Our current President forever lost my support when in April 2009 he said, ” I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” As James Kirchik wrote later that month in the LA Times,
“If all countries are ‘exceptional,’ then none are, and to claim otherwise robs the word, and the idea of American exceptionalism, of any meaning.”
Mind you, even the very liberal Kirchik was offended at the offhand way in which the new President (and latest liberal icon) had dismissed American exceptionalism as being, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. In fact, the problems that have risen during this Presidency are directly attributable to this President’s inability to identify what American exceptionalism is and why our past reliance on it has always overcome even the most overwhelming obstacles.
So, what is American exceptionalism? The idea was first expressed by the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in his book, Democracy in America. In 1835, the United States did not have an economy the rest of the world envied. We had few factories, few railroads, and our merchants were forced to trade in British pounds sterling or gold bullion. Our military was not feared, large, or respected. In fact, the 1835 graduating class from West Point totalled only 56 officers – of whom, 38 quit the Army after their 5 year commitment.
So, if the United States did not have the trappings of power that might lead a European gentleman to presume a national exceptionalism, what did we possess? How could a relatively poor and weak nation so impress this man that he would write a series of books about so seemingly absurd a concept as American exceptionalism?
The answer lies in the very nature of what America is, and what it means to be an American. Unlike any other nation in the history of mankind, the United States of America is unique in our very makeup: we are not of a single ethnicity, we are not defined by natural borders and our history is not rooted in the misty memories of the prehistoric tribes that roamed the rest of the world. Alone among nations of the world, to be American is to pledge fealty not to a man, nor a religion, nor a piece of land, but rather to an ideal: the idea that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights -and that government’s principle duty is to secure those rights for every person.
I hadn’t given much thought about this until our current election. After all, the hew and cry over Mr. Obama’s giving short shrift to the concept of American exceptionalism had come from both the right and left (although, to be certain, it was more pronounced on the right). So it seemed reasonable that the American people understood what made America an exceptional nation, even if the President didn’t. And I kept thinking that, up until Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton secured their respective party’s nominations.
I’m sad to say that it seems most people today have no idea what American exceptionalism means, or where it comes from. There are those who think it comes from an inherent nativism, forgetting that one of the most crucial aspects of Americanism is that anyone, from anywhere, regardless of wealth or circumstance, can become an American. This concept is emblazoned on the base of the Statue of Liberty. You know, the bit about “Give me your tired, your poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? That poem isn’t talking about the economically depressed (although the vast majority of immigrants in our country’s history have been far from wealthy). It’s telling the rest of the world, if you value freedom & liberty above all else, this is the place to come. It’s the message that brought my family here during the Cold War. It’s the message that brought everyone’s family here.
Then there are those who think American exceptionalism is rooted in being the greatest economic power on earth. They either don’t know, or don’t want to believe, that the United States’ period of economic dominance was a short one, lasting about 30 years. And it only came about because alone among the world’s actors, the United States wasn’t physically devastated by the Second World War. It has nothing to do with greater industriousness or intelligence of the American worker. If you don’t believe that, I can point to a whole world of people with as strong a work ethic as you’ll find in America.
Many of our fellow citizens think American exceptionalism is a byproduct of military might. There’s nothing wrong with having a strong military, but that’s hardly exceptional. Comparatively speaking, even at it’s strongest our military was a mere shadow of the Macedonian army under Alexander or the legions that secured the Pax Romana.
Each of those are things that any nation can take pride in, but they are hardly exceptional. Other nations have, at other times, established preeminence in trade and military might. Think of the British Empire of the 19th century, the Romans, the Persians, the Egyptians. But none of those nations could truly lay claim to being something exceptional, which is to say, something that nobody had seen before or since. Something unique.
In addition to our national identity being forged of the ideals of liberty and equality, there is one other thing that makes us exceptional. That is our willingness to be introspective and during that introspection, to demonstrate to the world that we are both strong enough and wise enough to understand that we haven’t perfected our society. After all, it took us 90 years to get from announcing to the world that all men are created equal to codifying that precept, and it took another 100 years after that before those laws began to be enforced. What other nation in history has undertaken such monumental efforts, not closeted but openly? Can you imagine the awe of the common Chinese citizen when they compare Tiananmen’s brutal repression with the March on Washington?
That is liberty. That is freedom. That is the “poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
And that is American exceptionalism. I fervently hope those of you who’ve forgotten it remember, before this nation and her ideals are left to rot in the ash heap of history.