The notion of American exceptionalism is back in the news. Mitt Romney's foreign policy vision, laid out in a speech Tuesday, was “long on the soaring language of American exceptionalism,” as The Washington Post put it. And in The Daily Beast the same day, the political consultant Doug Schoen wrote that the idea "undoubtedly informs the way many voters look at the world, and may also inform the choices they make at the ballot box."
The Post appeared to be referring to assertions by Romney like this one: "Our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair." And Schoen defined American exceptionalism similarly: "The notion that America should, and does, play a special role in world affairs."
That's the conventional way of thinking about American exceptionalism these days, but it's dangerously wrong. The term was coined by Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French political sociologist. For him, the U.S. was exceptional not because of its role in the world—the country's presence on the world stage was very limited in the 1830s—but because it was different, internally.
The U.S. was exceptional, de Tocqueville argued, in its focus on unqualified individualism, hard work, devotion to money-making, and, ironically, in its equality of income. Americans also were different because of their "strictly commercial habits," which came at the expense of attention to literature and the arts. It should be clear that the American exceptionalism described by de Tocqueville was not entirely positive.
The definitive book on the subject, by the late political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, likewise defines America as "qualitatively different," not superior. In the aptly titled American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (1997), Lipset noted that America has uniquely high levels of religiosity, individuality, patriotism, participation in voluntary organizations, crime, incarceration, litigiousness, and commitment to work. It also has distinctively low levels of voter participation, equality, eligible electoral voters, leisure time, socialist influence, and respect for authority. This list, too, is plainly not all encouraging. "It is a two-edged phenomenon," Lipset wrote, with many of America’s positive aspects deriving from the same ideas and habits as its negative features.
So how did we come to understand the idea differently, as a description of America's powerful and uniquely just role in world affairs? One key moment occurred when President Woodrow Wilson took the United States into World War I, explaining that he did so on the basis that this country alone had altruistic motives. “We have no selfish ends to serve," Wilson said to Congress in 1917. "We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make."
That idea was reinforced during the Cold War, when the U.S. took on the unchallenged role as the leader of the free world. And the implosion of the Soviet Union, leaving America as the world's unchallenged superpower, only moved things further in that direction.
But the consequences are troubling. As Romney's bellicose speech demonstrates, the notion that it's our military supremacy that makes us special can skew the kind of foreign policy we conduct. As Madeleine Albright is supposed to have asked Colin Powell: "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"
Just as important, military powers come and go, as Britain, Germany and Russia, among others, can tell you. Even after the U.S. loses its place as the primary military power in the world, as it inevitably will someday, the country will still be exceptional. Not better. Just different.
Jordan Michael Smith is a Contributing Writer at Salon.