“American exceptionalism” is a term that irritates a lot of media and global elites. The term also functions as a Rorschach test: people project their perceptions onto it. Depending on your politics, you may see in it greatness or greed, a culture of opportunity or a culture of inequality, a sense of generosity towards the world or a nationalistic sense of superiority against it.
President Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention last month shows the Left is in the process of redefining and appropriating the term. This is curious, because this administration’s policies are building the sort of massive bureaucratic state that is the unexceptional default position of human power whenever left to its own devices. Such a state only to limits and squashes the expression of human potential and opportunity.
Meanwhile, presidential candidate Donald Trump sets the mood for American exceptionalism with his slogan “Make America great again” even though Trump is on the record saying repeatedly that “American exceptionalism” is a term he does not like and never liked at all. Nevertheless, Trump’s slogan induces the media to react by equating American exceptionalism with an “ideology of arrogance.”
Bad News for Power-Mongers
What does American exceptionalism really mean? If we dig deep, beyond the concept of “Manifest Destiny” or superpower status, I think we find a pretty pedestrian definition of “exceptional:” to be different, unusual, rare. Both advocates and detractors added a presumption of nationalistic superiority. At root, the most logical meaning of American exceptionalism is that America simply chose a very different path—a path exceptional among nations—to codifying the exercise of political power.
America is exceptional as a nation because it set in motion the belief that political power should be checked and balanced rather than abused by overlords at whim, which was the common (and therefore unexceptional) way of doing things when our nation was founded (and remains so in many parts of the world). The whole point of limiting that power was to preserve individuals’ natural rights. This is a crucial point that means American exceptionalism is really all about human exceptionalism. It’s “American” because it happened to happen in America first.
This is why our Bill of Rights is basically a list of prohibitions against government interference in individuals’ lives. It is not simply a defense of individual rights, but actually goes on offense against big, Borg government.
Since it is based on natural rights, the Bill of Rights is meant to put boundaries around government officials’ power, rather than endowing them with the power to pick and choose our rights for us, because that is the only way a people can ever hope to live free and pursue happiness. What a novel—i.e., exceptional—idea in human history! It’s the sort of novel idea that has always rubbed power-mongers the wrong way.
Washington’s Path Versus Napoleon’s
Another aspect of American exceptionalism is belief in a system that places worth on the individual. It’s actually intended to cultivate humility by respecting others’ rights. Human beings are notoriously weak at resisting the temptation to power. So the American model of putting checks and balances on the corrupting nature of human power is definitely a road less travelled.
George Washington set the example when he voluntarily walked away from the presidency after his second term was up. This sort of exceptional behavior shocked the sensibilities of Europe’s “enlightened despots.” In fact, the self-crowned Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, after his capture and exile, is reported to have said with contempt: “They wanted me to be another George Washington.”
Ironically, pundits are trying to get us to reverse the roles of Washington and Napoleon in our mind’s eye. Instead of seeing Washington’s act of humility as a prime example of American exceptionalism, we have strongmen and celebrities—from Vladimir Putin to Bill Moyers to Oliver Stone—telling us to view American exceptionalism as though it’s more akin to Napoleon’s behavior: claiming it’s all about chauvinistic bravado and arrogance.
Of course, such extreme nationalism can and does happen among Americans. This, in itself, points right back to the common flaw, the unexceptional nature of human beings that we always have to guard against. It proves again why we need checks and balances against the human urge to centralize power.
Rejecting the Crabs in a Barrel Mentality
So how should an ethos of checks and balances against excessive power affect a virtuous society? This ethos allows for a society that abides by the ideal that we all are created equal. It grants individuals the right to fulfill their potential, express their beliefs, and associate freely with others. It means building a culture that strikes a healthy balance between individual rights and individual responsibilities.
Finally, it means a society that respects the dignity of every human being and protects the weakest among us against abuses of power from the strong. This doesn’t happen overnight, but the Founders understood they were checking their own power, and that even though slaveholding existed, they were programming a system destined to undermine slavery.
Without such an ideal—exceptional in most of human history—people simply follow the ancient rule of conformity embedded in human nature. This sort of conformity leads nowhere, as illustrated by crabs in a barrel. If one crab tries to escape, all the others pull him back into the barrel, where they will all meet the same demise.
As society succumbs to that mentality, people lose their sense of self-concept as individuals. We are more likely to conform to the dictates of propaganda spread by power elites. The crowd ruled by envy pulls back those who try to escape this rule of conformity, just like crabs in a barrel.
Such conformity and social homogenization is where we seem to be headed with the rule of social “equality” today’s so-called progressives champion. In this world, being successful or happy is often denounced as unearned “privilege.” We’re on track for a culture in which no one is supposed to succeed, lest one person be more successful than any other. In such a culture the state—not the individual—determines our paths and distributes our measure of success. To defy that crab mentality, to think and act for oneself no matter the pressures or scorn piled on, is to be the exception.
American Exceptionalism Is About Human Exceptionalism
In a less-virtuous society, social pressure typically causes people to obey the pack. So a person who chooses to endure ridicule rather than back down from his or her principles is the exception these days. The same thing goes for a person who refuses to condemn someone the “authorities”—i.e., the media, academia, Hollywood—have labelled a social pariah. Such choices are harder to make when living in an authoritarian society or caste system, where power elites harshly punish nonconformity.
It helps us understand American exceptionalism if we can personify it in the rare person who stands up for an underdog when the chips are down. It means the person who extends a helping hand and expects nothing in return. Or the person who risks his life for a stranger, while everyone else is standing by waiting for someone else—the exception—to do something.
It also means the child who doesn’t care that everybody makes fun of him when he engages in a “nerd” hobby. Or the teenager who abstains from the “fun” of passing her body around like popcorn. It means the guy who invents something that looks really dumb to everyone, but he does it anyway because he is driven by the urge to create something big and he builds it out of sheer joy. Also—get this—he doesn’t even care if a petty person tells him he didn’t build that. The joyful irony is that there is more power in the love generated through such an act of creation than there would be in the intentional use of that creation (for example, shown by social media moguls) to lord it over others, invading their privacy and mining their data.
Innovation, knowledge, happiness—these are in each of us if only we could see it. If only we could overcome and regulate the human sins of envy, greed, sloth, and so on. Respecting the ability of the individual to create and spread solutions and real happiness is the essence of American exceptionalism, which was born of a system that stood for the right of all human beings to discover their own personal exceptionalism.
America is exceptional because it is the first nation to codify and embrace the understanding that every human being—no matter one’s nationality—is endowed with something unique to offer and is therefore exceptional. No exceptions.