Recently posting that American exceptionalism was dead, a friend listed as evidence a list of social initiatives, mainly from the current politically hot-topic list, from European countries that were rated above similar programs in the USA. Her autopsy report was simply ranking of federal programs.
America is exceptional because of the freedom and liberty that engulfs her citizens’ daily lives. Tocqueville made notice in the early 19th century: “The position of the Americans is quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” As long as those freedoms and liberties are intact, then America is exceptional.
It’s easy to lose perspective with our “first world problems.” Social programs may certainly be beneficial to citizens, but they are not fundamental human rights and freedoms that define the quality of governments.
Jefferson’s vision of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” was unique to America at the time it was written, and remains unique today in so many parts of the world. I’ve personally talked with Iraqis in 2006-07 who yearned for that sort of vision in their lives, to Kuwaitis who were grateful for the restoration of their nation from the grips of Hussein in 1990-91, and with Germans who held confusing memories of their parents serving in the Nazi regime of the 1930-40’s. Muslims in Cairo told me that they wished one day to move their families to America to “have better lives.” Nearly to a person, each of these non-Americans, if you will, espoused the beliefs that American liberty was exceptional. This exceptionalism was not at all rooted in the efficacy of federal social programs or subjective measures of well-being and budget appropriations.
There are certainly imperfections. Being itself a relative comparison, the word exceptional should not be confused with the word perfect.
“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” doesn’t mean the absence of sinfulness. Racism and social injustices have been frequent in American history: racial injustices and slavery thru the Jim Crowe decades, American Indian policies, lack of suffrage for women, and child factory labor as described by Upton Sinclair are examples. Racism and social injustices remain in America. And so do her ideals for freedom and liberty for her citizens.
The inherent presence of morality in American democracy also does not guarantee perfection. As John Adam’s spoke in 1798: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion…Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” America’s morality remains a necessary component of her exceptionalism.
America’s ideals were steeled through a bloody civil war in the 19th century and saved through two World Wars in the 20th century. Counting rows and rows of mystic white crosses on the shores of Normandy may be the finest reminder I’ve experienced. Those American ideals remain under fire from extremists today: from war-torn villages in Iraq and Afghanistan, to brutal dictators in South America and the Pacific Rim, and finally from the global presence of power-focused bureaucrats who would have their citizens controlled by the burgeoning apparatuses of (not really) representative governments.
The expectation should be that America’s ideals will always be under assault. The attempt to re-define American exceptionalism by a series of social programs is one common example today. As spoken by John F. Kennedy, we should “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”