John McCain and Sarah Palin have made a peculiar addition to the language of presidential campaigning. On 11 September at a Columbia University forum and at the vice presidential debate, each expressed a belief in the idea of American exceptionalism.
It is a mild surprise to see these candidates appropriating a term more commonly found in academic discussion of American society and history. “American exceptionalism” is used to describe ideas that the United States contains unique factors that make its culture, politics or character qualitatively different from any other. Such ideas are found in historical interpretation, but also in national ideology – and at points where they intercept.
Describing themselves as exceptionalists might be new, but the idea they expressed was resoundingly consistent with presidential rhetoric. Significantly, Palin twinned the idea with an evocation of Ronald Reagan and his “shining city on a hill.” Responses, such as Roger Cohen’s at the New York Times have focussed on this latter association, with its threads to John Winthrop and undertones of religious destiny. Others, such as Rush Limbaugh and Gerard Baker, have grasped at the theme of exceptionalism, seeing it as a dividing issue between the candidates. The impression persists that it belongs to and defines the American right, and by extension the McCain/Palin campaign. This is due to easy assumptions about America’s cultural divide, but also to President Reagan’s remarkably successful appropriation of exceptionalist narratives of American strength, righteousness and destiny, and his persevering hold on the current Republican party image.
At best this underestimates the giddy exceptionalism that infuses Barack Obama’s own rhetoric and image, at its most absurd it depicts him as an unexceptionalist – one who seeks to expose America’s limits, and relegate it to the ordinary.
Obama has depended on narratives of America’s unique and transcendent nature, and has presented himself and his future presidency as the product and evidence of an exceptional nation: “I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” This came from his speech last March which focussed on the issue of race in his candidacy and in America.
Though rarely part of Reaganesque celebratory national narratives, America’s racial divide is often interpreted as vital to its exceptional nature, defining the country and shaping its history. In confronting it, Obama implicitly accepted this, but also constructed around it a narrative of unique American potential for change and self-betterment.
Also implicit was his potential as a symbol through which racial understanding and national unity could be achieved.
In the end, the presidency is a fundamentally exceptionalist institution, through the myths it contains about the potential of American citizens to rise to the top, about the potential of American power and world leadership, and about the preservation and perpetuity of American democracy. It demands of its candidates to draw on and promote what it represents, and offers in its past an illustrious array of symbols through which they may do so.
While the Republicans have chosen Reagan, Obama has consistently evoked Lincoln and his vision of America as “the last, best hope of Earth.”