Considering “American exceptionalism”

Two hundred thirty-six years!  Wow…amazing to think that this country has not just survived, but prospered for that long, given all that it and its people have faced over those seven or eight generations.  Some attribute that to the hand of God, some to the nature of Americans, some to a combination of the two.

If you’ve led a sheltered life, like me, then the concept of “American exceptionalism” is a relatively recent revelation.  Come to find out, today it’s a dog whistle blown by social conservatives amid the political battle, and wielded like a heavy club against those of us who “just don’t get it.”  And so I was very interested to run across a thoughtful series of essays at that shed a lot of light on the topic.

The first installment, on the site’s Belief Blog, looks into the history of the idea and makes it pretty clear that it began as a religious concept among the Puritans who fled England almost 500 years ago.  Those people established a theocracy and their descendants were big believers in Manifest Destiny, but the concept evolved along with beliefs about democracy and egalitarianism.  Very interesting reading.

So is the second part, which will bother some “exceptionalists” no end: it looks at the evidence which proves that in some respects America is not the best country in the world, and wonders why some people think that even considering the evidence is a sign of weakness, or treason.

The third rail of American politics is acknowledging we may not be the greatest country in the world.


It’s not like acknowledging flaws is the same as acknowledging failure. The business sector seldom rests on its laurels. Successful companies assume there’s room for improvement, and they’ll put themselves through ISO 9000, Six Sigma, benchmarking, best practices and any number of other assessment programs to get there.


If businesses don’t evolve, they end up like Atari, Pan Am and Woolworth’s, onetime industry leaders that crashed against the rocks of strategy, innovation and competition. So the successful ones aren’t shy about borrowing good ideas from others.

Then why is it so hard for the United States to admit its shortcomings and do the same?

(Read the piece for the answer.)

And in today’s third installment, CNN political analyst (and longtime Republican political adviser) David Gergen, and his researcher Michael Zuckerman, try to answer the question “What makes America special?” and conclude that exceptionalism, like beauty and more, is in the eye of the beholder, and that the heart of our contemporary on-going political pie fight is a conflict over which of our “core values” is core-est.

…Americans espouse five core values, stemming from key historical experiences, that distinguish us from other Western nations: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire.


…these values can be in serious tension with each other. Those who believe foremost in egalitarianism, for example, run in very different directions from stout defenders of laissez-faire.

In politics, nowhere does this tension between core values play out more starkly than in debates over liberty versus equality. Republicans have traditionally argued that a free society allows everyone to do better, while Democrats have objected that without basic fairness, society as a whole is held back. In that spirit, Romney ardently defends liberty and just as ardently, Obama defends social equity.

So, why should we care about this right now, while we’re preparing to ditch work and fill our faces and gawk at politically-hued ballistics displays in the middle of the week?

On this July Fourth, then, we have an America where many, including our leading politicians, disagree on what makes the country special — and on what values should take precedence. There is nothing inherently wrong with such disagreements: Indeed, a competition of ideas is healthy for the republic. But, as has become painfully obvious, the differences in perspective have become so sharp and deep that we are tearing ourselves apart.

That’s why this July Fourth should not only be an occasion for wondering what makes America special, but also for pondering how we can build bridges across the divide.


For our money, the winner of the 2012 election won’t be the one who makes a stronger argument for egalitarianism over liberty or liberty over egalitarianism, but the candidate who joins the two, persuading voters he is best equipped to lift floors as well as ceilings, ensuring every American has an honest shot in life.

Happy birthday, America!

2 thoughts on “Considering “American exceptionalism”

  1. This is an excellent entry. I could ramble on at length, but I’m tired – tired from the day’s work but even more tired of the rhetoric swirling around.

    I will say this – I happen to be 65 years old, and I do believe this is the best country in the world. I’ve lived and worked overseas, traveled broadly and experienced the other end of the scale. Are we imperfect? You bet. But still the best, if we can get our act together.

    On the other hand, I can’t remember ever hearing the phrase “American exceptionalism” until the last year or so. I really haven’t a clue what it means. Living in the best country in the world meant, for my grandparents (immigrants all), my parents and our other family members having the opportunity to better our lives, build our communities and be responsible for one another. That was about it.

    On Father’s Day, Yoani Sanchez, the Cuban blogger, tweeted about fathers and patriotism. As she said, “How you build your family is how you build your country”. My own Swedish grandfather said to me, “If you are not strong, your country will not be strong”. I thought he was right then, and I still do.

    Thanks again for a good post. And a happy Independence Day!

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