In a democracy, politicians seldom counsel the public to be modest. They flatter and praise the voters, telling them that they are just and wise, hardworking and principled, possessed of boundless vision and common sense. And here in America at least, they also generalize those virtues from the people to the nation itself. America, Americans are endlessly reassured, is unique and special among the world's countries. It isn't just that we're the most important country, which is undeniable, since we have the biggest economy, the biggest (and most frequently deployed) military, and the most influential popular culture. Those things could change someday. Instead, what voters are told over and over again is that we're "exceptional." We're not just stronger or richer; we're better. Indeed, we're stronger and richer because we're better. And we may well be exceptional in how often we're told that we're exceptional. My knowledge of the electoral politics of other nations may be limited, but I don't recall hearing about presidential candidates in Portugal or Peru who feel the need to convince voters that their country is superior to all others and they are the world's best people.
So some people were taken aback last week when Vladimir Putin, in his op-ed in The New York Times last week, took exception to Barack Obama's talk of exceptionalism. "I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States' policy is 'what makes America different. It's what makes us exceptional,'" Putin wrote. "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation." He probably didn't realize that every American president says that sort of thing; it's our national program to build self-esteem. That's how politicians put a gold star sticker on our papers, pat us the head and tell us that we're smart and kind and good-looking, and if the other countries don't like us then that's their problem, not ours.
It was a bit amusing to see Barack Obama being chastised by Putin for his comments on American exceptionalism, since it put conservatives in the uncomfortable position of defending the president for the very thing they spent so much time criticizing him for in the past. It seems like a distant memory now, but Republicans spent most of their 2012 presidential primary competing to see who was most appalled by Obama's allegedly insufficient belief in America's uniqueness. There was barely a Republican contender's stump speech that didn't feature thunderous insistence that, unlike that anti-American socialist in the White House, they knew deep in their red, white, and blue bones that this great land stands alone. Mitt Romney titled his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness; Newt Gingrich offered A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. "America is different," wrote Tim Pawlenty in his book. "And what makes us different makes us great. Barack Obama doesn't see it that way." Or as Sarah Palin put it in her inspiring tome America By Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, Obama "seems to see nothing admirable in the American experience."
The fact that back here on planet Earth, Obama has always peppered his speeches with assurances of America's exceptionalism didn't much matter to them (though it seemed to Putin). Nevertheless, even the most gung-ho hyperpatriot might occasionally feel a tiny tickle of doubt over the fact that his country takes it as its privilege, alone among nations, to invade or bomb whoever it pleases on a regular basis. The assumption that we have every right to do so is neatly justified, however, if we are not just the strongest but also the most virtuous. Our bristling arsenal of weaponry is not the product of a series of happy accidents of geography and history but the consequence of the Lord's grace, unambiguous and eternal. You might recall that in 2003 when Howard Dean remarked offhandedly that "We won't always have the strongest military," the reaction from Democrats and Republicans alike was one of horror, as though he had said that God would eventually forsake us. Perhaps that fear is why it has become all but mandatory for American politicians to end every speech with "God bless America," as though they're reminding the Almighty that America is due more than its share of heavenly consideration.
It's true that having the world's biggest military imposes on us obligations other nations don't have. The citizens of Mongolia don't need to wonder whether they should intervene to stop the carnage of a civil war thousands of miles from their borders. But the truth is that we only undertake humanitarian interventions like the one we're contemplating in Syria when our moral outrage lines up with our economic or geopolitical interests. President Obama may say that simply because we are America, we have to do something about the slaughter in Syria. But we never even considered intervening in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where years of civil war have left millions dead (Obama himself raised the question of the Congo in an interview earlier this year, but didn't answer it).
That's rather unpleasant to think about, if you believe our motives are always pure. But like Stuart Smalley, the desperately insecure self-help addict created by Senator Al Franken in his previous career, we need to keep telling ourselves that we're good enough, we're smart enough, and doggone it, people like us.
In case you haven't heard, education researchers began realizing a few years ago that all that self-esteem building parents and schools have been doing over the last couple of decades doesn't work. It turns out that if you just tell kids they're smart and wonderful, they have trouble when they encounter difficult problems. Cultivating traits like persistence is much more important.
Maybe there's a lesson there for the country. There are certainly things only the United States can do, but perhaps there are some international problems we can't solve. Perhaps we're not the hero of every story. America stands apart from other countries in many ways; some of them are justifiable sources of pride, others not so much. Putin is a repellent character, combining a dictator's inclinations with his own special brand of shirtless buffoonery. But none of us should be surprised when people in other countries get a little tired of American politicians constantly proclaiming our superiority.