The third life of American Exceptionalism

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"Restoring American Exceptionalism" has recently become an important Republican slogan. It's a featured theme for Newt GingrichRick Santorum, and Glenn Beck.  Mitt Romney and Ron Paul at least bow in its direction, as do Rick Perry and Sarah Palin. Last month, there were hundreds of "Restoring American Exceptionalism" events during National School Choice Week (Jan. 22-28, 2012), under the leadership of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, founded by David H. Koch.

The odd thing about this is that "American Exceptionalism" was originally a Communist doctrine motivating a moderate and reformist approach to revolutionary organizing, developed and fiercely argued in the 1920s and 1930s; and the term was revived, with a similar meaning but a different motivation and emphasis, by liberal political scientists and historians in the 1950s.

The OED's gloss for  the entry exceptionalism jumps on this leftist history without even needing the modifier American:

The theory that the peaceful capitalism of the United States constitutes an exception to the general economic laws governing national historical development, and esp. to the Marxist law of the inevitability of violent class warfare; more generally, the belief that something is exceptional in relation to others of the same kind; loosely, exceptional quality or character.

Until the 1970s, all the OED's citations are from communist or at least Marxist sources:

[1928 J. Lovestone in Communist Nov. 660   We are now in the period of decisive clashes between socialist reformism and communism for the leadership of the majority of the working class. This is in all countries of high capitalist development with the exception of the United States where we have specific conditions.]

1929 Brouder & Zack in Daily Worker (N.Y.) 29 Jan. 3/2   This American ‘exceptionalism’ applies to the whole tactical line of the C.I. as applied to America. (This theory pervades all the writings and speeches of the Lovestone–Pepper group up until the present.)

1945 Political Affairs July 603/2   When we argued against Jay Lovestone, who was expelled from our ranks years ago, we pointed out that Lovestone‥put forth his theories of exceptionalism because he was influenced by the exaggerated strength of American imperialism.

1957 E. R. Browder Karl Marx & Amer. iii. 29   The exceptionalism of America is one of concrete historical conditions, but not of laws and principles of economic development.

However, liberal historians recycled the phrase during the 1950s, as Michael Rogin explains in this passage from Ronald Reagan, the Movie, and other episodes in political demonology, 1988:

The doctrine of American exceptionalism developed within a wing of American Communism in the 1930s to explain the failure of Marxian socialism to take root in the United State. American exceptionalists contrasted the limited and superficial conflicts in America to the more tenacious social and political divisions that had generated revolution and dictatorship. American exceptionalism thus underlay the consensus interpretation of American politics offered by such writers as Richard Hofstadter and Louis Hartz, interpretations that dominated the 1950s. The United States, these scholars claimed, lacked the class loyalties, the fixed and deeply rooted statuses, and the powerful state structures of societies with feudal and absolutist pasts. Consensus historians attributed American distinctiveness to such factors as material abundance, the pervasiveness of liberal individualism, social and geographic mobility, ethnic conflict, and a pluralist political tradition. They argued that this combination of factors created political fragmentation within America instead of one or two large and explosive divisions.

Countersubversives, in this view, failed to grasp the fundamental harmony of American political life. Importing Europen fears into America, they imagined enemies that did not exist. They transformed American pluralist realities into an imaginary, two-sided struggle between the forces of good and an empire of evil. […]

Men like Hofstadter, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Daniel Bell, who pioneered the symbolist approach, came from an immigrant, urban milieu and had been socialists in their youth. They turned away from Marxist categories in part by invoking the distinctive features of American life that had discouraged a class-based, ideological socialism and encouraged irrational, status-based movements instead. American history, as they saw it in the 1950s, was characterized not by the presence of revolutionary subversives but by (in McCarthyism) the irrational obsession with them. Deriving the paranoid style from ethnic and status-based conflicts in nontraditional, mobile, affluent society, Hofstadter and his colleagues were shifting from a doomed search for what the United States shared with Europe to a discovery of what was distinctively American. Diversity made a cosmopolitan liberalism dominant in American life, they believed, particularly once the New Deal admitted the immigrant working class to a share of political and economic power. But the paranoid style was the price America paid on its margins for the complexity, tolerance, and interest-orientation at its center. […]

In classic American fashion, however, these historian children of immigrants were turning their own autobiographies into American history. They were elevating the conflicts between immigrants and natives, the upwardly mobile and the downwardly mobile, into the central principle of non-interest-based American historical conflict. Protestants from the American hinterland — nativists, abolitionists, Populists, and Klansman — were the alleged sources of the paranoid style. It was as if the children of immigrants were saying to their old-family targets, "You had the fantasy that our parents were dangerous to you; that fantasy made you dangerous to them. When America belonged to you, you tried to exclude us. Now with the New Deal, it belongs to us as well. But whereas you had only superstition and religion to delegitimize us, we can use modern, scientific methods to discredit you."

