The 'American Exceptionalism' Distraction

The key question isn't about exceptionalism but rather intervention.

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Sparkler and American flag
Sparkler and American flag

I yelled at my TV Thursday night, and it wasn’t because the Jets lost to the Patriots or my four-year-old niece messed up the remote. It was because I’ve reached the point of no return watching a confederacy of dunces scrabble across every cable news network blowing enough gas about American exceptionalism to fill 99 red balloons.

The injection of American exceptionalism into the Syria debate is nothing more than a misleading distraction. The dunces want us to believe that American exceptionalism is a partisan talking point defined in circular terms: America is exceptional because America is exceptional. They also want us to believe that American exceptionalism is an ideology coming with a pillbox full of medications that solve every political problem. None of this talk addresses the real question: do we intervene in Syria or not?

[Check out editorial cartoons about Syria.]

This distraction, or course, comes with many political advantages. It helps polarize the public and advance the agendas of many an ambitious politician. If one buys into the ideology, then liberals believe America is ordinary, which justifies spending more on food stamps, infrastructure and health care. Conservatives believe America is extraordinary. Limited government, the free market and protecting the U.S. super power role are akin to liberty, egalitarianism and individualism – bedrock values of American democracy.

American exceptionalism isn’t an ideology, it’s an academic theory based on the idea that America is unique both in character and purpose. When academics study it, they define exceptionalism in scientific terms. That is a concept that is measurable, testable, and comparable to other countries around the world: factors such as socioeconomic status, economic development and public policy performance.

This research has yielded debatable findings. Some academics find that America is exceptional and others that it isn’t. It’s exceptional that we spend the most money of western democracies on education, but not in that our students rank lower than other countries when it comes to math and science skills. It’s exceptional that we promote human rights, but not in that we don’t do it consistently. In short, America is selectively exceptional.

[See political cartoons about President Obama.]

Selective exceptionalism is a problem, and it’s a result of our muddled, unclear mission in the world. President Obama argues that the U.S. isn’t the global cop, but then engages in many military actions that indicate otherwise. Republicans are quick to push taking a hard-line with Iran and North Korea then can’t come to a consensus on dealing with Syria. The country needs a clear vision, and one that forces politicians to deal with politics in pragmatic terms. Until voters put pressure on them to change the only thing that will be exceptional is confusion.

  • Read Ford O'Connell: Hope and Change? More Like Indecisive and Ineffective
  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Questions for Both Sides on Syria
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics