Good grief: It’s a simple concept at the very core of the American idea, and if you don’t understand it, you don’t understand the American “experiment.” We have two candidates for the highest office in the land who have no clue what American exceptionalism actually is, while having no hesitation in going on and on about it.
In a speech to the American Legion (of all things), Hillary trumpets her great regard for American exceptionalism:
If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this. The United States is an exceptional nation. I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country.
And it’s not just that we have the greatest military or that our economy is larger than any on Earth. It’s also the strength of our values, the strength of the American people. Everyone who works harder, dreams bigger and never, ever stops trying to make our country and the world a better place. And part of what makes America an exceptional nation, is that we are also an indispensable nation.
This is all fine, and has nothing to do with American exceptionalism. She also sneers at Trump’s contention that American exceptionalism is insulting to the rest of the world.
But, in fact, my opponent in this race has said very clearly that he thinks American exceptionalism is insulting to the rest of the world. In fact, when Vladimir Putin, of all people, criticized American exceptionalism, my opponent agreed with him, saying, and I quote, ‘if you’re in Russia, you don’t want to hear that America is exceptional.’
Setting aside that Trump is in basic agreement with Barack Obama on this, he is actually less wrong than Hillary: They both have a very mistaken notion of what American exceptionalism is—and it is the same mistaken notion—but Trump realizes, at least, that it gives rise to resentment around the world, with people getting a little weary of Americans running around touting how “exceptional” they are.
This is all exceedingly unfortunate, especially since it causes people to lose sight of the real meaning of American “exceptionalism.” When you do that, you lose the meaning of America, too.
That so many people get American exceptionalism wrong flows from common usage of the word “exceptional” to mean “extraordinary” or “better than” instead of the word’s less frequent usage (at least these days) to mean “a departure from,” as in “an exception to.” But that latter is what it’s all about. (It may be that Hillary misreads this because the underlying mandate of actual American exceptionalism is at war with her lifelong worldview.)
So, for Hillary and Donald, here’s a little American Exceptionalism 101.
Let’s Start at the Beginning
The Founding Fathers of the United States studied several thousand years of human history, and realized humans typically derived rights and freedoms only at the pleasure or discretion of an overarching authority that stood “above” them. That “authority” might be a monarchy or, upon the Magna Carta (which did not assert human rights but forcefully petitioned the king to grant those rights), it might be a parliament or some other quasi-democratic entity. That entity would decide, by one means or another, what the people were allowed to have, do, or keep.
It all flowed downward to the people from a controlling higher authority that might be beneficent or might not. Human rights were permitted to the people by an inherently empowered greater entity whose reason for existence was to impose order and structure that would yield some kind of civilization that would better someone—perhaps the monarch, perhaps the people, perhaps the government itself, interested in its own perpetuation.
The whole thing made human freedom a somewhat tenuous enterprise, dependent on an outside agency. Yes, I’m simplifying, but think top-down, flowing to you from a higher authority throughout recorded history in one configuration or another.
The Founding Fathers quite deliberately set about creating a society that was an exception to this. An exception. Rights would not be granted by an outside entity and flow downward: Rights were instead innate and integral to every individual, granted by no less an authority than the Almighty. You did not have to wait to have rights flow down to you, they would flow up from you. You didn’t have to petition a king or a parliament for your rights. The only way anyone should be able to affect those in-built rights would be if you voluntarily decided to relinquish them, in part, to a mutually agreed-upon limited authority.
That relinquishment should be done gingerly and sparingly, the Founders said, because their attention to thousands of years of history taught them the excruciating inevitability of authority expanding until it extinguishes liberty and establishes tyranny. They discerned this to be the pattern as far back as the eye could see.
Central government must be limited, and strict attention paid to restrict its natural tendency to accumulate power, to grasp at the inherent human freedoms to which it is not entitled. Failure to do so leads inevitably to a loss of those freedoms, piece by piece, almost without awareness that one is trading pieces of “liberty for a small amount of temporary security” (in Benjamin Franklin’s words) until nothing of one’s freedoms remain.
Let’s Do It Differently, Shall We?
This was their view, and they were convinced of it to their very souls. So they established a constitutional republic. This would be the “exception.” As Thomas Jefferson said, “The Constitution of the United States asserts that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty.”
We forget how revolutionary this was at the time, how exceptional, but therein lies the root of the term “American exceptionalism.” It’s not that America or Americans are “better” or more extraordinary. We are no different, better or worse, more or less capable or decent or flawed than anyone else. But the system under which we operate was a dramatic, revolutionary exception to the rule. Miraculously, human beings operating within that “exceptional” system have, somehow, been able to create more prosperity and more influence for good in the world (yes, with the imperfections) than any country in recorded history.
Some insist the world of 1787 bears no relationship to our own. Our concerns, evolving demographics, and technology place us in a realm the Founders, however brilliant they might have been, could not anticipate and accommodate. Would they really have crafted the Second Amendment if they could have imagined a modern assault rifle?
No, this argument goes, we must progress beyond the limitations imposed by inhabitants of the old world to perfect our nation for the new world. Failure to do so would doom us to stagnation, social injustice, and to imposing the will of the few on the many. We must be progressive, this argument says, we must move on, re-invent, reconfigure, restructure as an enlightened view of current reality would demand.
Others note the “progressive” approach is not progressive at all. It is retrogressive, leading back around full circle to the same spot it has always led with people who believed their particular world was somehow different, that they were smart, modern, and capable enough to channel human nature towards a better reality.
This argument says the Founding Fathers, far from being benighted by the limited vision of their own place and time, saw clearly the future trajectory because they understood that circumstances change but principles and the laws of human nature do not. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” Jefferson said. He was warning against this very impulse.
We’re At a Tipping Point
These arguments will continue, but at the core is this: American exceptionalism is deeply embedded in the DNA of American culture. It’s what gives rise to the “Don’t Tread on Me” “rugged individualism” that some find off-putting (unless it creates an army that protects them or a gargantuan, thriving market into which they can sell and prosper).
The way of being in the world that flows from this “exceptionalism” is the thing that has made us different, powerful, and prosperous—and maybe even “good”—beyond the imaginings of even those who set it in motion. This an “exception” to all the governments before it, that Abraham Lincoln called “The last best hope of Mankind,” is now in great peril. It has been eroded, piece by piece, over many decades, to the point where a great many of our citizens—even ones running for the presidency—don’t even know what it is.
Time will reveal the implications of this, not only for us Americans but, given the nature of things, the rest of the world, too.