Given this, it's ironic that Fred Koch, founder of Koch Industries, was one of the founders of the John Birch Society, a key analytic target of Hofstadter's essay on "The Paranoid Style in American Politics".

The Wikipedia article on American exceptionalism offers a rather more pastel picture, citing a 2011 Gordon Wood quote about "our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy", and asserting that "This observation can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the United States as "exceptional" in 1831 and 1840". Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks also make the connection to de Tocqueville in It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, 2000:

The United States, as noted by Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Engels, among many visitors to America, is an "exceptional" country, one uniquely different from the more traditional societies and status-bound nations of the Old World. The term "American exceptionalism," first formulated by Tocqueville in the 1830s, and since used in general comparative societal analyses, became widely applied after World War I in efforts to account for the weakness of working-class radicalism in the United States.

As far as I can tell, this history is inaccurate. Tocqueville did not use the (French equivalent of) the term "American exceptionalism", but rather wrote that "La situation des Américains est … exceptionnelle", and made this observation in a completely different context, arguing that "l'exemple des américains ne prouve point qu'un peuple démocratique ne saurait avoir de l'aptitude et du goût pour les sciences, la littérature et les arts" ("the example of the Americans does not prove that a democratic people can have no aptitude or taste for science, literature, and art"):

Je ne puis consentir à séparer l'Amérique de l'Europe, malgré l'Océan qui les divise. Je considère le peuple des États-Unis comme la portion du peuple anglais chargée d'exploiter les forêts du Nouveau Monde, tandis que le reste de la nation, pourvu de plus de loisirs et moins préoccupé des soins matériels de la vie, peut se livrer à la pensée et développer en tous sens l'esprit humain.

In spite of the ocean that intervenes, I cannot consent to separate America from Europe. I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people who are commissioned to explore the forests of the New World, while the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote their energies to thought and enlarge in all directions the empire of mind.

And in fact, I haven't been able to find any uses of the term "American exceptionalism" earlier than the OED's 1929 Daily Worker citation, which is a dozen years past the end of WW I.

Its recent revival may involve a tinge of "those Europeans are socialists but we're not", but the third-generation term "American exceptionalism" seems in most cases simply to be an alternative term for American patriotism: "American exceptionalism" = "America is exceptionally great". Thus Glenn Beck:

This year, I as an individual and private citizen stand at those crossroads and boldly declare my choice.   I will not accept that America’s best days are behind Her, that there is no such thing as American exceptionalism.

Campaign materials from Newt Gingrich:

The video features Callista Gingrich addressing “American exceptionalism,” …

“Growing up in Whitehall, Wis., an all-American Midwestern town, it was impossible not to be instilled with a sense of patriotism,” she said. “As a young person, I was surrounded by people who believed in the greatness of America and were unapologetic about those beliefs.”

From Rick Santorum's campaign web site:

Rick Parent said: "I am proud to endorse Rick Santorum for President. There is no candidate in the field who shares more of my strong faith in family and American exceptionalism than Rick Santorum. Rick Santorum has stood tall for Life, for the traditional family, and for the defense of our nation. His core values are what I consider key to what is needed in our nation's leadership moving forward in the great American Reformation."

From Mitt Romney's:

“President Obama’s economic policies have failed the citizens of Nevada. Nevadans cannot afford four more years of these policies, which have resulted in high unemployment and foreclosure rates,” said State Senator Michael Roberson. “Mitt Romney has the private sector background, along with his experience as Governor of Massachusetts, to balance the budget, create jobs, and provide the stability in Washington that will guarantee American exceptionalism.”

I don't know exactly when this third-generation usage began, or what forces drove its spread; but it seems to have started within the past decade.

And to forestall mistaken criticism, I should note that I personally endorse all three meanings of this phrase.


