Terrence M. McCoy: How Joseph Stalin Invented 'American Exceptionalism'Roundup: Talking About History
Terrence M. McCoy is the Gordon Grey Fellow of International Journalism at Columbia University.
In the 1920s, the lingering specter of World War I and austere German reparations battered Europe's market-based economy, giving rise to class tension and stark inequality. For worn-down workers, socialism and communism started sounding like pretty good ideas. A world revolution -- indeed, the rise of the proletariat -- seemed possible, and the Communist International was stoked.
But the Americans just wouldn't fall into line. The United States had long since passed the United Kingdom as the world's largest industrial power, but hadn't yet plunged into the Great Depression. To members of the U.S. Communist Party, it was a paradox. Why, in the what appeared to be the purest capitalist Western economy wasn't there any desire for egalitarianism? Had Marx been wrong when he wrote socialism would, inexorably and universally, emerge from the ruins of capitalism? ...
In 1929, Communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn't interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this "heresy of American exceptionalism." And just like that, this expression was born. What Lovestone meant, and how Stalin understood it, however, isn't how Gingrich and Romney (or even Obama) frame it. Neither Lovestone or Stalin felt that the United States was superior to other nations -- actually, the opposite. Stalin "ridiculed" America for its abnormalities, which he cast under the banner of "exceptionalism," Daniel Rodgers, a professor of history at Princeton, said in an interview....
How did a phrase intended as derision become a rallying cry of American awesomeness? As significant portions of the electorate -- think Southern Democrats -- shifted toward the GOP in the 1960s and 1970s, conservative thinkers charted a new Republican identity emboldened by triumphalism and uncompromising patriotism. Doubting exceptionalism became "un-American." Looking to history for more evidence, conservative intellectuals stumbled across Tocqueville, who in Democracy in America had described a nation as "exceptional" for its devotion to practicality over art or science. He lent enough oomph to credibly define America as categorically transcendent, Rodgers said.
It worked. In a 2010 Gallup Poll, 80 percent of Americans agreed that based on history and the Constitution, the United States was the "greatest country in the world." American exceptionalism, along with flag pins shining from one's lapel, is one of the rare issues where Republicans and Democrats agree. In 2009, President Obama said in Strasbourg, France, that he subscribed to American exceptionalism (just as other nations, he stressed, should feel the same about their own country). Gingrich used the phrase 44 times in his recent book. For whatever reason, its author, Stalin, didn't even get a cameo....
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