Given the significance of the keyword “exceptionalism” to the U.S. American credo, it is certainly ironic that the word is not originally an “American” coinage. Joseph Stalin devised the phrase “the heresy of American Exceptionalism” in 1929 to justify his excommunication of the Lovestoneites from the ranks of the Communist International (J. Alexander 1981; Tyrell 1991). The Lovestoneites were a faction whose leader, Jay Lovestone, had already broken with the American Communist Party over what was then referred to as the national question, specifically the question of whether and how to work with established U.S. trade unions. The Lovestoneites provoked Stalin’s condemnation when they proposed that the United States was “unique” because it lacked the social and historical conditions that had led to Europe’s economic collapse. In sharp contrast, the founders of American studies as an academic field reappropriated the term in the 1930s in an effort to portray the United States as destined to perform a special role in the world of nations. By installing a uniquely “American” exceptionalism as the foundational tenet of American studies, the field’s founders elevated the United States into a model that offered European societies an image of their future that would be liberated from the incursions of both Marxism and socialism.
Emerging at the site of the geopolitical face-off between the United States and the USSR, exceptionalism delineated the irreducible incommensurability of the two global powers. The fundamental recasting that the term underwent in the field of American studies transposed exceptionalism into a multilayered academic discourse: as an explanatory discourse and interpretive paradigm, exceptionalism shaped American studies research practice by regulating how scholars went about identifying, selecting, formulating, and resolving scholarly problems. As an ethos, it supplied the attitudes of belief through which “Americanists” (in and out of the academy) practiced their mode of national belonging. Throughout the Cold War era, American studies research, teaching, and publication proved indispensable to the state by constructing a nationalist and, ultimately, an imperialist discourse out of the exceptionalist norms they propagated throughout Europe and the so-called Third World.
The discourse of exceptionalism may be best characterized by its account of the United States’ unique place in world history—the “redeemer nation,” “conqueror of the world’s markets,” and more recently the “global security state” (Commager 1947; Hartz 1955; P. Miller 1960; Lipset 1963; Bush 2001b). But this discourse drew its structure out of its difference from the historical trajectories that it attributed to Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Third World. The exceptionalist paradigm represented U.S. uniqueness in terms of absent and present elements—the absence of feudal hierarchies, class conflicts, a socialist labor party, trade unionism, and divisive ideological passions; the presence of a predominant middle class, tolerance for diversity, upward mobility, hospitality toward immigrants, a shared constitutional faith, and liberal individualism. Exceptionalist historians cited these traits to portray the U.S. nation-state not merely as different from but also as qualitatively better than the European nation-states whose social orders were described as having been devastated by Marxism (Commager 1947; Hartz 1955; Bell 1960; Lipset 1963). The discourse of American exceptionalism imagined a Soviet empire that threatened to overthrow the world order through the spread of revolutionary socialism, and it represented Europe as especially susceptible to this threat.
American exceptionalism was thus an academic discourse, a political doctrine, and a regulatory ideal assigned responsibility for defining, supporting, and developing U.S. national identity. But the power of the doctrine to solicit the belief that the United States was unencumbered by Europe’s historical traditions depended on the recognition of European observers for its validation. In the transition from World War II to the Cold War, U.S. consensus historians such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1945) and Henry Steele Commager (1947) cited Alexis de Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century account of his travels through the United States in Democracy in America (1835) as definitive verification of the doctrine of U.S. exceptionalism. Daniel Bell (1960), observing that Tocqueville had found U.S. political society lacking in the feudal traditions that had precipitated the violent confrontations in France’s moment of revolutionary transition, grounded his “end of ideology” thesis on this absence. Like Bell, Louis Hartz advanced the claim in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955) that the absence of class conflict from a liberal capitalist order had rendered impossible the emergence of socialism within U.S. territorial borders. In arriving at this conclusion, Hartz depicted Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” as the articulation of a complementary representation of American exceptionalism. Turner famously described the frontier as the space on the map where lingering European influences were perfected into an absence as the inexhaustible wilderness promised to all of the “Americans” who answered the call of the wild frontier (F. Turner 1893/1920, Slotkin 1973). American studies scholars, by describing the nation’s past as lacking the history of class antagonism that they posited as the precondition for world communism, cooperated with policymakers and the press in constructing a mythology of national uniqueness whose narrative themes informed U.S. citizens’ imaginary relations to the Cold War state. In doing so, they disseminated a specifically cultural supplement to the political nationalism promoted by the state.