  1. F said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 11:37 am

    I'd always seen the phrase "American exceptionalism" used disparagingly to refer to the idea that Americans cannot apply the ideas that have been successful in the rest of the world: you know, like multiparty democracy with proportional representation, high-speed rail, congestion pricing, and other socialist plots. So I would have interpreted the Gingrich usage as consciously revaluating and appropriating what in its previous (though apparently not nearly its original) incarnation was a liberal sneer.

    [(myl) I don't think I've ever seen the usage you cite. Can you provide a few sample links?]

  2. Kento said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 11:52 am

    There was briefly a version 2.9 of the expression in 2008, where it was used by pockets of the American left to take pride in the rise of Barack Obama. Usage can be found multiple times here.

  3. Brett said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

    I associate "American exceptionalism," at least when it is used by conservatives, with the idea that the USA should be a shining beacon of democracy and economic freedom—a place better than everywhere else, but visible for the rest of the world to emulate.

  4. D.O. said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    Google Ngrams shows that American exceptionalism has begun its rapid rise in use somewhere around 1980 and really accelerated by mid-80s.

  5. Bill Walderman said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

    Is it possible that the appropriation of the phrase "American exceptionalism" by American conservatives and its increasing currency since the 1980s noted by D.O. are a reflection of Reagan's promotion of the underlying idea, if not of the phrase itself?

    Here's an example, I think, of what F seems to be referring to:

    N.B.: My comment is purely linguistic and shouldn't be interpreted as embracing a particular political view.

  6. Aaron Haspel said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

    The Communist and conservative uses seem quite close with regard to the facts, though obviously the speakers value them differently.

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

    Neat post, Mark. I had no idea, and it wouldn't have occurred to me to look it up.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

    I had no idea of the phrase's history either, now that you mention it.

    Somebody has to mention Newt Gingrich's book (with Vince Haley) A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters (2011). Here's a quote from page 75: "…two key truths about American Exceptionalism: the dignity of the individual—the idea that every person does indeed matter—and the centrality of God and faith in American families and communities."

    [(myl) It's interesting that Gingrich, who presents himself as a historian, has nothing in this book about American Exceptionalism #1, for which Jay Lovestone and others were excoriated by Stalin and purged from the American Communist Party; nor about American Exceptionalism #2, about which important mid-century historians of the "consensus school" like Seymour Martin Lipset, Richard Hofstadter, and Daniel Bell wrote at length.]

  9. Ronald Kephart said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    My understanding of the meaning of "American exceptionalism" focuses on the idea that America is exempt from the rules and laws governing other nations. Like, when the World Court told us to stop mining Nicaragua's harbors in the 1980s, and Reagan (I think) said that World Court rulings didn't apply to us. I'm not sure where I got this, maybe Chomsky?

  10. Steve said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

    Even by the exceptionally high standards of languagelog, this was an exceptionally interesting post. It has shattered my assumption that the was a long history of the use of the term in the third-generation sense. But that only raises the question of where the third-generation usage began. I hope to read more about that here. Thanks.

  11. Ken Brown said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

    Yes, really interesting. If I had ever known that the Communists started it, I had long ago forgotten!

    F said: I'd always seen the phrase "American exceptionalism" used disparagingly…

    And myl replied: "I don't think I've ever seen the usage you cite."

    I think I see the phrase used disparagingly far more often than the reverse. This verges on the anecdotal, but I used Google to search the web forum at for "American exceptionalism" – choosing that website only because I read it myself and I know that there are both Americans and Europeans who post there, and that the phrase has been used recently. Taking some usages quite out of context, mostly from discussions about the Republican primaries but some from much older threads:

    "This latest episode has more than a whiff of American Exceptionalism. "

    "I didn't really hear Obama speaking of so-called American exceptionalism, which can be a dangerous concept. "

    "Is American exceptionalism really just appallingly weak historical education?"

    "…one newspaper commentator gamely wrote that Romney's assessment of our church-state relations were so admiring and pride-inducing as to justify American exceptionalism"

    "I abhor the display of the national flag in church. It conflates religion and patriotism/the Sate, making it actively un-Christian. In America it expresses and promotes an ideology of American exceptionalism."

    "He's a Mormon, you see. When he claims that this fact shouldn't matter because his religion is private, his Evangelical skeptics object all the more. I agree with them there, too. He does appear to be a very able man, but to believe that God wrote a vital addendum to the Bible on gold plates to be dug up by a 19th century American – really, how well does this augur for one's common sense? The American exceptionalism that this implies, and which is well articulated by the sect, might not be what we need at this juncture, either."

