damage left in the wake of COVID-19 and the accompanying shutdown, let’s not forget what the virus has done to the idea—and perhaps even to the reality—of American exceptionalism. The virus alone has done this? Well, not entirely. It’s long had more than a little help from our friends on the left.
To be sure, attacks on, challenges to, and dismissals of American exceptionalism did not begin in the late winter of 2020. Remember President Barack Obama’s harrumph early in his first term when he was asked if he believed in American exceptionalism? Yes, he replied, and in the same way that a Brit believes in British exceptionalism and a Greek believes in Greek exceptionalism.
In other words, Mr. Obama believed… well, what did he believe? Did he believe that every country is exceptional in some exceptional way? Or did he believe that there was nothing exceptional about believing in the exceptionalism of one’s native land? Or did he simply believe that the entire question should be dismissed with back of his rhetorical hand?
If he believed that the United States actually is exceptional in some exceptional way, he might have bothered to mention what that was. But he didn’t.
Of course, this is the same Barack Obama who, on the eve of his 2008 victory, intoned that “we are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”
What might that statement have meant in terms of the notion of American exceptionalism? It’s hard to know. Did he mean, yes, America is different, but I am about to get to work turning it into just another western European social democracy? Or did he mean, yes, American will become exceptional when I get through fundamentally transforming it? Once again, it’s hard to know.
Still, the failure of the new president to expound on his take on American exceptionalism is telling. What it tells me is that he was all too content to dismiss the entire notion as meaningless at best and an exercise in unwarranted chest-thumping at worst.
Should his dismissal have provoked questions about the president’s patriotism? Not necessarily. But questions do remain. Does one love something that one deems to be in need of a fundamental transformation? Perhaps what it comes down to is this: Our former president loves his idea of what America might become once it is fundamentally transformed, as opposed to the America that is.
Which indirectly bring us back to the notion of American exceptionalism. Is an American patriot required to believe in such a notion? Once again, not necessarily. But it does help.
Here is a related question: Why do those on the left shy away from or otherwise dismiss American exceptionalism? For that matter, why do some gloat over the alleged damage done to American exceptionalism by COVID-19? According to Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times the “can do” country has been humbled by the virus. Instead of providing an opportunity to demonstrate exceptional American resourcefulness, the virus has revealed how much we have in common with the rest of the world. In the process, the virus has “upended” the conception Americans have had of their country, thereby “shattering the already battered idea of American exceptionalism.”
Unlike Mr. Obama, Ms. Schuessler does offer a definition of American exceptionalism. Here goes: “The United States has a special destiny and stands apart from the forces shaping the rest of the world.” Ms. Schuessler doesn’t tell her readers whether or not she has ever bought into that notion of American exceptionalism, but it would not be much of a stretch to conclude that she doesn’t. Nor would it be much of a stretch to conclude that she is pleased to see her understanding of American exceptionalism “shattered” and “battered.”
But has she provided her readers with a fair understanding of the idea of American exceptionalism? Does America have a special destiny? Perhaps. But does it stand apart from forces seeking to… OK, we’ll use her word, “shape” all others? Not at all.
If anything, America’s special destiny has something to do with shaping the rest of the world in her image, whether by example or, on occasion, by force. More than that, American exceptionalism has also had something to do with operating as a force for good in the world, while at the same time operating as a force against evil.
Of course, American exceptionalism should also be linked with our revolution and our founding on a creed grounded in individual liberty and equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. As G.K. Chesterton once put, the United States is the only nation with the “soul of a church.”
Historically, America was unique in being territorially large while being lightly governed by a central government. That is certainly much less true today. And if the response to the virus “shatters” and “batters” that aspect of our exceptionalism, the Schuesslers and Obamas will likely gloat even more.
But American exceptionalism never had anything to do with being exempt from history. It isn’t even necessarily a statement of American superiority. It is to say that America is different and, yes, potentially and actually quite powerful. And if we are left “shattered” and “battered” by a mere virus and our response to it, the rest of the world may one day wish that an exceptional America was still on hand to deal with forces seeking to do much more than shape others to their will.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.