Practitioners of the “Myth and Symbol” school of American studies endowed the cultural forms and historical events under their analysis with traits that further corroborated exceptionalist assumptions. Myth and Symbol scholars ranging from Henry Nash Smith (1950) to Richard Slotkin (1973) produced a thematically coherent tradition that they described as the repository of the collective representations, communally held images, and core narratives (myths and symbols) that underpinned a historically continuous “American civilization.” These scholars articulated the transhistorical themes (assimilation, political liberation, cultural rebirth, and social mobility) to the national myths through which they were idealized (the melting pot, the endless frontier, American Adam, Virgin Land) (H. Smith 1950; R. Lewis 1955; L. Marx 1964/2000; Slotkin 1973). These mythic aspects of self-representation became the deeply engrained tropes through which U.S. citizens conceptualized and legitimated the uniqueness of their national identity. Events on a world scale were thereafter assimilated to this cultural typology that was made to translate them.
U.S. presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama have depended on this nationalist discourse to authorize their practices of governance, while historians and literary scholars turned it into the principle of selection by which they decided what events to give representation in the historical record and what literary and cultural works to include in the U.S. canon. Historians and political theorists approached the past in search of historical confirmations of the nation’s unique mission and destiny. Examining the past became for scholars who were steeped in exceptionalist convictions a personal quest whereby they would understand the meaning of their “American” identity through their uncovering of the special significance of the nation’s institutions (Chase 1949; P. Miller 1960).
Although these scholars shared a conviction in the uniqueness of the United States, they have devised heterogeneous descriptions of its significance. American exceptionalism has been taken to mean either that the United States is “distinctive” (meaning merely different) or that it is “unique” (meaning anomalous) or “exemplary” (meaning a model for other nations to follow) or that it is “exempt” from the laws of historical progress (meaning that it is an “exception” to the laws and rules governing the development of other nations). Rather than construing these disparate formulations as discrete, potentially falsifiable descriptions of an actually existing state of affairs, American exceptionalism might be better understood as a fantasy through which U.S. citizens bring these contradictory political and cultural descriptions into correlation with one another (Pease 2009a).
When one version of American exceptionalism no longer suited extant geopolitical demands, policymakers reconfigured its elements to address the change in geopolitical circumstances. Indeed, American exceptionalism may have managed to survive as the dominant fantasy of Cold War American political culture precisely because the incompatible elements out of which it was composed lacked any fixed relationship to a binding state of affairs. The determination as to which of its phrases would be symbolically efficacious was a function of the historical events to which the fantasy was linked. Harry Truman invoked the representation of the United States as the leader of the Free World when he rebuked Moscow for the occupation of East Berlin. Ronald Reagan (1987) associated his demand that “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” with the renewal of the ideal of a “Shining City on the Hill.” While they might seem to be little more than straightforward descriptions, these multifaceted frameworks and value-laden perspectives did not explain what American exceptionalism meant; they performed the overdetermining fantasy work that regulated what it was supposed to mean, in what ways it should be analyzed, and how those meanings and modes of analysis were normalized (Hodgson 2009; Pease 2009b).
The U.S. state presupposed the centrality of this fantasy to its citizenry’s identity whenever it found it necessary to fashion “exceptions” to exceptionalist norms. In recasting Japanese internment camps, “Operation Wetback,” and the Vietnam War as deviations within the historical record, scholars aligned themselves with state policymakers by removing these troubling events from the orderly temporal succession organizing the nation’s official history. But if American exceptionalism produced beliefs to which the state has regularly taken exception, the state has nevertheless needed the fantasy to solicit its citizenry’s assent to its monopoly over actual and symbolic violence. In light of these contradictions, the relations between U.S. citizens’ belief in exceptionalism and the state’s production of exceptions to it might be best described in psychological terms as structures of denial. By enabling U.S. citizens to disavow the state’s exceptions that threatened their beliefs, the discourse of exceptionalism regulated U.S. citizens’ responses to historical events.
