Sunday, October 3, 2010

American Exceptionalism vs. the Myth of National Superiority

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.


  1. I find your columns to be consistently readable, insightful, and about topics that should be important to all of us. I know that you and I don’t agree about everything, but I found this latest effort, on America’s so-called “exceptionalism”, to be especially on target. The statements about American exceptionalism (translated as some sort of national superiority) are part of a larger problem (left and right, I’m sure) of conflating fact with opinion, and for that matter, achievements with goals.

    Keep posting great stuff, please.

  2. Thanks "Anonymous" (since I know who you are). I agree that conflating fact with opinion is part of a larger problem on both the left and the right. We are so barraged with overly sensationalized 24/7 news and opinion that it is sometimes difficult to filter out the noise and reflect on what is really happening - something I try (not always successfully) to do on this blog.

  3. Mark,

    America is exceptional and has been superior, since its inception, to all other nations. The “empirical evidence” hides in plain sight in our founding documents: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I say hide in plain sight because on at least two recent occasions President Obama has edited out the heart of this philosophy: “. . . endowed by their Creator. . .” These four words, possibly the four most important words in American history, are not the only evidence of our exceptionalism and superiority but they suffice on their own because of their earth shattering implications. Governments do not grant rights and therefore cannot arbitrarily deny rights. Name another country founded on such a notion. Name another country that has spilled more of her own blood to make that truth a reality.

    Now regarding those pesky conservatives, when you write that they aggressively force our political values on other countries, I assume you’re referring to the bad Iraq war, as opposed to the good Afghanistan war, but regardless, it is hard to fathom how the U.S. can force millions of suddenly freed Iraqis to risk death by standing for hours in long lines to vote and then pose proudly for photographs with ink-stained fingers raised triumphantly in the air.

    This vagueness continues, making it necessary to beg for even one example of the “often asserted” idea that the U.S. is superior in “every aspect” to any other country. But even if one were silly enough to make such a blanket statement, one “objective criteria” that could be used as proof would be the number of immigrants who come to this country, many risking death to do so. Although liberals, spoiled by American exceptionalism, may not believe the U.S. is the most free and democratic, the rest of the world seems to vote with their feet and sometimes with their leaking inner tubes.

    To advance your opinion that America isn’t “all that,” you cite a Freedom House survey that claims to rank “freedom.” Logically, if the survey was valid, I would think that the number one country would be flooded with immigrants, relieving the U.S. of the immense financial drain caused by criminal trespassers. Still, I find I’m in agreement with one area where we might be lacking: freedom of expression. In this country, a loser financed by tax payers can drop a crucifix into a jar of urine and call it art and the ACLU and every liberal heathen in this country will come to his defense and slander anyone who objects as a Nazi advocating government censorship. But if one dares to burn a privately owned Koran in protest of a religion that seems to attract, through no fault of the religion of course, the greatest number of murdering fanatics, well those very same liberals suddenly and magically get in touch with their inner fascist. (Now just to be clear: I believe a person has a right, on his own dime, to cover the Virgin Mary in cow dung, call Judaism a gutter religion, burn the Koran and make fun of Hare Krishnas. I don’t approve of these activities – except maybe the last one – but I’ll defend his right to do so. I think you’d agree, but I’m not sure. You had the opportunity to do so two posts back, but went, instead, with the White House talking points.)


  4. The idea of learning from other countries is as obvious as our founders’ idea that one state should learn from the experience of another, an idea we desperately need to reclaim. But until we return to the “ideals embedded in our Constitution” it is important that we learn not only from the successes of other countries, but also their mistakes. Healthcare is a case in point. We should recognize the economic disaster that is government run healthcare in other countries. But despite countries like Greece trying to privatize their health care before they collapse completely, or the cruelty and horror of the British system, liberals want to charge ahead in defiance of the American people and against the Constitution to force in place a system sure to result in economic suicide. It wasn’t that long ago that you were touting that ObamaCare would save money and now, not only has that claim been discredited, health care has gone from a right that can be forced upon everyone to a tax that government has the authority to impose. But no lie is too outlandish for progressives on a mission. Like the myth of women earning 70 percent of what men earn or that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, liberals repeat endlessly the myth of a higher U.S. infant mortality rate compared to more enlightened countries with government-run death panels. (By the way, why is it that liberal myths always denigrate this country? And given the choice between myths, wouldn’t you rather advance a potentially self-fulfilling “conservative” myth that elevates this country?)

