The Matter of American Exceptionalism

“Sure I wave the American flag. Do you know a better flag to wave? Sure I love my country with all her faults. I’m not ashamed of that, never have been, never will be.”  — John Wayne, iconic American actor

I actually started writing this post quite awhile ago, adding and/or adjusting verbiage now and then. There didn’t seem to be a pressing “need” for it, though. But, the recent NY Times piece by Vladimir Putin and subsequent public discussion on the topic incentivized me to complete it. I know plenty of others have published similar pieces both recently and in the past, but I wanted to put my two cents in, too.

There is something great and noble about the United States of America. It has been called:

Declaration of Independence being written

Franklin & Adams reviewing Jefferson’s draft of Declaration of Independence

“A shining city on a hill.”

“The land of opportunity.”

“The land of the free and the home of the brave.”

“The greatest nation on God’s green Earth.”

“The greatest nation in the history of the world.”

“The last, best hope for mankind.”

“American exceptionalism” does not mean that all Americans are, by virtue of being American, somehow superior by nature. Nor does it mean that everything that the American people or their government does or has done is above reproach. Far from it. The phrase is also not meant to imply that all other nations are bad or their people inherently inferior. Rather, “American exceptionalism” is the notion that says the United States of America, as a nation, is “exceptional” both in the sense of being very unusual and in the sense of being special and, yes, better at some things or in some areas. I suppose one might say that it is the collective “Spirit of America” that makes it superior. Grounded in its founding ideals, this spirit has led to America’s economic success and ability to be a huge force for good in the world.

Some people think it is self-righteous and arrogant to think America is better than any other nation. I’m not just referring to Putin. President Obama was asked at a 2009 press conference whether he believed in the idea (ideal?) of American exceptionalism. He agreed, but then went on to equate such exceptionalism with national pride. He said that it was no different than how Greeks feel about Greece or Brits feel about Great Britain, etc. So, really, Obama does not believe that America is any more exceptional than any other nation. This smacks of politically correct relativism. After all, we can’t have an “enlightened” world leader admitting that he thinks his own country is special! (Although, I’m not so sure the President does, since he is so focused on the negatives, perceived and otherwise. In fact, he seems increasingly “trans-national”.) Everybody and every system is equally good, valid, and “special”, right?

No, not in my book.

“American exceptionalism” is not the same as patriotism or a strong nationalism. It’s not just a feeling; it’s based on facts. America really is exceptional. It stands out for many reasons. Some things merely make it unusual or even unique. Some, I would argue, make it clearly better.

America is exceptional, first and foremost, because of the nature of its origins and its founding principles. Take, for instance, the comments by the following individuals:

“We think the United States is different fundamentally from Europe -— historically and culturally and politically. That we put much more emphasis on the individual, on liberty versus equality. There is a reason that in the New York Harbor there’s a Statue of Liberty -— it’s not a Statue of Equality.”  — Charles Krauthammer, American Pulitzer Prize-winning political commentator and physician

“[W]hat is it that made America exceptional? Tocqueville tried to find it. He found it in our churches. He said America is great because America is good. We’re exceptional because we follow the Judeo-Christian values taught in the Bible. We listen to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and obey him. The reason why we have fallen off the exceptional bandwagon is because we no longer listen….”  — Glenn Beck, conservative political commentator, author, entrepreneur

“America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. Other nations find their identity and cohesion in ethnicity, or geography, or partisan ideology, or cultural tradition. But America was founded on certain ideas — ideas about freedom, about human dignity, and about social responsibility.”  — G.K. Chesterton, British writer, lay theologian, and Christian apologist (What I Saw in America (1922))

I think these gentlemen got it exactly right, particularly Chesterton. It is primarily these founding ideals — especially the doctrines related to the natural rights of men, grounded in a belief in the Creator God of Judeo-Christian tradition, and the belief that they represent the best hope for all nations — which sets America apart. To the degree that we stray from these ideals, we lose that which makes us special and able to do the most good for ourselves and others. Which leads to my second point…

America is also exceptional due to what it does and has become, despite its mistakes and imperfections. For example,…

*  America is a nation of immigrants from all over the world, united (as said above) not by blood but by a set of ideas. American ideals have allowed this “great American melting pot” to live and work together, starting and growing millions of businesses, lifting people out of poverty and into financial stability. Is it any wonder that so many still want to move here (legally or not)?

*  Per capita, America is the most charitable, philanthropic people on earth. And not just among ourselves. American individuals, relief agencies, and non-profit organizations are always first in line (and most generous) to come to the aid of other nations in times of tragedy — even where Americans are not exactly popular. Billions upon billions of dollars are spent every year in such efforts.

*  America receives by far the most citations for groundbreaking scientific discoveries. E.g., nearly 76 million between 1996 & 2008; second-place was England with 18 million. (h/t Nick Adams) This includes life-saving drugs used to treat patients around the world, as well as technologies that bring the world closer together and create more opportunities for wealth and economic prosperity.

*  America produces 25 percent of the world’s economic output (GDP) — almost 3 times more than China but with less than a 1/4 of their population. (This is true despite the unnecessary tax burdens and over-regulation that have become common at federal and often at state & local levels in recent decades.)

*  America sacrifices its blood and treasure more than any other nation to fight the spread of evil totalitarian regimes (e.g., Nazism, fascism, Communism, Islamicism, etc.) and to defend & encourage freedom and democracy all over the world. It’s not always that we want to; but we recognize the need and, having the resources to do so, the moral obligation to respond to threats and acts of aggression. If we don’t, it is often the case that no one else will — at least, not alone.

All of this we do, while only comprising five percent of the world’s population.

American flag with Home-of-the-FreeNotice, this exceptionalism is not dependent upon what others around the world think of America. Nor does it depend upon how a particular segment of the population feels about their country or its history or current events. It is not based upon popularity. It simply… is.

Many exceptional things about America will always remain. No matter what happens, they are matters of history. But, it is up to us to make sure that those things which can change or be lost — individual liberties, religious liberties, free market economics, etc. — do not get undermined and overwhelmed by a culture of “political correctness”, “progressive” ideas about social justice and wealth redistribution, or a strong multiculturalism that emphasizes everyone’s ethnic diversity at the expense of the uniting cultural values and principles of “Americanism”. Those other ideas have been tried here and elsewhere and been found seriously wanting. We must do what we can to ensure that America remains a beacon and a symbol of liberty and opportunity to the world.

“American exceptionalism is not a statement of arrogance or a belief that Americans are inherently better than the citizens of other nations. American exceptionalism is not the notion that America is faultless. And it is certainly not the notion that America has achieved the perfect implementation of its ideals. Rather it asserts that the American system is unique in its emphasis on individual liberty, and that this emphasis has produced extraordinary individuals and extraordinary achievements for humanity.”   — Margaret Hoover, American Individualism

Author Dinesh D’Souza has made the observation that “[B]ecoming American is less a function of birth or blood and more a function of embracing a set of ideas.” And, as one Australian writer put it, “American exceptionalism and the American experiment are indispensable to the world. What’s good for America is good for the world.”

No nation in the world, past or present, compares to the United States of America in terms of what it stands for and what it has accomplished. None. It is EXCEPTIONal, and there is nothing wrong with recognizing and celebrating that fact. If Putin and his ilk have a problem with that, they can take a hike!


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