Sunday, March 14, 2010

American Exceptionalism

“Obama does not believe in the idea of American Exceptionalism” I heard talk show host Rush Limbaugh say accusingly. That got me thinking. What does the idea of “American Exceptionalism” mean? Do I believe in it myself? I suppose the path to answering the second question is to answer the first.

The United States is certainly an exceptional nation in the sense that Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville noted over a century ago. We were the first republican government of modern times. We were among the first to be based on the idea that individual humans possess unalienable rights that are God-given. Many of our founders established this nation as an extension of their Christian Faith. We had a Constitution which emphasized that government should be limited in scope and power. We were a country of immigrants from other peoples the world over that were blended together as the result of what used to be called the “melting pot”. Because of the uniqueness of our origins, De Tocqueville argued that democracy in the United States cannot be compared to democracy elsewhere. “Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people”, he implored.

When communists and socialists of the last century discussed American Exceptionalism, they described it in terms of why socialism was such a dud in the United States when it was a major political movement in the other industrialized countries. They again went back to something De Tocqueville noted. We are much more a classless society than those other countries. We don’t have royalty or titles here. We don’t have a rigid class structure. In a place where opportunity to move up abounds, socialism is a tough sell. In a place where there is no class of nobles to which the average person is denied access regardless of merit, socialism is a tough sell. The vine of socialism takes root best in an economy of injustice, in a soil well-watered with the vice of envy.

Our tradition of equal status under the law helped protect those who acquired wealth through service to others from being robbed of that wealth through socialist policy. The privileged classes of Europe tried to hold onto their privilege by force of law. Any privilege Americans had was earned through the toil of themselves or their fathers. It was earned, and any man had a chance to do the same for themselves and their posterity. It was little wonder that their neighbors proved more resistant to socialism’s temptation to loot the wealthy.

I buy into those ideas of American Exceptionalism. I buy into it so much that I actually fear that what really made America exceptional is fading away. We are squandering the intellectual and spiritual heritage of our Founders which produced the exceptionalism that we enjoy. But there is another strain of thought calling itself American Exceptionalism, and I am leery of it. It is the idea that we are exceptional not because we held to those values which I described above, but simply because we are Americans. It is usually tied in with a sense of arrogance or entitlement, and those are dangerous attitudes at any place in history. It is the strain of thought that claims we have some sort of special right to impose by force our ideas or our systems on other peoples with or without their consent. What makes America great is virtue united with freedom, but neither quality can be imposed on others through the barrel of a gun. America forfeits its exceptionalism when it changes from friend to ruler.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

American exceptionalism is a concept our country earned and wore proudly for a time.

That time is over and the sooner people realise that it is over the sooner we will again strive to obtain the virtues which made up that exceptionalism.

There is nothing exceptional about a country that is a debt slave to communist China and international banking interests. There is nothing exceptional about a country that has allowed 50 Million of its innocents to be executed in the womb. There is nothing exceptional about a country whose education system and family infrastructure is as fractured as ours (as a whole).

Instead we have become a decadent unexecptional nation that is nearing its demise. Rush speaks a lot of truth but his patriotism is based on a false image of the America that no longer exists, sadly.

9:06 AM, March 15, 2010  

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