The True Origin Of ‘American Exceptionalism’ The GOP Refuses To Talk About

In stump speeches and lectures given by Republican candidates for several cycles now, we have heard them bat about the term “American Exceptionalism” multiple times. They tout it like a flag, boldly and proudly,  proclaiming it as a status of greatness. When asked, they inevitably give credit for the term to Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who wrote the book Democracy in America. The problem is that the phrase “American Exceptionalism” does not appear anywhere within that book. In fact, the term does not exist anywhere, until 1929.

In 1929, the phrase first appeared, in a letter to the head of an American political party from the head of a foreign state. Which party and what state? Democratic from France? No. Republican from Britain? No. The letter was to one of the leaders of the Communist Party USA, Jay Lovestone. And, it was from the Soviet Union’s General Secretary, Joseph Stalin.

Jay Lovestone sent Stalin an explanation as to why workers in the United States were not inclined to engage in widespread civil disobedience, and that the general rules of industrialization did not appear to cause them as much discomfort as it did their counterparts in Europe. He said in effect that America was an exception to the economic rules that the Bolshevik’s had built their own models upon. In effect, America’s still expanding frontier, and that it was still growing, meant that the usual rhetoric and explanations did not resonate with the people of the United States.

In response, Joseph Stalin replied back that there was an “American Exceptionalism” in place. Not that America was “exceptional,” but that America viewed itself as the Exception to the established order. The Communists used the phrase in rhetoric and speeches, about how America felt it was the exception to the rules.

Joseph Stalin believed that eventually it too would discover that the same rules over the economy still applied – a prophecy which came true only weeks later when the crash led to the Great Depression. And in a dire warning, the Soviet leader strongly felt that in an attempt to cling to this belief in an exception, the United States would eventually turn imperialistic, and become a military menace to the world in order to prove its exceptionalism.

But, aside from the use by the Communists, the phrase had been forgotten, a minor note in campaign rhetoric, and there would have stayed Joseph Stalin’s little contribution to American identity if not for the New York Times. In 1980 the times ran a piece using the term pleading with both President Carter and then GOP nominee Ronald Reagan to defend that exception, saying it made the United States unique. And so began its entry into mainstream politics.

Even then however, it was rarely used, until 2011 when suddenly it began appearing in every political campaign speech almost overnight. While it was used only a few hundred times from 1980-2000, after 2010, it appeared on average five times per day within major publications or speeches, and the rate continues to accelerate. It is rare to go through any political rally, stump speech, or news show talking head without stumbling over the phrase “American Exceptionalism.” And the majority of these it turns out are Republican candidates or pundits.

So, this little letter from Joseph Stalin, criticizing America’s arrogance to believe that we were above any rules, is now being batted about as a positive thing. The irony would likely not be lost on the man.

If anything else, it underscores that America is not exceptional, but that we are deathly afraid. As we have lost our status in the world through misguided wars against unarmed nations and revealed ourselves not as the world’s police force, but the world’s bully, American Exceptionalism means nothing less than an admission of our fear to the end of Pax America.

Indeed, yes, the father of American Exceptionalism, Joseph Stalin has gotten the last laugh after all these years.

American Exceptionalism indeed.

Featured image by Bubbels