Cliff May
Recommend this article

In May 2011, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, a columnist I admire, wrote an opinion piece titled “The Myth of American Exceptionalism.” In it, he opined that the “problem of the 21st century is the problem of culture,” in particular the “culture of smugness,” the emblem of which “is the term ‘American exceptionalism.’ It has been adopted by the right to mean that America, alone among the nations, is beloved of God.”

I wrote a rebuttal, contending that exceptionalism means nothing of the sort, and that no one on the right that I was aware of – and no one, evidently, that Cohen was aware of since he quoted no one to substantiate his thesis – would define exceptionalism as he had.

So I was particularly interested to see a recent “news analysis” by The New York Times’ Scott Shane, a reporter I admire, titled “The Opiate of Exceptionalism.” In it, Shane defines exceptionalism differently than Cohen had -- but equally incorrectly. He opines – excuse me, analyses -- that American voters “demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.” He goes on to assert that Americans want their presidents to be “cheerleaders,” and that this is a “national characteristic, often labeled American exceptionalism.”

No, no, and no. American exceptionalism does not imply that -- nor is it an assertion of “American greatness,” as Shane also claims. It is something simpler and humbler: recognition that America is, as James Madison said, the “hope of liberty throughout the world,” and that America is different from other nations in ways that are consequential for the world. Let me briefly mention three.

Most nations are founded on blood. America, by contrast, was founded on ideas. This is why anyone from anywhere can move to America and become American. This is among the reasons so many people want to become American – and do. Couldn’t one just as easily move to Japan and become Japanese? Seriously? Nor can one simply become Ukrainian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Portuguese or Egyptian.

Recommend this article

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.