    "Third reservation, and deepest in the long run, is the American exceptionalism inevitably bred by the denomination's premises. This view is a distortion of reality liable to interfere with good judgment, as the past six years have shown so clearly that we may now be on the brink of disaster."

    "Romney's outgoing speech reinforces my suspicion that he harbored a dangerous excess of American exceptionalism, probably encouraged by his religion."

    "…a particularly pernicious exceptionalism – from both left and right – in exporting vicious culture wars to the rest of the globe."

    "I am as uncomfortable as anyone with American exceptionalism and cultural imperialism "

    "…but I think among the cultural differences which have contributed to the Anglican crisis of recent years has been American exceptionalism."

    "To me "American exceptionalism" is the notion that we don't have to obey all the usual rules, because we're God's favorite people."

    "It is a loathsome attitude characteristic of various imperial regimes in the ascendancy; but the American case has probably been exaggerated because of the religious zeal of many early immigrants."

    "Mormonism is a hotbed of American exceptionalism."

    "The Republican party is currently the one most overtly on the side of individualism (and, by extension, American exceptionalism, which means maverick foreign policies, anti-immigration tendencies, that sort of thing)."

    "…the perversion of Christianity by American exceptionalism…"

    "…we have con evos – in the US anyway – insisting on American Exceptionalism, in which the American government is, or should become, the embodiment of Christ's Kingdom on earth."

    "… the malignant exceptionalism that poisons political, social, cultural and religious attitudes. "

  12. Rob Chametzky said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    Demonic Convergence?

    Just yesterday, Scott McLemee at "Inside Higher Ed" alluded, and linked, to the Communist backstory of "American Exceptionalism":

    As it happened, all of this was just a few months before the stock market crash on Black Tuesday, which made the whole debate seem rather moot. But a catchphrase was born. Stalin’s speeches blasting American exceptionalism were printed as a pamphlet in an enormous edition. The pro-American exceptionalism Communists went off to start their own group, which had a strange and complex history that deserves better scholarship than it has received. But that seems like enough esoterica for now.

    Read more:
    Inside Higher Ed

  13. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    Interesting list, Ken. Inevitable, too, I think. I'm reminded of the transformation of "political correctness," which most of us probably first heard in its satirical form.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

    I associate 3rd-generation 'American exceptionalism' with those who express nativist sentiments, are expressly anti-European (at least "old Europe), favor English only education, super patriots, anti-immigrant, militaristic, etc.

  15. Mark Liberman said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 5:51 pm

    @Ken Brown: Thanks, those are helpful. In some cases the sense involved seems to be an older and basic one, in which distinctions or exceptions of any kind are viewed with suspicion. Thus this charming passage from the Autobiography of Charles Francis Adams (1916):

    I am inclined to be what is known as muscle-slow — that is my muscular system is not elastic. […] This ought to have been corrected in my youth by practice at all sorts of games […] Unfortunately — most unfortunately, for me — my father did not at all believe in that sort of training. Sports and games he held in horror; almost as much as for young men just out of college he held Europe in horror, because a classmate of his — Alleyne Otis — after graduation chanced to go to Europe, and came home an ass, and remained an ass all the long continuing days of life. My father did n't realize that Alleyne Otis was born an ass; and was, though as yet not effusively so developed, an ass when he went to Europe, as well as when he came home. So he failed to discriminate between individuals; and, laying down one rule for all, his theory was that the proper thing for every young man was to get to work as soon as he could scrabble through college, begin to make a living, marry, and become, as he would express it, "a useful member of society." Any exceptionalism or individuality he regarded with aversion. It was a snare and delusion; so, in my case, he uniformly, and, in fact, all through life, diagnosed wrongly, and took a mistaken course. He meant well; but he was neither sympathetic nor observant. With him boys were alike, and one hat fitted them all; while Europe was merely another term for demoralization. As I look back on his course towards me, well as he meant it and thoroughly conscientious as he was, I should now respect myself a great deal more if I had then rebelled and run away from home, to sea or the Devil.

