Hillary Clinton’s ‘American Exceptionalism’ Won’t Win Many Republican Votes

By
Hillary Clinton's bid to win over Republican elites reached a new level at an American Legion conference in Cincinnati.Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

When she planned a big foreign-policy speech for a meeting of the American Legion in Cincinnati today, Hillary Clinton could not have possibly known that Donald Trump would suddenly step all over it with a strange day trip to Mexico.

It may well be that the only thing anyone remembers from Clinton’s speech was her snarky comment that diplomacy consisted of more than a “photo-op” or “dropping in” on a neighbor.

That would be a shame, because what Clinton undertook in Cincinnati was her most ambitious effort to date to appeal to Republicans — elites if not actual voters — with themes near and dear to their crusty conservative hearts. In this case it was “American exceptionalism” — the idea (embedded most famously in Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” characterization of America, which Clinton dutifully quoted) that the USA has a special leadership role because it has avoided many of the pathologies that poisoned the old (e.g., European) world. Clinton proclaimed herself a proud believer in American exceptionalism, and charged Donald Trump with rejecting that creed.

In doing so, Clinton certainly knew that Barack Obama has often been accused of rejecting American exceptionalism itself, or of reducing it from a world-historical loud-and-proud claim of superiority to the mere patriotic sentiment common everywhere (“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”)

In fact, the 44th president has become reasonably adept at a distinctively liberal adaptation of American exceptionalism: that it is our diversity, our willingness to change, and our commitment to liberal values and institutions at home and abroad that make us “exceptional.” But you did not hear a lot of this nuanced approach from Clinton in Cincinnati. It was focused heavily on America’s obligation of global military leadership, and her unapologetic willingness to exercise it.

Republican fears that Donald Trump is at heart an isolationist, and does not value traditional diplomacy and alliances, are very real, of course, so in some elite foreign-policy circles Clinton may be pushing an open door. But to serious conservative advocates of American exceptionalism, there’s something crucial missing from her siren song: It’s that recognition that America has earned its exceptional role in world affairs by eschewing the socialism and secularism that have crippled Europe.

The classic conservative formulation of American Exceptionalism was penned by National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry in 2010. 

The late Seymour Martin Lipset [usually credited with inventing the term] defined it as liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics. The creed combines with other aspects of the American character — especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force — to form the core of American exceptionalism.

Obviously no Democrat is going to bend the knee to an American exceptionalism that includes “laissez-faire economics” as a nonnegotiable element of the creed. Beyond that, many conservatives look at other countries in a way that is alien to, say, Barack Obama and his former Secretary of State. Here’s Ponnuru and Lowry again:

In Europe, we see a civilization that is not willing to defend itself: nations that will surrender their sovereignty, cultures that will step aside to be supplanted by an alien creed, peoples that will no longer make the most meaningful investment in the future by reproducing. There is a sense that history is over and Europeans are just waiting for someone to turn out the last light in the last gallery of the Louvre.

Hmm. Sounds a little like you-know-who (if you-know-who was more literate), doesn’t it? And then there’s this EU-bashing: 

Brussels is arrogating more decision-making to itself, removed from the locus of democratic accountability in individual nations. When important EU questions are put to the voters in referenda, there is only one correct answer, and when nations vote the “wrong” way, elections are held over and over again until they succumb. This European-style politics of bureaucratic, elite high-handedness is dangerous in its undemocratic nature and anathema to the American character.

Again, there’s a certain American presidential candidate who has been saying this sort of thing, and it hasn’t been Hillary Clinton.

My argument here is not that Republican believers in American exceptionalism all think like Donald Trump (certainly Ponnuru and Lowry, both NeverTrumpers last time I checked, do not). It’s that Democrats cannot just intone “American exceptionalism” and expect Republicans to swoon. It is already an open question as to whether Team Clinton has exerted too much energy trying to attract elite Republican defectors to her banner, particularly in the absence of clear evidence that it is earning her rank-and-file Republican votes. And at some point progressives who hear this sort of talk and fear that Hillary Clinton really is more militaristic than Barack Obama may have a legitimate point.

One does not have to associate with any “creed” of exceptionalism to articulate the case that Clinton is more knowledgeable and temperamentally suited to foreign-policy leadership than her opponent. Beyond that, appeals to Republicans may be a waste of time — and misleading to Americans and others who associate super-patriotic rhetoric with bad memories of bad wars.