Entry from November 19, 2010

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress took on such tea-party favorites as Sarah Palin and Marco Rubio as well as a tradition very much older than either of them that goes under the name of “American exceptionalism.” In his op ed, provocatively headed,”Ohhh, America, you’re so strong,” Mr Miller asked: “Does anyone else think there”s something a little insecure about a country that requires its politicians to constantly declare how exceptional it is? A populace in need of this much reassurance may be the surest sign of looming national decline.” The psycho-therapeutic language is not only typical of today’s “progressive” in its dismissiveness of those the author disagrees with as psychologically damaged or unsound — why else would they disagree with him? — but it also shows why and how he fails to understand what American exceptionalism means.

“Americans believe with all their heart,” said Marco Rubio upon winning his Senate race, “that the United States of America is simply the single greatest nation in all of human history, a place without equal in the history of all of mankind.” Rubio described his Senate race as “a referendum on our identity,” adding that “this race forces us to answer a very simple question,” he said. “Do we want our country to continue to be exceptional, or are we prepared for it to become just like everyone else?”

Mr Miller comments with a sneer: “And to think I thought the election was about who had better ideas for getting the economy moving again.”

Of course he was being was ironical. He didn’t really think the election was about who had better ideas for getting the economy moving again. He must have known very well that it was, as elections very often are, at least partly “about” the articulation of a candidate’s vision of what makes America special. The electorate is always going to be much more interested in such vision than it is in technical economic arguments. Senator-elect Rubio’s vision, like Sarah Palin’s, places its emphasis on America’s freedoms, especially including those kind of economic freedoms that they see as being under threat by the European-style statist and social democratic assumptions behind the measures adopted by President Obama and the Democrats. As the son of Cuban refugees (like a lot of other Floridians) Mr Rubio is particularly well-placed to make that case.

The point of his stress on American exceptionalism is symbolic as well as substantive. Like a lot of conservatives in a year when more people than usual identified themselves as conservatives by their votes, the newly-elected Senator was giving expression to a sense of anxiety about a President who, in his ill-judged attempts to appear non-threatening and conciliatory to America’s competitors, rivals and potential enemies, has sometimes appeared to be more interested in demonstrating his own cosmopolitanism than in defending America’s interests. After all, he famously issued his own put-down of American exceptionalism when he said: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

Actually, I don’t think he meant what he said there any more than Mr Miller did when he said he thought the election was about economic plans. For what he said was, in effect, that he believed in something that he knew was not true. I don’t think he’s that much of a cynic. Instead, he was saying ironically that he didn’t believe in American exceptionalism because it is just another name for the kind of mindless and primitive patriotism that people in all countries who are less intelligent, less sophisticated, less politically savvy than himself “cling to” — in the same way that the unsophisticated voters of Pennsylvania, as he once said, cling to their guns and their religion. If that’s the case, then it sounds to me as if the country has some very good reasons for feeling insecure.

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