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Aspirational Exceptionalism: Rhetoric, Politics, and the Pursuit of American Greatness

  • Author(s): Williams, Lucy
  • Advisor(s): Dienstag, Joshua F
  • Rogers, Melvin
  • et al.

American exceptionalism—i.e., the belief that the United States is chosen, superior to other nations, and tasked with a unique responsibility or mission—is often analyzed, studied, and critiqued as a singular and unified rhetorical tradition. In this dissertation, though, I argue that the American exceptionalist tradition is in fact conveyed through multiple and distinct rhetorical modes. More specifically, I distinguish between two types of American exceptionalism: accomplished exceptionalism, which is self-celebratory, complacent, and un-critical, and aspirational exceptionalism, which is self-critical, forward-looking, and ameliorative.

Because most citizens, politicians, and thinkers understand and deploy exceptionalism in the accomplished sense, this dissertation focuses primarily on the form, substance, and effects of the lesser-known aspirational mode. The dissertation analyzes the political thought of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James Baldwin—three figures who are not normally considered to be part of the American exceptionalist tradition. Through close readings of their speeches and writings, I show that each thinker articulates a philosophy and politics of aspirational exceptionalism. I also highlight the distinct aspirational citizenship practices that each thinker encourages and enables. In so doing, I challenge the widespread assumption that thinkers who criticize or condemn the American polity are, ipso facto, ineligible for exceptionalist status. Put differently, I show that America’s radicals, critics, and apologists can (and do) speak in exceptionalist registers and may perhaps be exceptionalism’s most sophisticated defenders.

More broadly, though, I challenge and re-define what it means to be a “good” American citizen. If, as Charles Taylor argues, language shapes and influences individuals’ orientation toward the world, then America’s tendency to privilege accomplished exceptionalism while excluding aspirational exceptionalism threatens to create and shore up a society in which the accomplished mode’s backward-looking, self-celebratory, and uncritical disposition is seen as the most correct and laudable way to enact citizenship. By identifying another form of exceptionalism (namely, aspirational exceptionalism) and re-claiming its title as such, I shed light on—and, by extension, activate—a different mode of American citizenship: one that is critical and reflective but equally (or perhaps more) commendable.

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