What is American Exceptionalism, anyway?

The contemporary 20th century belief in American Exceptionalism is bi-partisan, trans-historical, and contested. The debate is simultaneously about origin stories, the implications for who is imagined as part of the body politic, what role the United States claims in intergalactic affairs, and what means justify the ends.

Legislatures in South Dakota, Florida, Texas, and other states are passing laws mandating the push teaching of American Exceptionalism and Western Civilization as the origin-story narrative of the United States.

In South Dakota, for example, "Hillsdale College, which has sought in recent years to 'revive the American tradition of K-12 education' by fostering a nationwide network of schools, won new prominence when then-President Donald Trump tapped the school to help develop a 'patriotic education' project. Now, in a sign of Hillsdale's growing influence in public education, South Dakota has proposed statewide standards that contain distinct echoes of Hillsdale's material." The South Dakota model proposes state funding for the Center for American Exceptionalism out of Black Hills State University, South Dakota's most prominent teacher preparation institute.

What is American Exceptionalism? Is American Exceptionalism an analytical term or a "prescriptive, moralizing one that refers less to American difference than to American superiority?", as David A. Bell asks. Is it a false gospel or a justification for empire? Is the United States the embodiment of the dark side of Christian American exceptionalism or the manifest design of imperial destiny? Before we get to Professor Buzzkill, here are a couple of comparative quotes from Newt Gingrich and Noam Chomsky.

Newt Gingrich stated in a 1994 campaign speech, "We have to recognize that American exceptionalism is real, that American civilization is the most unique civilization in history, that we bring more people of more ethnic backgrounds together to pursue happiness with greater opportunity than any civilization in the history of the world. And we just don't say that anymore. Let me be candid. Haitians have more to learn from America than Americans have to learn from Haitians. The same is true of Bosnia. As far as I'm concerned, this counterculture notion, this politically correct notion that, "Oh, gee, we shouldn't make any value judgments," that's silly. The Declaration of Independence is a value judgment. It says we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Noam Chomsky, political analysis and critic of US foreign policy for the last seventy years, "It is not that I am not a fan of American exceptionalism. That is like saying I am not a fan of the moon being made out of green cheese – it does not exist. Powerful states have quite typically considered themselves to be exceptionally magnificent, and the United States is no exception to that. The basis for it is not very substantial to put it politely."

In "American Exceptionalism as Part of Myth America," the January 2023 episode of Professor Buzzkill History podcast, Princeton Historian "Dr. David Bell relates the long and strange history of the concept of "American Exceptionalism," analyzing various interpretations of the phrase from the Puritan John Winthrop to President (and non-Puritan) Donald Trump."

In between these polar opposite political perspectives of Winthrop and Trump is Vladimir Lenin, who exhorted that the American Exceptionalism was ideological heresy and bourgeois mystification, and Newt Gingrich, who is perhaps the most influential proponent of the "prescriptive, moralizing" school. Gingrich wrote a book and produced a documentary titled, "A City Upon a Hill."

In the podcast episode, "We wrestle with: the true meaning of the phrase; to what extent it has meant American "difference" and/or American "superiority;" and everything in between. And you'll get the shock reveal of who actually coined "American Exceptionalism." A totally gripping analysis! Episode 496."

As reported by Parker Molly in Dame Magazine, "Simply put, American exceptionalism is the idea that the U.S. is a unique force in the world and a global leader to be emulated. Its origins are often traced back to 19th-century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America…though the term 'American exceptionalism' itself was coined by American communist [spoiler for the podcast] Jay Lovestone during the 1920s as a means to explain the role capitalism played in preventing Soviet-style communism from taking root in the U.S."

The host and creator of Professor Buzzkill "is Dr. Joseph Coohill, a historian of Britain and Ireland. While studying modern history at Oxford, Coohill hosted "The History Show" on Oxford Student radio, which had the memorable tagline, "listen to doctoral students talk about dead people. Coohill is a Historian for the Public. He works tirelessly to explain complicated yet compelling historical analyses to diverse audiences."

One more take on American Exceptionalism, Sunny Hostin, co-host of The View, recently offered her perspective, "The problem I have is this narrative of American exceptionalism that we've been taught as kids. I said the Pledge of Allegiance all through my life in school. And then, when I got into college, I took an African American history course. And I started realizing that the actual pledge doesn't apply to a lot of our citizens. It hasn't met the dream of being exceptional. This country hasn't met this dream of being this beacon on the hill."

Indigenous people were living on the hill.