  16. Bob Ladd said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

    I think the transition from what Mark is calling the 2nd generation meaning to the 3rd generation meaning may have been mediated by the phrase "the myth of American exceptionalism", which seems to have been used quite extensively by left-ish historians – the intellectual heirs of Hofstadter, Lipset, Bell & Co. – at least as early as the 1980s. Google Scholar records 467 hits for that phrase, many of them recent, but here's a quote from an article about the Federalist Papers written in 1985:

    ' Americans, blessed by Providence with the most favorable external conditions (No. 2), must learn that man is no better in the New World than in the Old. Publius is one of the first to deny "the myth of American exceptionalism." Americans, he warns, have no claim to "an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape" (No. 6). To believe otherwise is to indulge in "the deceitful dream of a golden age." '

    This usage already extends the meaning of "American exceptionalism" to the 3rd generation sense; Gingrich and friends just get rid of the "myth" part.

  17. Ted said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 7:05 pm

    I think F's and Ken Brown's reference to the phrase being used "disparagingly" introduce some confusion.

    My understanding is that "American exceptionalism" in the third sense describes a non-disparaging position – i.e., if Mr. X subscribes to American exceptionalism, Mr. X views America as exceptional and views its exceptional characteristics favorably.

    The confusion arises because the person using the phrase may have a different perspective. So Mr. X may describe his philosophy approvingly as American exceptionalism. But if Professor Y disagrees with Mr. X, she might well also describe his position as a belief in American exceptionalism, and then go on to argue that Mr. X hasn't made a compelling argument for that position. Her position is that Mr. X's *belief* in American exceptionalism, without a well-reasoned argument to justify that belief, is naive and/or simple-minded. In that case, her use of the term might well be described as disparaging.

    I understood F to be referring to situations where the term is used by people of Professor Y's bent. But it is also true that people like Mr. X use the term as well, and mean no disparagement at all by it.

    And Professor Y might not disagree that some aspects of Mr. X's American-exceptionalist position, were they in fact true, describe traits that are positive (e.g. "All of our foreign interventions support the rights of oppressed nations") or at least neutral (e.g. "We would suffer economic devastation if we taxed gasoline at European levels because our population density is so much lower") traits.

    This differs from the first- and second-generation uses, where the "disparagement," if any, is inherent in the idea that the phrase is meant to express – i.e., the notion that America is exceptional in ways that may be unfortunate because they prevent or delay the Revolution. What the user of the phrase views positively is the understanding of this phenomenon in context as American exceptionalism (because doing so tends to refute what might otherwise be an argument against the Marxist thesis), rather than the phenomenon itself.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

    Lipset and Bell (if not Hofstadter) either themselves fit one of the early definitions of neo-conservative or at a minimum were read and admired by the first wave of neo-conservatives, and I would expect that the phrase got into the melting pot (as it were) of Reagan-era right-wing discourse from that source and is now used more broadly by right-of-center folks who might or might not meet any particular definition of neo-conservative.

  19. djbcjk said,

    February 24, 2012 @ 3:04 am

    Aren't Gingrich, Santorum et al using "exceptionalism" in a new sense of "exceptionally-good-ism" rather than "being an exception"? The sense of "exceptional" as in "Harry is an exceptional pupil" meaning he's very good, rather than merely an exception or abnormal, must have started very early, though the only reference I have to hand dates "exceptional" (adj) at 1846

  20. John Swindle said,

    February 24, 2012 @ 6:57 am

    For more on American exceptionalism as 21st-century American arrogance do a Google search for

    "George W Bush" "American exceptionalism"

    I don't know whether Bush himself ever used the term. Various world leaders, for example of the 1930s and 1940s, have similarly had their policies described in terms that they themselves wouldn't have used.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 24, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    A couple early hits on meaning #3:

    "If I do not subscribe to the cry of 'America is doomed,' neither am I pleading for the distorted version of 'American exceptionalism' which has been the pious theme of spread-eagle theorists seeking to depict America as immune from the forces of history and the laws of life."

    Max Lerner, America as a Civilization: Life and Thought in the United States Today (1957)

    You can see snippets of it at Google Books.

    [(myl) "Immune to forces of history and laws of life"? I'd call that one a pretty clear instance of meaning #1, actually.]

    Oscar Handlin, Harvard Guide to American History, (Volume 113 of History (Atheneum)), 1954

    "Such theories are not particularly useful for detailed historical inquiry, and the buoyancy of the American spirit and the faith in American 'exceptionalism' have made it difficult for historians to identify American history with patterns of inexorable decay."