    You mention Dinesh D’Souza but I wonder if you’ve ever read him? His 15 year old masterpiece, “The End of Racism,” should be required reading in every American History class room. D’Souza, like Tocqueville, is an outsider looking in and more importantly, as an Indian whose family endured British colonialism, he is qualified to render an opinion on our president’s anti-colonial mindset. This foreign-born writer, who became a citizen in 1991 after sneaking across the southern bor- sorry, as a conservative, and therefore racist, I sometimes get my dark skinned immigrants confused – this legal immigrant who followed the rules and took advantage of this country’s freedoms has already refuted much of this post in his 2002 book, “What’s so Great About America” (no, I didn’t forget the question mark - that’s the point). It’s well worth the read if you tire of quoting foreign-born America-bashers who actually put in quotes, “damn inheritance” when, as a Brit, he knows darn well that slavery was inherited and that before this country was even established the slavery issue was fiercely fought by founders who knew it was antithetical to the country they envisioned.

    Now I confess, I have no idea what “arrogant glorification of military power and obedience to an anti-internationalist xenophobia” means, but if I had to guess I would say that it describes countries that believe in military conquest and not those countries that continuously defeat their enemies, only to rebuild them and embrace them as allies. I’m guessing you just gave me an “F” for that answer?


  5. Finally you quote the president and taken out of his usual context he is absolutely correct: our actions must be “based on our Constitution, our principles, our values and our ideals.” Unfortunately, since the rise of the Progressive Movement 100 years ago, we have steadily been straying from the Constitution and our core American principles, leading to our country’s current condition which is broke and broken. We are bankrupt financially and possibly morally because of greedy unions; because employers are over-taxed and over-regulated; because banks have been forced to make ridiculously unsafe loans; because poorly run businesses are not allowed to fail; and because progressives in both parties have created and expanded countless freedom sapping entitlement programs that simply create more demand by more people for more fruit of another man’s labor.

    We are a broken nation because the American work ethic has been devastated by the elimination of shame, that wonderful motivating emotion, and replaced with a sense of entitlement so entrenched that people actually march on capitals to demand their “welfare rights.” Ironically, the latest example of this is the president’s aunt, an illegal alien who has survived on the backs of working Americans and believes she is owed what is given her.

    Your list of the horrors of freedom is illuminating: “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.”

    To you they are all the same, but are they? Unsafe working conditions should be dealt with by individual state laws that provide for the fining and maybe even imprisonment of employers who create dangerous conditions. Child labor is obviously an issue for government since a child cannot make responsible decisions. But minimum wage? Where is the justification for politicians in Washington telling a pizzeria owner in Idaho how much he can afford to pay his employee? Or telling the employee that he can’t agree to work for less to get his foot in the door? Wages and the hours worked per week and pay for holidays are or should be the business of only two people. At worst, it should be the business of the voting citizens of each state and struggling states should then study how the successful states (like Texas) are run and change their policies accordingly. Regulating pollution, a necessary function of government, arouses the ire of conservatives only when it slips into stupidity. A perfect example is what happened to actor Kevin Costner who spent millions of his own money creating a machine that removes oil from the ocean. He rushed his machines to the gulf only to be told that because his invention doesn’t remove all of the oil from the water, resulting in trace amounts of oil being returned to the sea, his machines were in violation of federal regulations. And then the progressive’s touchstone: inequality. Our founding ideals concern themselves with equal opportunity not equal outcome. To live in freedom is to live with the consequences of one’s choices. Those choices, more than external forces, determine success or failure in a free society. It is no coincidence that our prosperity has dimmed in direct proportion to the rising cost of indulging the misguided desire of progressives to take care of every human need by “spreading the wealth.”

    (Continued… and pour yourself some wine Andrea, it won’t be much longer…)

  6. But there is hope. Americans are increasingly coming to understand that Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper is not about insects and that in this miracle of a country the power begins and flows from them and they have a duty to exercise it responsibly. Millions are devouring history books, turning ancient works like Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” into NYT bestsellers. Glenn Beck can be thanked for that, but his endorsements only work because there is a pre-existing hunger for a return to the values that anchored this country.

    The next two elections may very well determine the fate of this country. Do we choose the burdensome freedom of our founders or the illusional security of the progressives? Do we remain the United States of America or become France where citizens riot over the horror of working more than 35 hours per week?

    My search for more information on President Obama’s statement above about our Constitution, principles, values and ideals, led me to a New York Times op-ed column by Roger Cohen that concerned itself, unsurprisingly, with Sarah Palin-bashing. The column itself is drivel, but at the very end there is a nugget of wisdom, likely unrecognized by the columnist. He quotes someone who quotes, incorrectly as it turns out (is going directly to the source too much trouble for professional writers?), law professor Steven Calabresi who wrote: “Like it or not, Americans really are a special people with a special ideology that sets us apart from all the other peoples of the Old and New Worlds.”

