Jonathan Chait

The "American Exceptionalism" Smear And Epistemic Closure

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The Washington Post has a story today about the common conservative meme that President Obama dismissed American exceptionalism:

But with Republicans and tea party activists accusing President Obama and the Democrats of turning the country toward socialism, the idea that the United States is inherently superior to the world's other nations has become the battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars. Lately, it seems to be on the lips of just about every Republican who is giving any thought to running for president in 2012.

"This reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism is misguided and bankrupt," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney writes in his campaign setup book, "No Apology: The Case For American Greatness."

On Monday, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who is also considering a White House bid, is scheduled to address the Detroit Economic Club on "Restoring American Exceptionalism: A Vision for Economic Growth and Prosperity."

For former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the concept is a frequent theme in her speeches, Facebook postings, tweets and appearances on Fox News Channel. Her just-published book, "America by Heart," has a chapter titled "America the Exceptional."

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, contends in his speeches that Obama's views on the subject are "truly alarming."

In an interview in August with Politico, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee went so far as to declare of Obama: "His worldview is dramatically different than any president, Republican or Democrat, we've had. . . . To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation."

And last week, Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, told a group of College Republicans at American University: "Don't kid yourself with the lie. America is exceptional, and Americans are concerned that there are a group of people in Washington who don't believe that any more."

The entire root of this attack line stems from a single sentence by Obama, endlessly repeated on the right: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." You see!, conservatives say -- he thinks American exceptionalism is no more valid than any other country's national pride!

In fact, Obama's remark was a nuanced defense of the idea. He began by acknowledging other forms of national pride, but proceeded to argue for American exceptionalism anyway:

"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

"And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

"Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

"And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

There's been a debate about epistemic closure on the right, and this is a prominent example. Conservatives repeat Obama's single sentence over and over, seemingly unaware that the context of his remarks leads to a conclusion very nearly the opposite of the one they claim. You could wade through this discussion in the right-wing media for hours and hours without ever coming across any excerpt of Obama's remark that goes beyond the one cherished sentence. It's pure epistemic closure. The other possibility, I suppose, is that all these people are dishonest hacks.

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