    Another snippet.

    [(myl) This one seems potentially ambiguous among all three senses — without more context, it's hard to tell just what Handlin meant.]

  22. Liam said,

    February 24, 2012 @ 11:07 am

    Could the transition from Version 2 to Version 3 be related in part to the transition of folks like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz from Trostkyists to neo-conservatives?

  23. H Klang said,

    February 24, 2012 @ 11:18 am

    There should be a similar article on "politically incorrect". I discern 3 phases: first the dangerous accusation in 1930's Russia, which meant the gulag; a gradual diminution till by the 70's "politically correct" was self-satire by leftists, but still a specialty word; in the 90's it metastasized.
    But detail is always welcome.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 24, 2012 @ 6:09 pm


    Here's the full paragraph by Lerner:

    If I do not subscribe to the cry of "America is doomed," neither am I pleading for the distorted version of "American exceptionalism" which has been the pious theme of spread-eagle theorists seeking to depict America as immune from the forces of history and the laws of life. This version of exceptionalism is easily used as an idea weapon in the anti-democratic struggle, as Schlesinger shows in citing the attack on the efforts to organize trade-unions in the Jacksonian period. Ever since then the cry that "America is different" has been an unfailing answer to any challenge that might disturb the structure of existing power, and the carriers of the challenge have been regarded as "un-American," "alien," and "subversive."

    Here's more context for the one from Handlin:

    Interpretations of the first type — universal cyclical histories — have not much affected the writing of American history. Such theories are not particularly useful for detailed historical inquiry, and the buoyancy of the American spirit and the faith in American "exceptionalism" have made it difficult for historians to identify American history with patterns of inexorable decay.

    Interpretations of the second type — systematic doctrines of continuous historical change — have profoundly influenced the writing of American history, though they have found few dogmatic exponents among American historians.

    (The next sentence starts with "Hegel", and I didn't read any more snippets.)

    Both seem to me to refer to a patriotic kind of exceptionalism, which is how I understood your sense #3, and neither seems to have anything specific to do with Communism. However, maybe I misunderstood, or maybe I'm misunderstanding the quotations (for instance, by not having the first idea about anything Arthur Schlesinger ever said). So I'll let you and anyone else decide which sense these are, if there's enough information.

  25. Troy S. said,

    February 24, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

    It seems a similar appropriation of Communist terminology occured with "class warfare." When Marx wrote ""The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle," he was talking about the struggle between labor and capitalists. Now it's become code for how the notion of progressive taxation is menacing to the upper social class.

  26. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 24, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

    My own understanding of the term didn't include its communist history, but began somewhere in the 80s. I've always thought of it as not a word American patriotic conservatives applied to themselves, but a word used to describe their belief that America is historically unique, up to and including the notion that it is God's Favored Nation.

    Related to this, I'm pretty sure that I've used a variation of this as "anthropic exceptionalism", meaning an anthropocentrism that sees humans as qualitatively distinct from all other forms of life.

  27. languagehat said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    There should be a similar article on "politically incorrect". I discern 3 phases: first the dangerous accusation in 1930's Russia, which meant the gulag; a gradual diminution till by the 70's "politically correct" was self-satire by leftists, but still a specialty word; in the 90's it metastasized.

    Since they did not speak English in 1930s Russia, I'm not sure what relevance Russia has. I doubt there's any relevant use in English before the late 1960s.

  28. mira said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

    Interesting post. I'm sure that the first time I heard the phrase "American exceptionalism" in the "third-generation" sense, it was from Sarah Palin in 2008, and I found it a little odd. I think her statement was something along the lines of "America is a country of exceptionalism", and I assumed that this was just a Sarah Palin-ish way of saying "America is an exceptional country". At this point, though, I think it's shifted to mean something different than just an expression of how great America is; I think "American exceptionalism" as used by Republicans these days means something more like the belief that America isn't just another country, but has been granted some sort of divine or historical mission, and therefore that American politics are about something more than just who can run the country's affairs better.

    I was pretty well acquainted with the phrase before 2008, and it's possible that I might have first encountered it in Ronald Reagan: The Movie, which I was assigned during my first year of college.

  29. City Upon a Hill: Further Exploration | BackStory with the American History Guys said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    […] Mark. "The Third Life of American Exceptionalism." Language Log. Web. 23 February 2012. […]

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