Throughout the Cold War, U.S. dominance was sustained through its representation of itself as an exception to the rules through which it regulated the rest of the global order. But with the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the formation of the European Union, the United States lost both its threatening socialist-totalitarian antagonist and its destabilized, dependent European ally. This dismantling of the exceptionalist paradigm resulted in a fundamental reshaping of academic accounts of the U.S. culture and society and its place in world history. American exceptionalism had legitimated U.S. global sovereignty by basing it on representations of a dichotomized world order over which the United States exercised the legal power to rule. After the conditions that lent the exceptionalist frame its plausibility passed away, the forgotten underside of U.S. exceptionalism suddenly reappeared. With the disappearance of relations that were grounded in the Cold War’s macropolitical dichotomies, heterogeneous developments emerged that were irreducible to such stabilized oppositions. In the wake of American exceptionalism, the demands of a newly globalized world order required an understanding of the United States’ embeddedness within transnational and transcultural forces rather than a reaffirmation of its splendid isolation from them.
During the Cold War, American exceptionalism had produced an image of U.S. national unity in which the significance of gender, class, race, and ethnic differences was massively downgraded. The discourse of exceptionalism erected the image of a hardworking unified national monoculture to ward off the dangers posed by the globalizing of economic exchanges. It also represented internal differences between classes, genders, and ethnic groups as threatening to national unity. But racial, ethnic, and gender minorities who refused to be aggregated within these marginalized spaces have effected fundamental recastings of the exceptionalist paradigm. New American studies scholarship has begun to document these antiexceptionalist movements. This scholarship is characterized by its use of globalization (rather than exceptionalism) as its keyword, and its practitioners have supplanted the Frontier and the Melting Pot with the Borderlands and the Contact Zone as the cultural tropes that informed their scholarship (Anzaldúa 1987; Rowe 2000).
In the aftermath of this paradigm shift, American studies scholars have been compelled to confront the contradictory relationship between an increasingly interconnected world and a U.S. monoculture that remains tethered to exceptionalist assumptions. Globalization does not merely require an increased understanding of “American” minority cultures and subcultures; it also demands an understanding of the relationships of these subnational formations to migrant and diasporic communities across the globe. In response to these demands, American studies scholars have redescribed the United States as one node in an interlocking network of commercial, political, and cultural forces and have developed antiexceptionalist ways of mapping the field: Aztlán, the Pacific Rim, the Black Atlantic, the Hemisphere, the Afro-Caribbean, and the Transatlantic (Saldívar 1997; R. Wilson 2000; Giles 2001; Bogues 2003; Levander and Levine 2008a). Rather than construing American exceptionalism as the instrument for representing and evaluating these geographies, these transnational and regional models conceptualize social movements and modes of cultural transmission as passing back and forth between disparate local and global systems of power. These emergent forms of comparativist analysis describe cultural production in ways that facilitate an understanding of the intricate and global relationships that pertain among literary textualities, historical explanations, and lived cultural experience.
Despite the propagation of these antiexceptionalist and postexceptionalist frames of analysis, the credo of exceptionalism has not lost its power. A vast complex of ideas, policies, and actions is comprehended under the phrase “American exceptionalism.” And the disparate significations of this complex are neither compatible nor derived from a shared semantic source. The State of Exception that the George W. Bush administration inaugurated through the post-9/11 “global war on terror” possessed a meaning and function that was different from the morally exemplary, multicultural, and multilateral American exceptionalism that Barack Obama resuscitated in his campaign to bring about a regime change in governmental policies. The Tea Party has turned belief in American exceptionalism into the criterion that distinguishes U.S. national belonging from conditions within European social welfare states. All of these usages differ from the version of American exceptionalism as the structure of disavowal that postexceptionalist scholars excavated in their aspiration to emancipate Americanists worldwide from the exceptionalist fantasy. The future organization of the field will depend in large part on how American studies scholars account for these incompatible representations of American exceptionalism (Pease 2009a).