By Matthew E. Stanley / Common Dreams

U.S. Embassy London / CC BY 2.0

This article originally ran on Common Dreams.

Several months removed, it now seems clear that the Democratic debate on October 13 contained an illuminating moment that has come to embody the 2016 Democratic Primary and the key differences between its two candidates. Confronting Bernie Sanders’s insistence that the United States has much to learn from more socialized nations, particularly the Nordic Model, Hillary Clinton was direct: “I love Denmark. But we are not Denmark. We are the United States of America.”

The implication behind this statement—the reasoning that ideas and institutions (in this case social and economic programs) that are successful in other nations are somehow practically or ideologically inconsistent with Americans and American principles—speaks to a longstanding sociopolitical framework that has justified everything from continental expansion to the Iraq War: American exceptionalism. Rooted in writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and the mythology of John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill,” the notion that the history and mission of the United States and the superiority of its political and economic traditions makes it impervious to same the forces that influence other peoples has coursed through Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” the Cold War rhetoric of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and the foreign policy declarations of Barack Obama.

Despite particular historical trends—early and relatively stable political democracy, birthright citizenship, the absence of a feudal tradition, the relative weakness of class consciousness—historians have critiqued this “American exceptionalism” as far more fictive than physical, frequently citing the concept as a form of state mythology. Although different histories lead naturally to historical and perhaps even structural dissimilarities, America’s twenty-first century “exceptions” appear as dubious distinctions: gun violence, carbon emissions, mass incarceration, wealth inequality, racial disparities, capital punishment, child poverty, and military spending.

Yet even at a time when American exceptionalism has never been more challenged both by empirically-validated social and economic data and in public conversation, the concept continues to play an elemental role in our two-party political discourse. The Republican Party is, of course, awash with spurious, almost comically stupid dialogue about a mythic American past—“making America great again”—the racial and ethnic undertones of which are unmistakable. Those same Republicans have lambasted Obama and other high profile Democrats for not believing sufficiently in their brand of innate, transhistoric American supremacy.

But this Americentrism is not the sole province of the GOP. We need look no further than bipartisan support for the military-industrial complex and the surveillance state to see that national exceptionalism, and its explicit double-standard toward other nations, resides comfortably within the Democratic Party as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa censured Obama’s use of the term in the fall of 2013, with the latter likening it to the “chosen race” theories of Nazi Germany. Hyperbole notwithstanding, academics often do associate American exceptionalism with military conquest. It does, after all, have deep roots in the Manifest Destiny ethos that spurred the Mexican War, drove continental and trans-Pacific expansion, and emerged as a paternalistic justification for voluminous military interventions in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. As Dick Cheney suggests, “the world needs a powerful America.” In this unilateral missionizing zeal Clinton proves most typical. As historian Michael Kazin argues in a recent piece for The Nation: “Hillary Clinton is best described as a liberal. Like every liberal president (and most failed Democratic nominees) since Wilson, she wants the United States to be the dominant power in the world, so she doesn’t question the massive sums spent on the military and on the other branches of the national-security state.”

But Clinton’s brand of American exceptionalism goes beyond the issue of American military dominion and into the policy potentials of mid-century social liberalism and, more specifically, the neoliberalism that has since replaced it. Indeed, since George McGovern’s failed presidential bid of 1972, neoliberals, moving decidedly rightward on economic issues, have consistently employed exceptionalist code to fight off movements, ideas, and challengers from the left. The victims include leftist efforts toward both American demilitarization and the expansion of a “socialistic” welfare state. Socialist feminist Liza Featherstone and others have denounced Clinton’s uncritical praise of the “opportunity” and “freedom” of American capitalism vis-à-vis other developed nations. “With this bit of frankness,” Featherstone explains, referring to the former Secretary of State’s “Denmark” comments, “Clinton helpfully explained why no socialist—indeed, no non-millionaire—should support her. She is smart enough to know that women in the United States endure far more poverty, unemployment, and food insecurity than women in Denmark—yet she shamelessly made clear that she was happy to keep it that way.” Indeed, Clinton’s denunciation of the idea that the United States should look more like Denmark betrayed one of the glaring the fault lines within the Democratic Party, and between Clintonian liberalism and Sandersite leftism. It also revealed a more clandestine strain of American exceptionalism common among liberals and the Democratic Party elite in which “opportunity” serves as a stand-in for wider egalitarian reform. As Elizabeth Bruenig highlighted in The New Republic: “Since getting ahead on one’s own grit is such a key part of the American narrative, it’s easy to see how voters might be attracted to Clinton’s opportunity-based answer to our social and economic woes, though it leaves the problem of inequality vastly under-addressed. Indeed, a kind of American exceptionalism does seem to underpin much opportunity-focused political rhetoric.” This preference for insider politics (rather than mass movements involving direct action) and limited, means-tested social programs speaks to a broader truth about modern liberalism: it functions in a way that not only doesn’t challenge the basic tenets of American exceptionalism, it often reinforces them. Whether vindicating war and torture and civil liberties violations, talking past the War on Drugs and the carceral state, or exhibiting coolness toward the type of popular protest seen during of Occupy Wall Street, with its direct attacks on a sort of American Sonderweg, establishment Democrats are adept at using a more “realistic” brand of Americentrism to consolidate power and anchor the party in the status quo. Now the 2016 Democratic Primary has seen progressive ideas including universal health care, tuition-free college, and a living minimum wage, all hallmarks of large swaths of the rest of the developed world, delegitimized through some mutation of liberal exceptionalist thinking. These broadminded reforms are apparently off limits, not because they are not good ideas (though opponents make that appraisal too), but because somehow their unachievability is exceptional to the United States.

All this is not to exclude (despite his “democratic socialist” professions) Sanders’s own milder brand of “America first,” most evident in his economic nationalism, but to emphasize that American exceptionalism and the logical and practical dangers it poses exist in degrees across a spectrum of American politics. Whatever his nationalistic inclinations, Sanders’s constant reiteration of America’s need to learn from and adapt to the social, economic, and political models of other nations demonstrates an ethno-flexibility rarely seen in American major party politics. “Every other major country…” might as well be his official campaign slogan. This bilateral outlook does not fit nearly as neatly within Clinton’s traditional liberal paradigm that, from defenses of American war and empire to the, uses American exceptionalism tactically, dismissing its conservative adherents as nationalist overkill yet quietly exploiting the theory when politically or personally expeditious.

In looking beyond our national shores and domestic origin-sources for fresh and functional policy, Sanders seems to grasp that, from the so-called “foreign influences” of the Republican free soil program or Robert La Follette’s Wisconsin Idea or even Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, American high politics have been at their most morally creative and sweepingly influential not only when swayed by direct action and mass movements, but also when they are less impeded by the constraints of ethnocentrism and exceptionalism. The “We are not Denmark” sentiment might appear benign, lacking as it does the bluster of Republican claims to national supremacy and imaginary “golden age” pasts and what economist Thomas Picketty has termed a “mythical capitalism.” But it is the “seriousness” and very gentility of liberal Americentrism that underscores the power, omnipresence, and intellectual poverty of cultural dismissal. “I still believe in American exceptionalism,” Clinton has proclaimed in pushing for U.S. military escalation in Syria. Indeed she does, and it is by no means relegated to the sphere of foreign policy.

Matthew E. Stanley is an assistant professor of history at Albany State University in Albany, Georgia. His forthcoming book, The Loyal West: War and Reunion in Middle America, examines race, regionalism, and sectional reunion in the Civil War-era Midwest.

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