The Inflated Value of American Exceptionalism

Sadly, I am old enough to have seen the tone and intensity of patriotism ebb and flow wildly over the years. Of course, nothing causes it to shoot up like national security threats, Olympic Games, and political campaigns using different versions of it to curry favor with voters.

Enter 2016, where we have had all three in large doses. There is not necessarily more of these three types of fuel for our fodder, but the exposure to that fuel is off the charts due to the seemingly unlimited access to all of it.

Were the Olympics on twenty-four hours a day? It sure felt like it. In any case, the Americans were exceptional. And that filters down and throughout our culture as if it is proof of our appropriate place as the shiny city on the hill.

While contemporary politics is uniquely chaotic, both sides of our presidential race seem to be dueling for the legitimate claim as the candidate or party that is most American or patriotic. In recent days, there has been a bit of a debate on the belief in “American exceptionalism.”

Many would assume that this would be a Republican mantra. The 2012 Republican Party platform included a commitment to it defining it as “the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history.”

Dictionary.com defines “exceptionalism” as “a theory that a nation, region, or political system is exceptional and does not conform to the norm.” In practice today in America, it translates more toward a patriotic arrogance that is beyond a simple love of country but more of a role of the anointed standard bearer bringing greater authority than actually exists.

How our presidential candidates translate it is awkward however.

Hillary Clinton is embracing the theory and is unapologetic about it. In her recent speech to the American Legion, she explained that our status as exceptional gives us a power that comes with “a responsibility to lead.” While I tend to agree with that, I also believe that our leadership in general should lean more toward setting the example that we believe our nation to be and less like one from which the international community desperately wants unsolicited input.

Donald Trump oddly doesn’t like the use of the word. In a recent article in The Atlantic, he said “I don’t think it’s a very nice term, ‘we’re exceptional, you’re not’ … I never liked the term.” I find that odd because of his isolationist positions on so many things, but it makes a little sense when coupled with his slogan of “make America great again.” The contradictions in his campaign are obviously numerous.

Republicans don’t like conceding this pumped up version of nationalist sentiment to the Democrat candidate. But no matter who is embracing it, if that candidate wins, my advice is to put it in useful perspective.

I have reasons I caution our leaders, and every other citizen, on getting carried away in this regard. The first one is, as I have written several times before, that our most productive long term approach to foreign policy is to find ways to be hated less by other nations and peoples. The result of boastful exceptionalism is a reduction in our diplomatic options.

It is well established that Hillary Clinton should be expected to be more aggressive than President Obama on foreign policy. Her comfort with the view of America’s exceptional position on the world stage and the “responsibility” that comes with it, hints a foreign policy approach that is a meaningful shift. Many Americans complain that President Obama has been too weak, and while I disagree, Clinton will move closer to them ideologically.

Trump, on the other hand, may not like the term, but he behaves as if he invented it. His immigration viewpoints and willingness to label foreign groups as the enemy with great ease and a lack of measured temperament, will communicate to the world that he sees Americans as superior and that he alone is the authority on such rankings.

During Trump’s recent trip to Mexico, Gov. Mike Pence made the comment regarding the border wall, “good fences make good neighbors.” And while his attribution of the quote as “an old saying saying in Indiana,” overlooks it as a rather old proverb and a famous excerpt from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” it is a useful quote about the value of being a good neighbor more so than the value of a good fence.

We need to put more thought into that particular sentiment. And simultaneously, give our chest pumping a nice, extended rest.