By Ian Rosoff
The term American Exceptionalism was coined by Alexis de Tocqueville back in 1831. When it comes to political candidates brandishing their swords of patriotism and national pride, paying homage to the concept of American Exceptionalism is par for the course. And like everything else in the political silly season that precedes voting day, Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on what this fuzzy concept should mean to Americans.
American Exceptionalism took center stage at the Republican and Democratic conventions, particularly in how the candidates talked about Exceptionalism through the lens of the American Dream. There was an interesting contrast to how each party articulated why the U.S. is the greatest country on earth. That difference reverberated in the media and it could end up influencing the ballot box.
By and large, American’s love the dream Mitt Romney is selling, even if they say they like Obama’s more.
The two speeches that best expressed perspectives on the American Dream were Michelle Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s. Speaking for Democrats, Michelle crafted her narrative in the vein of a traditional “rags to riches” story but with a crucial difference. She substituted the riches part with a new ending to that classic tale. In her version, “making it in America” isn’t about money, it’s about contribution to society. Like Romney’s version it included working hard, believing in oneself, and staying true to convictions, but Michelle painted a more modest pinnacle, one where sending your kids to college, was the loftiest of goals. Her speech was not only about achieving the American Dream, but passing it along and sharing in its fruits.
Romney also discussed why the U.S. is the greatest country in the world, except he predictably talked about money. He embraced the conventional American Dream trope, and cast himself as a shining example. “In America” he said, “you can build a better life,” and Mitt certainly embraced the idea that the U.S. is an immigrant nation when he said, “they came for the richness of this life.” His message, American’s do what is hard and achieve what is great, but always with an economic context.
Pundits, even the ones at Fox News, were impressed by the First Lady’s speech. The same members of the media were much cooler about Romney’s. It’s not surprising that the media enjoyed Michelle’s iteration of the American Dream speech. She comes off as genuine, proud of responsibility, and her husband’s life story lends itself well to American Exceptionalism for the middle class. But even if the media and the polling say Romney’s speech was unconvincing, the Romney camp perhaps need not despair. The 2004 democratic convention saw John Kerry get a net impact score of plus fourteen according to Gallup, while the Bush campaign got a plus three. The truth is the impact of conventions is small in today’s era of twenty-four hour news cycles.
The speech Romney gave was never going to impress the media or get great polling, especially not in comparison to Michelle Obama, but that doesn’t mean Romney wasn’t effective. By and large, American’s love the dream Mitt Romney is selling, even if they say they like Obama’s more. Romney will continue to tell Americans that making money is part of American Exceptionalism, and American’s have never had a problem with more money.