Winter 2012

Exceptionalism’s Exceptions: The Changing American Narrative

David Levering Lewis

Seven years after 9/11, the American way of life was again shaken to its foundation by the Great Recession of 2008. The logic of an unregulated market economy produced its predetermined result. The American middle class, the historic protagonist of the American narrative, became an endangered species. Against a bleak backdrop of indebtedness, unemployment, and rapid decline in traditional jobs and in the affordability of the essentials of health and education stands the stark wealth of the top 1 percent of Americans. With the vital center no longer holding and consensus fraying, 53 percent of the electorate wagered in 2008 that it could deny race by affirming its non-importance and thereby audaciously reinvigorate the exceptionalist narrative. The choice before us, however, is still much the same as that posited by W.E.B. Du Bois when he described two antithetical versions of the American narrative: one was based on “freedom, intelligence and power for all men; the other was industry for private profit directed by an autocracy determined at any price to amass wealth and power.”

David Levering Lewis, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2002, is the Julius Silver University Professor and Professor of History at New York University. His publications include King: A Biography (1970, 1978); The Race to Fashoda: European Colonialism and African Resistance in the Scramble for Africa (1987); W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963 (2000), which received the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Biography; and God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570–1215 (2008).

When Ronald Reagan bade farewell from the Oval Office on January 11, 1989, the fortieth American president catechized his people with scriptural imagery of a shining City Upon a Hill, “God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds and living in harmony,” that resonated positively with all but the most culturally and politically disaffected.1 For reasons that have had as much to do with America’s twentieth-century wealth and power as with the intrinsic uniqueness of its national experience, America’s leadership presumptions were largely conceded by the rest of the world until the catastrophe of 9/11 and rarely questioned by Americans themselves before the closing years of the last century.

Twenty-two years after the Reagan presidency ended only months before the Berlin Wall crumbled, the disaffected have been joined by a growing number of Americans sobered by how suddenly the prospect of a Pax Americana has vanished. Dismayed by the steady immiseration of the vaunted middle class, the billions squandered on two decades of optional .  .  .


  • 1“Farewell Speech–President Reagan’s Farewell Speech from the Oval Office,” January 11, 1989, Reagan Foundation; available at
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