Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Discovery of American Exceptionalism

As I mentioned in a previous post, social scientists and historians have been debating "American Exceptionalism" for years, but the general public remained unaware of the term.  ("Exceptionalism" still gets flagged as a misspelling in word processors).  But now everyone's talking about it, or at least everyone who's running for the Republican presidential nomination.  I wondered when and how this happened, so I searched the New York Times and got counts of use in different periods:

1990-94   3
1995-99  11
2000      6
2001      1
2002      7
2003      7
2004     17
2005     13
2006     12
2007     12
2008     28
2009     22
2010     30
2011     28 (thru June 17)

So it seems like the breakthrough came in stages--2004, 2008, and this year.  I suspect that's linked to Presidential campaigns--that someone promoted it in 2004, it appeared often enough to stick in some people's minds for 2008, and it was used enough in 2008 so that it's started to become common currency.  But I don't know who the specific people who popularized it were. 

PS:  Ironically, the term seems to have originated in Marxist circles.   It was picked up by the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, who had been a Marxist in his youth, and became the leading proponent of the idea.  He died in 2006, so he isn't directly responsible for its recent popularity. 

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