The offensive, mind-numbing debate over ‘American exceptionalism’

THE OFFENSIVE, MIND-NUMBING DEBATE OVER ‘AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM’…. Karen Tumulty reports today on one of the Republicans’ favorite attack lines targeting President Obama.

“American exceptionalism” is a phrase that, until recently, was rarely heard outside the confines of think tanks, opinion journals and university history departments.

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.

That’s not an exaggeration. Tumulty notes examples of GOP rhetoric on “exceptionalism” from Romney, Pence, Palin, Gingrich, Huckabee, and Santorum, and I’ve heard related rhetoric from like-minded Republican voices such as Liz Cheney.

The idea is pretty straightforward: those who accept American exceptionalism believe that the United States has a special and irreplaceable role in the world, quite possibly as a result of supernatural intervention, that gives us a unique character and identity.

For the right, those who resist the nationalistic impulse are failing to celebrate the greatness of the country. And with this in mind, the right appears to have a special fondness for a press conference President Obama participated in a year and a half ago in Strasbourg, France.

Obama was asked by Financial Times correspondent Ed Luce whether he subscribes, as his predecessors did, “to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world.” The president responded, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

For conservatives, unconcerned with context, the response was evidence that Obama fails to see America as truly unique.

What they invariably ignore is the rest of Obama’s response to the question.

Here’s the portion of the president’s answer conservatives pretend doesn’t exist:

“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.”

This context matters, which is why the president’s right-wing detractors tend to ignore it. To see the actual, larger response, it becomes clear that Obama appreciates a special role for the U.S. in history and in world affairs, but doesn’t see that as a barrier towards international cooperation.

But if we skip right past the rhetoric and petty swipes, we get to the point of these kinds of attacks. As Greg Sargent explained, “[T]he right intends this attack line as a proxy for their real argument: That Obama is not one of us…. [R]eally, the right doesn’t intend this as a debate over what Obama really believes. Rather, it’s part and parcel of a larger effort to advance an argument about Obama’s cultural roots and identity.”

There’s an unhealthy ugliness to the right’s presidential attacks, and this only helps underscore the malice. For the unhinged right, we have those who question the president’s birthplace and faith. For the “respectable” right, we have those who obsess over the president’s commitment to “exceptionalism.”

They are, however, related angles to the same odious strain.