America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. . . . The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.--President Barack Obama, January 20, 2009.
Ever since our founding, Americans have believed that the United States plays a special and unique role in the world. 234 years into this grand experiment, most Americans continue to espouse some notion of American exceptionalism – the belief that the United States possesses a historical destiny placing it uniquely among the world’s nations as an arbiter of freedom and democracy. All American presidents, liberal and conservative, historically have spoken of the United States as the exemplar of liberty, and President Obama is no exception. Only in America, he often exclaims, could a black man with a funny sounding name become President.
But American conservatives in recent years have taken the concept of American exceptionalism further, believing that America is morally superior to other nations, and that our superiority entitles us aggressively to export our political and economic values to other parts of the world, with force if necessary. Where liberals and conservatives differ, where liberals become uncomfortable and conservatives unabashed, is in the notion of national superiority.
That we are superior to all countries in the world in every aspect of our governance, our culture, our society, is asserted often and rarely proved by empirical evidence or objective criteria. Ramesh Ponnuru and Richard Lowry of the National Review presented a conservative view of American exceptionalism in a March 2010 article, stating unequivocally that America is “freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.” While most Americans instinctively agree with this particular sentiment, it is essentially a statement of faith, not reason. Is America really the “most free, most democratic” country on earth? Conservatives tend to treat it as dogma, a theological creed essential for a true patriot. But is the sentiment supported by empirical facts? How substantially does the influence of money in our political system undermine our belief in one-man, one-vote? Is our two party system open to the establishment of new political parties? Four times in our history, the electoral college has allowed the popular-vote loser to become President of the United States. Corruption of our political leaders, particularly at the state and local level, is commonplace. Racism and discrimination have historically hampered economic mobility and educational advances. We imprison a larger share of our population than virtually any other democracy on earth.
If we could truly rate democracies on an objective, point-by-point scale, how would the United States stack up? Attempted earlier this year by Freedom House, a center-right, independent watchdog organization that, since 1941, has promoted democratic values and opposed dictatorships on the far right and the far left, Freedom House rated every country on earth for its commitment to “free” and “democratic” qualities. America, not surprisingly, scored well, as did many other democracies, mostly in Europe. But while we fell within the top tier (scoring the highest ranking of 1-1), we scored fairly low in comparison to many top tier countries on such things as “electoral process”, “rule of law”, and “freedom of expression”.
In several key social and economic indicators, we lag behind much of the advanced industrial world. Take health care. Conservatives claim that the United States has “the best health care system in the world,” as did House minority leader John Boehner last February. In reality, our for profit health care system, while providing very good care to those who can afford it, denies access to millions and covers fewer people at higher overall costs than do the health care systems of many other countries (mostly in Europe). And we have higher infant mortality rates and lower life expectancies than most of those countries. But it is deemed almost un-American to look to our European friends, or to Asia or Israel, for ideas on how to improve our health care system, or any other area of American life.
Many conservatives have criticized President Obama for stating during a European trip last spring, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” For conservatives, this statement proves that Obama rejects American exceptionalism, for if everyone claims to be exceptional then, in reality, no one is. There are two problems with this faulty logic. First, anyone who has ever met citizens of other countries knows that what Obama said is true – most Brits, most Greeks, most Germans, most Italians, most Swedes . . . each believe that their country is blessed with a uniquely special heritage; only Americans seem surprised to hear this. Second, the President actually endorsed American exceptionalism when he went on to say: “I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. . . . [T]he United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”
Although the President nailed it exactly, to many conservatives, what makes America exceptional is the belief that America was uniquely blessed by God at its founding. Conservatives tend to glorify America’s mythological history with an uncritical eye and dislike anyone who shines light on America’s past blemishes. While conservatives love to espouse the fiction that America has always been a land of opportunity, is there any doubt that America’s creed of liberty and equality was not historically open to all? African Americans were enslaved and treated as chattel; women could not vote until the 1920’s; the Jim Crow south denied full emancipation to blacks until well into the 1960’s; Japanese Americans were interned during the 1940’s; and many ethnic groups were denied full access to our best schools and the professions until fairly recently. It is liberals, not conservatives, who have consistently advocated and enacted policies to bring the country into closer conformity to the ideal of equal opportunity for all, who have sought to make the United States a fairer and freer nation for more of its citizens. In return, some conservatives, like Newt Gingrich and Dinesh D’Souza, believe that liberal ideals are somehow less authentically American, the result of a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” mindset.
To believe that America is unique in its devotion to freedom and liberty, or that we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world, results in an arrogant glorification of military power and obedience to an anti-internationalist xenophobia. Are we exceptional, or do we stand out for other reasons? In The Myth of American Exceptionalism, British author Geoffrey Hodgson writes:
From the very beginnings of American history, the commitment to freedom had been mixed not only with the ‘damned inheritance’ of slavery but with the ambitions and interests – for land, for wealth, for military glory – that were scarcely different from those of other peoples and other rulers in other times. And why should they be different? Americans, after all, were not angels. . . . They were men and women of the same clay as the rest of us, and specifically they were, in their great majority, Europeans who brought with them to America European hopes, European fears, European ideals, European prejudices, and a European worship of the nation state.
What makes America exceptional are the ideals embedded in our Constitution, our unique history, and because we have succeeded at great things when we act as one nation. But when we blindly assert our superiority and act with inflated self-regard, when we refuse to examine the things that work in other democracies, we do so at our peril. America's social, political and economic values did not develop in a vacuum and were influenced and affected by many great historical events and transformations that occurred or originated outside of the continental United States – oceanic trade, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, migration, democratic government, industrialization, the scientific revolution, and the creation of a global economy.
Some conservatives long nostalgically for laissez-faire economics and believe that President Obama -- the same president who bailed out the banks and compromised on the public option -- is a dangerous socialist out to destroy America. These conservative voices operate with a very short memory and a selective sense of history. We came close to unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism in this country back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The result? Unsafe working conditions, exploitation of child labor, no minimum wage, no 40-hour work week, no required overtime and holiday pay, no product safety regulations, dirty air, dirty water, and pandemic inequality, poverty and injustice. It took progressives, who believed that capitalism and the pursuit of wealth needed checks and balances and a regulatory framework upon which to enforce higher ideals without sacrificing creativity and America’s entrepreneurial spirit, to correct these shortcomings. Today, because of reform oriented laws and regulations, almost all of which have historically been opposed by conservative forces in this country, we have a safer, healthier, more just, and fairer economy and society. Some of these reforms were borrowed from our European friends, and we are a better nation because of it. What makes us exceptional is that we are empowered as a people to make our government, our society, and our country better.
America is exceptional when we strive to achieve the ideals of our founding principles and when we choose, in the words of President Obama, “our better history.” We are the most ethnically and racially diverse country on earth; we have mostly avoided class warfare and have historically opened our borders to many who sought unbridled opportunity (ironically, conservative forces have mostly been opposed to new waves of immigrants, and still are). What is exceptional is our willingness to correct past injustices, to recognize our shortcomings, to learn from other nations and cultures when they have something worthwhile to share. What makes us exceptional is when our national actions are, as President Obama stated last year, “based on our Constitution, our principles, our values and our ideals.” When America stays true to its ideals, when we respect humans around the world and at home, when we tap into the potential of all of our citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or class, when we work together as one people to solve our national shortcomings – which requires a willingness to acknowledge and discuss them – only then is America truly exceptional.