    In the conclusion section of the original work (well worth reading) Professor Calabresi also wrote: “It is the United States of America, and its allies, that had the moral compass required to undertake the mission of defeating the Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes during the last seventy years, and it is the United States that introduced the world to democracy and spread that system of government all over the world as its national mission. This moralism, when many Europeans were openly and covertly collaborating with and appeasing evil, was vital to successfully stopping the onslaught of a new dark age. And so I conclude, as Deborah Madsen does, by observing that a nation which learned the idea of American exceptionalism from Europeans ultimately gave freedom back to Europe as part of its special mission in the world. After four hundred years, American exceptionalism appears to have circled back on itself to rejuvenate the tired old lands of Europe and win them back again and again for the cause of freedom.”

    In other words, it has been America’s exceptionalism that has saved the world from tyranny. God help the world if America ever becomes average.

    Rich R.

  7. Rich,

    Thank you for confirming precisely my point – conservatives believe that the United States is, and always has been, superior to all other nations. Thanks also for confirming that this conservative belief is a statement of faith, not reason. That our founding documents state, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident . . .” is evidence only of the grand ideal of America – exactly the notion I, and most liberals, espouse as the basis for American exceptionalism. But when these eloquent and inspiring words were written, the very men who wrote and endorsed them owned slaves and refused to grant the full rights of citizenship to persons of color and women. The empirical evidence, therefore, proves that Americans, while embracing an exceptional ideal, had a long way to go in practice to achieve this ideal. We were human and imperfect, just like everyone else. Not exactly a basis for asserting one’s moral and national superiority.

    I love it when conservatives point to our being a nation of immigrants as proof of our exceptionalism, when it is conservatives who have consistently opposed every wave of immigration that has hit our shores over the past 150 years. Before progressives had their say, our laissez-faire economy permitted all kinds of discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity and national heritage. It took government regulations and legal proscriptions, enacted by progressive forces, to enforce the American ideal of equality. Of course, when the courts got involved and applied the Constitution in ways that mandated a certain level of equal rights, conservatives shouted “judicial activism” from the rooftops.

    I am heartened, however, that you at least agree with me that unsafe working conditions and child labor – which unfettered free enterprise had historically exploited and permitted – require government regulation (even if we may quibble over state vs. federal regulation). Although you made your usual argument concerning the minimum wage, the empirical evidence once again refutes your examples. We have had periods of full employment and economic growth during the tenure of minimum wage laws, just like we have had deep recessions and even a Great Depression when there were no minimum wage laws. The minimum wage actually helps produce a certain level of stability in the economy, and it is the right thing to do.

    By the way, I am quite familiar with Dinesh D’Souza (I linked his Forbes article, which I read in full, in my essay). I found it to be complete hogwash. The one book he wrote that I have no problem with, “Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Become an Extraordinary Leader,” was a decent, if simplistic and non-analytical, summary of Reagan’s good qualities. And he has on occasion defended Islam from simplistic right-wing attacks and argued that the violent passages in the Koran must be put in their proper context, suggesting a deeper understanding of religion than most other right wingers. But this is the same man who wrote in "The Enemy At Home" that “[t]he cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11. ... the cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the nonprofit sector, and the universities are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world. The Muslims who carried out the 9/11 attacks were the product of this visceral rage—some of it based on legitimate concerns, some of it based on wrongful prejudice, but all of it fueled and encouraged by the cultural left. Thus without the cultural left, 9/11 would not have happened.”


  8. Rich (cont'd):

    Even many conservatives have shunned D’Souza. In your favorite, "The End of Racism", D'Souza exclaims that the "American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well”. I am sure you will explain that this statement needs to be put in its proper context. Whatever. But his amateurish and juvenile ramblings about Obama and anti-colonialism was the utmost in nonsense. That Forbes would even publish it speaks to the state of journalism in America and to the wide (and exceptional) reach of the First Amendment.

    Finally, regarding Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (how did we get on this topic?), you need to think outside of your conservative talking-points mindset. Piss Christ, while not exactly my style, was in fact an interesting and provocative work of art, because it powerfully commented on the commercialization and cheapening of Christian icons in contemporary culture. As stated by art critic and Catholic nun, Sister Wendy Beckett, the work was not blasphemous, but was a statement on “what we have done to Christ” – a portrait of the manner in which contemporary society has come to regard Christ and the values he represents.

    Had Americans as a whole been capable of seeing Serrano’s provocative art for what it was – a statement on the commercialization and degradation of Christianity in contemporary culture – and not simply as an act of blasphemous vandalism – that would have been truly exceptional. But I guess it proves that we Americans are human and imperfect, just like everyone else. What makes us exceptional is a Constitution that allows expressions of artistic and political freedom from the likes of Andres Serrano and Dinesh D’Souza, and others on the edges of American extremism, who are free to offend the sensibilities of liberals and conservatives alike.

  9. Mark,

    "Thank you for confirming precisely my point – conservatives believe that the United States is, and always has been, superior to all other nations."

    Guilty as charged.

    Rich R.