We have all heard the term “American Exceptionalism”, but what does it mean? Interpretations vary, but it seems that those that seem to consider it a trait of significant import seem to do so from a hard-right Christian position. Fox News talking head Sean Hannity is somewhat famous for his mantra: “The U.S. is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the earth.”
This belief is shared by plenty of others. My hearing almost precisely the same sentence tumble from the lips of another of Hannity’s fellow conservative pundits motivated me to put down these thoughts.
I would like to unpack Hannity’s exhortation, but I need to start with my own position on exceptionalism. That is: For us to make the claim of our being exceptional, we actually have to be exceptional prior to making that claim. [Call me crazy]
Historically, there have been some eras and areas where the United States has been exceptional…and objectively so. Consider our revolutionary era when, in our colonial days, we became the crucible from which large-scale representative government was forged [though we didn’t invent democracy]. In important ways, our forebears unleashed a secular form of government “for the people and by the people”. That, my friends, is about as exceptional as you can get.
Look also to the periods of great immigration where oppressed and distressed peoples fled their homelands to enjoy our radical new form of government, personal freedoms and individual opportunity. We had multitudes that risked everything, sometimes for their own reward, but often…as in the case of my great-grandparents…for the chance that their children and grandchildren might know a better life. In a sociological/evolutionary way, those immigrants self-selected and made our population swell with brave, forward-thinking, selfless risk-takers…those with the “American Spirit”. [There is a certain irony when we contrast this with today’s immigration debates]
The first steam-powered automobile and the Sony Walkman were exceptional inventions in their own right, but would any of us want them today as our primary mode of locomotion or playing music? Of course not. What might have been an exceptional idea, in retrospect, simply enlightened the greater public to a new way of considering the issue. Others have taken those ideas and made tremendous improvements.
The Miami Dolphins football team had an exceptional [undefeated] season in 1972. Does that mean they have been exceptional in every one of the intervening 42 years? Of course not. In every game, a team strives to be exceptional, but names change, decisions are made and success and failure is measured anew each game and season. Exceptionalism has to be continuously demonstrated. That is to say…you are exceptional until you aren’t. The same is true for these United States.
If we look back to our founding days as a nation, we had the extraordinary phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. But let’s view that through the lens of our founders. “All men” really meant “All white, land-owning males”. This would be deemed downright primitive today and we, as a people, rightly look down upon any nation with similar structure. [This should be a cautionary tale for those professing to subscribe to Constitutional Originalism.]
To be clear; “that all men are created equal” truly was exceptional in the context of its day and age. While it didn’t address the ancient ills of state patriarchy and racial superiority; it did dispense with the ancient ill of monarchy. That’s a bloody big step.
Exceptionalism lies at a point in time and immediately begins to recede into history. Exceptionalism is not a trophy which sits glittering upon our collective American mantlepiece. Exceptionalism [to extend the metaphor] is a travelling trophy that goes to whomever is leading at the moment. That’s not to say that we can’t take pride in our achievements, but to be exceptional…to claim exceptionalism…is to be exceptional at this very moment through our actions and ideas and demonstrable results.
Which leads me back to Sean Hannity and his ilk. Let’s revisit his catchphrase: “The U.S. is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the earth.”
Setting aside his embarrassing sentence structure; Hannity and others have convinced themselves that we are exceptional by mere virtue of being America. More importantly, that the Christian god has selected the United States as the beacon of truth and light in the world. This notion unmoors us from the responsibility to be introspective as a people. This notion very comfortingly says that everything we do is exceptional by mere virtue that we…as a nation and people chosen by God…do it. In other words; whatever we do, it is the will of God and must be deemed good. If we consider this idea, we will find little light between this thinking and the thinking of our most reviled terrorist enemies. Thankfully this strain of American Exceptionalist has not taken up arms against the state…yet.
THE REPORT CARD
So…is the U.S. objectively exceptional across the board? Let’s look at some of our failures:
- Consider our…ummm…questionable treatment of the indigenous peoples of North America
- Consider that the United States was pretty late to the game in abolishing slavery.
- Consider our exceptionally high rate of incarceration.
- Consider our high per-capita rate of violent crime for first-world democracies.
- Consider our bottom-of-the-barrel acceptance of evolution amongst western nations.
- Consider our rates of teen pregnancy amongst first-world democracies.
- Consider the U.S. world standing in math and science which ranks below average! Since we were the undisputed academic/scientific leader as recently as the Apollo era; we might consider this a nose-dive. This, in an area that is the primary determinant of whether the the U.S. will continue to compete in the world economy. [Watch a short and stirring video about what we had, what we lost, and what we can do to regain the inspiration the permeated our thinking in those days [here].]
- Consider that [in that same era] scientists and engineers were revered…and cool! Today we have intellectuals and scientists derided…even suppressed… if their thinking doesn’t align with political agendas.
- Consider our rate of poverty for a first-world nation
- Consider how political parties have morphed into beasts that put political gain ahead of thoughtful governance. Gerrymandering and mind-numbing amounts of money from very narrow segments of the population have made extreme partisan’s voices heard to the exclusion of everyone else. Thoughtful politicians must pander and play to the fringes if they want any chance of having an opportunity to serve. It’s a feedback loop that has populated our lawmaking bodies with actors further and further from a pragmatic center.
LOSING OUR FOUNDING VISION
Our founders recognized the value of elite, intellectual thinkers…that our greatness as a nation would come from finding the best and brightest through academia. Thomas Jefferson…principal author of our Declaration of Independence, third president and founder of the University of Virginia…dreamed of finding the greatest minds from our entire population and opined:
“Let us in education dream of an aristocracy of achievement arising out of a democracy of opportunity.”
Pause for a moment and consider what he said. Everyone should have the opportunity to achieve academically and intellectually. He did not say that everyone would achieve equally. Indeed he envisioned higher education birthing an “aristocracy” that had the depth of thought and breadth of expertise that would be at the helm of our nation…an aristocracy that would thoughtfully look out for the greater good of all Americans. He speaks of the intellectual elites that are now pilloried by significant segments of the population…and even lawmakers. We have what amounts to a “war on expertise”. That we can’t defer to actual scientists on matters science or actual economists on matters of economics is somewhat exceptional…but not in a good way.
Am I anti-American? Some of you reading this will think so. But I am no harder on America than I am on myself. I have certainly had my successes, but it is my failures that dominate my thoughts. If your neighbor went around continuously expounding about how exceptional and unimpeachable they were, you would justifiably see them as an epic-scale jackass.
It is not for Americans to judge their own exceptionalism. That is for others to do and it should should be our great pleasure to earn the title. The patriot will look back self-critically and work to improve and be exceptional today.