American exceptionalism is currently at the heart of a great debate over the country’s future and, according to one presidential hopeful at least, will be “one of the two or three deciding issues in 2012.” USA Today devoted its cover story yesterday to the storm of controversy that President Obama’s off-the-cuff remarks on the subject in Strasbourg last year continue to generate. According to a Gallup poll commissioned by USA Today for the story, three quarters of Americans fear that the country is at risk of losing its unique character.

Though the phrase “American exceptionalism” does get tossed around a lot, confusion reigns over its actual meaning. Before deciding whether American exceptionalism is a good or bad thing, whether it’s threatened or not and whether the President actually embraces it, shouldn’t we first figure out what it actually means?

Does it mean, as the USA Today/Gallup poll asked, that America “has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world?” Or does it only indicate that “America has a special place and role in the world,” as Mitt Romney writes in No Apology: The Case for American Greatness?

Is it nothing more than a fancy way to speak of patriotism, as President Obama’s remarks in Starsbourg suggest, suspecting as he does that all people belive in the exceptionalism of their country? Or is it in fact a form of jingoism, anchored in what The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart calls “the lunatic notion that America is the only truly free and succesful country in the world” and what Politico’s Michael Kinsley dismisses as the “theory that Americans are better than everybody else”?

Continue reading →