If you're running to replace a sitting president, your campaign needs a theme beyond "throw that bum out," a vision that helps define you and where you think the country should go. You may not have noticed it, but nearly all the Republicans looking to win their party's nomination to run against Barack Obama have settled on the same motif: America is awesome.
You were hoping for something a little more meaty? Sorry -- the GOP watchword of the moment is "American exceptionalism," and the candidates seem to be banking their campaigns on it. If you've been paying attention to the incipient election efforts, you've heard that phrase with increasing frequency. For the next year and a half, Republicans will be talking a lot about how special America is.
Any good campaign theme contains an implicit contrast, and the one the Republicans want to draw is plain: They believe in American exceptionalism, and Barack Obama doesn't. We are not just great, this argument goes; we are superior to every other country on Earth in every way that matters; we always have been and always will be, so long as Obama and the liberals can be thwarted in their nefarious plans to run America down.
This has been a conservative refrain almost from the moment Obama took office, but we have reached a point of unanimity among the presidential candidates that American exceptionalism should be at the heart of the 2012 election. "I refuse to believe America is just another place on the map with a flag," thundered Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich's Gingrich Productions, part of his sprawling media empire, recently produced A City Upon a Hill, a documentary in which various political figures talk of America's terrific-ness over footage of amber waves of grain. Newt's new book, in stores next month, is called A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. You may want to put it on your shelf next to Romney's No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. And Michele Bachmann devotes a healthy portion of her stump speech to the plan laid by God and the Founders to make America superior to all other countries.
But wait, you may ask -- doesn't Obama say the same kind of thing pretty frequently? Look, for instance, at the speech he gave about military intervention in Libya. "Some nations," he said, "may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different." Or what about his last State of the Union address, where he went on and on about America's uniqueness? "We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea," he said, adding that this is "the greatest nation on Earth." But if you think that's the real Obama, you just don't get it.
You see, the Republicans running for president know the truth, which is that a single sentence Obama uttered at a press conference in France in April 2009 is the Rosetta Stone of the president's perfidy, the only thing you need to understand his real contempt for America. It's been quoted in nearly all of the books written by the presidential candidates as well as in hundreds of newspaper columns, speeches, articles, and blog posts by conservative figures. "I believe in American exceptionalism," Obama said in response to a journalist's question, "just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." He went on to explain how America's leadership, its economy, its military, and its values give it a unique place in the world -- in other words, explaining why his belief in American exceptionalism is justified.
But that part is always left out when conservatives use the statement as evidence of the festering tumor of contempt for his country that lies deep in Obama's soul. "America is different," writes Tim Pawlenty in his book. "And what makes us different makes us great. Barack Obama doesn't see it that way." They understand Obama's true self.
Scoff at all this if you must, but it isn't as though anyone ever suffered at the ballot box for being too simplistic and nationalistic. We tend to believe that many good things could "only" happen in America, even when they can happen in plenty of other places as well. Force Americans to say whether our country is or isn't exceptional (no third option, no waffling), as Gallup has, and four out of five will say yes. In a poll taken in November by the Public Religion Research Institute, 58 percent of Americans agreed that "God has granted America a special role in human history." Those who agreed with this statement, the researchers said, "are more likely to favor military strength over diplomacy as the best way to ensure peace, and they are also more likely to say torture can be justified than those who do not believe God has given the U.S. a special role. These differences are especially pronounced among white Americans." In other words, the people who respond most to the message of American exceptionalism are likely to be those already in the Republican column.
I could list the various ways in which America exceeds other countries (most Nobel Prize winners!) and come up with just as many where we fall short (highest proportion of citizens in prison!). But that, of course, would be just what you'd expect from a liberal. When liberals cite national problems that need attention, their opponents often respond, "See? Look how little they care for their country." Conservatives escape the same criticism by defining the problems that concern them not as complex conditions with multiple causes but simply the fault of liberals. This makes those problems not deficiencies of America but betrayals of America. Bill Clinton used to say that there is nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed by what's right with America; the GOP candidates would amend that to say that there's nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed by electing more Republicans.
That's because all these cries of American exceptionalism from the GOP amount to little more than each party's contention that the things it wants to do will make the country better, while the things the other party wants to do will make the country worse. But all the talk of America's essential nature and its grand destiny takes the mundane policy differences of the moment and turns them into an epic battle whose fate reverberates through human history. So when Republicans advocate for their favored tax policies, they aren't shilling for the wealthy; they're standing on the shoulders of Jefferson and Madison. When they try to cut Medicaid, they aren't waging war on the poor; they're fulfilling God's plan for our nation. It's a happy coincidence that were we to modestly reduce our military expenditures, we would no longer be exceptional, but our middling schools and our 50 million uninsured don't stop us from being heaven's favorite.
You can love your country and still find the political discussion about American exceptionalism deeply dispiriting, replete as it is with absurd misreadings of history and nationalistic chest-thumping. No sane person would say we should choose our president based on who tears up fastest at the opening bars of "God Bless America." Is it inane? Of course. Will it only get more so as we move toward November of next year? You can bet your flag pin on it.