America the Ordinary
“American Exceptionalism Revisited” by Daniel T. Rodgers, in Raritan (Autumn 2004), 31 Mine St., New Brunswick, N.J. 08903.
As the United States embarks on a campaign to promote freedom and democracy around the world, the idea of “American exceptionalism” has come back into parlance. To many academic historians, however, it’s an idea whose time has passed.
“Anticipations of escape from ordinary history run deep in the American past,” as far back as the 17th-century declaration by John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, that the colonists would create a morally exemplary “city upon a hill.” But the notion that America isn’t merely different from other nations but a fortunate exception to the historical forces that rule all the others didn’t fully develop until the 1950s, notes Rodgers, a historian at Princeton University. To many Cold War intellectuals and scholars, the United States suddenly seemed “an island of stable consensus in a world of heightened class divisions, ideological polarization, and revolutionary instability.” Because America had no feudal past, these thinkers argued, Americans were more individualistic, socially egalitarian, and religious than Europeans. The fact that socialism, so strong in Europe, had made few inroads in America seemed to underscore the nation’s exceptional standing.
But these exceptionalist arguments long ago went out of vogue in the academy. There, all “grand narratives” are viewed with distrust, especially since the decline of Marxism, the grandest narrative of all, after the Cold War. And without any scheme of history unfolding over time in accordance with some general historical law, “there can be no exceptions—no exceptional nations and no exceptional histories.”
Impressed by globalization’s power, historians have embarked on “transnational” studies highlighting the continuous flow of people, goods, and ideas between nations in the past. New “diaspora” studies of African slaves, Asian workers, and others depict them as “simultaneously ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere.’ They are not fundamentally reborn in the United States, nor are they evidence of the nation’s extraordinary redemptive powers and possibilities.” And the traditional notion of the frontier as a place where a uniquely American character was forged has been challenged by new “borderlands” studies that treat places such as the Great Lakes region as “zones of cultural contact” where “peoples and spaces meet and their influences spill over into each other.”
Even America’s exceptional resistance to socialism no longer looks so special to these scholars, who note that socialism is now on the run even in Europe.
Beneath the recent revival of exceptionalist rhetoric, Rodgers detects “a deep anxiety” caused by the “historically unprecedented sense of vulnerability” among Americans, their fear that the United States “is simply a nation in a dangerous world like every other.” In his view, it would be better for them to squarely face this truth.