American exceptionalism gets a new name in a recent New York Times column from Roger Cohen: Palinism. This is a bizarre form of compliment from a detractor of Mrs. Palin — using her name to label a tradition in American ideology that’s been “around since the Founding Fathers,” which he admits is an “inspirational notion, however flawed in execution, that has buttressed the global spread of liberty.” But where Cohen sees antagonism between universalism, embodied by Barack Obama, and the American exceptionalism of Sarah Palin, in reality there is not much.
In Cohen’s assessment, exceptionalism has gone awry and the only antidote is universalism. Indeed, Palin and Obama do so define themselves. Palin plays upon her down-home pride in the specialness of America the way Obama milks his multicultural pedigree to liberal hurrahs. But the deeper problem rests with Cohen’s initial false premise, an error he seems to borrow from Palin and Obama themselves: that universalism and exceptionalism are mutually exclusive and that we must choose one or the other. Comprehending the close relationship between the two will be essential to the governing philosophy of any future administration. It is also key to our own understanding of what it means to be Americans.
The American Revolution (still underway) is unarguably an Enlightenment project. It would be nearly impossible to give a single coherent definition of the Enlightenment, though the German philosopher Immanuel Kant probably said it best when he designated Sapere Aude, or “Dare to Know” as its primary slogan. It assumes, as does our Constitution, that everyone is endowed by nature with the ability to observe and judge a reality which we all share. This ability to reason became the basis for a new notion of human dignity that effectively replaced the old system of aristocratic honor. In this respect, our nation is founded on universalist principles.
Nationalism and nation-states are also products of roughly the same period. But where, say, French notions of the nation were culture-specific (Frenchness mattered more than Gallic blood), and German notions were more rigorously bound to ethnicity, American nationalism derived from a civic ideal that was not a matter of blood, soil, or culture.
America is exceptional because of its universalistic DNA. It is a brilliant paradox — a nation which has built into its identity the transcendence of all those prejudices that recommend unthinking loyalty to the tribe. It was intended as such by the founders, as indicated by the words of Thomas Jefferson: “May it be to the world what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”
Barack Obama and Sarah Palin each take only half of this whole picture and are therefore forcing an unreal choice on the American people.