Thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the generally mis-defined concept of American exceptionalism has again come to the fore. In last week’s New York Times, Mr. Putin displayed his lack of knowledge of the United States’ founding. Toward the end of his op-ed, he attacked President Obama for stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.”
Mr. Putin claimed, “It is always dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Mr. Putin was trying to score points off a President he sees as weakened; instead, he displayed his ignorance.
The Russian president was following the footsteps of his predecessor Joseph Stalin, who used the term “American exceptionalism” in 1929 to ridicule America for its “abnormalities” – that it did not welcome the proletariat revolution and that it was heresy to believe that Americans were immune from the inevitable forces of “Marxist laws of history.” Seymour Martin Lipset once wrote that the concept of American exceptionalism was used by those like Stalin to rationalize “why the United States is the only industrialized country that did not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party.”
But why would we have? The American worker, in the post-World War I period, was better off than his counterparts in Socialist countries. During the third decade of the 20th Century, thanks to the pro-growth policies of the Coolidge Administration, America was experiencing the fastest pace of economic growth in its history. Average wages were rising at unprecedented rates; the automobile was becoming ubiquitous; more and more parts of the country were being electrified; the radio was allowing even those in rural areas to connect with other regions of the country; washing machines and vacuum cleaners freed housewives from the drudgery of daily housework.
Europe, during those years, was still extricating itself from the destruction of the Great War. At home, Capitalism brought wealth to millions of Americans, while Communism impoverished and enslaved even more millions of people in the newly-formed Soviet Union.
But none of this had anything to do with what Alexis de Tocqueville saw as American exceptionalism. He saw America as exceptional for its devotion to the practical, rather than to the arts. He saw it in the form of government the Founders had created and in the industriousness of the people. He saw it in their egalitarianism, religiosity, and their dependency on the community. Keep in mind, at the time, class systems dominated Europe, royal families generally reigned supreme, and where a republic had been tried – France – it had proven a disaster.
Most importantly, we are (or were?) exceptional because of the nature of our founding and the institutions of government that were then created and which remain today. What those men did was without precedent. Between 1776 and 1789, the founders peacefully forged a law-centric republic, predicated on the separation of powers, using principles of checks and balances, all based on representative government. They created a nation that promoted democratic ideals and personal liberty, with elected leaders who were accountable to the people. And they did this while fighting a bloody revolution. In the annals of man, it was truly unique – “The greatest single effort of national deliberations that the world has ever seen,” as John Adams once wrote about the process of creating the Constitution.
Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve and Coming Apart, recently published a short (50 pages) book, American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History. He states that American exceptionalism stems from four elements: geography, culture, ideology and politics. We were unique in that we were a nation bordered by non-belligerents on the north and south and by oceans on the east and west. The very harshness of the environment, in those early years, meant only people of a certain character would emigrate. An absence of a state religion allowed for a “free market” of competing religious sects.
The late political sociologist quoted above, Seymour Lipset, once said that America’s unique ideology can be described in five words: “liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez faire.” Even after our political system had been created, community ties to myriad local organizations served to keep people happy and government small. Some of the characteristics described above remain true. Others no longer apply.
American exceptionalism is sometimes confused with patriotism, which it is not. There is nothing wrong with patriotism; in fact, I consider myself a patriotic American. But patriotism is an emotion we feel, especially during times of anguish, as was experienced during World War II and manifested in movies from the era. We saw it in the lapel pins that became so common in the aftermath of 9/11. Patriotism, however, can be carried to extremes and when it does there is often a backlash, as we saw during the Vietnam era.
It became common during those years to quote sarcastically the famous words of Stephan Decatur, one of the fathers of the United States Navy. Returning home after successfully ending the Barbary state piracy, he raised his glass in a toast: “…our country, right or wrong.” What people forget is that those seemingly belligerent words were preceded by qualifiers: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” The preceding words, “…may she always be right” removes the jingoistic sting of the last five words.
Regardless, patriotism is an emotion that can be played to and often is by politicians, sometimes appealing to our worst instincts. In contrast, American exceptionalism, as Mr. Murray wrote in his short book, is a “fact of America’s past, not something you can choose whether to ‘believe in,’ any more than you can choose to ‘believe in’ the battle of Gettysburg.” It is part of our history.
There are politicians who infer that we Americans, as an exceptional nation, have “a rendezvous with destiny,” and there are others who claim we are no more exceptional than the British or the Greeks. Both observations miss the point. It is the uniqueness of our history that has made America an exceptional nation. We are not, as some would have us believe, God’s chosen people. We are not superior. We are flesh and blood, descended from ancestors who had courage and conviction and who braved intolerance, intimidation, and the elements to emigrate to these shores.
We are lucky to live under a government that was created over those dozen years by a group of disparate men from states a thousand miles apart, men who declared their independence in a stirring document, followed by a bloody revolution. Victory in revolution coincided with the adoption of a Constitution, which is now the world’s oldest.
The colonists were fortunate as well, in that 3000 miles of ocean separated them from their enemy, an enemy who commanded the world’s largest navy and biggest army. It was also an enemy who represented the country from which most of the founders had come. Nevertheless, the Founders knew they were creating something extraordinary. The concept of giving the power of the Presidency to a man who would willingly give it up following elections was an idea alien even to the British, otherwise the most liberal of all European nations. The motto on the Great Seal of the United States reads novus ordo seclorum - “a new order for the ages.” The founders knew they had created something unique.
There was much in our early history one can criticize, and which we should remember in shame. Early settlers essentially practiced genocide on the native Indian population. The concept of freedom, according to the Founders, did not extend to slaves. However, on balance, America has been a force for good, and for that we should take pride. Those early Americans formed a government, limited in its powers and responsible to the people. It was based on the concept that we are all created equal, and were endowed with certain inalienable rights – granted, not by government, but by our creator.
Once the Founders completed writing the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin allegedly responded, in regard to a query as to what form of government had been created, “It is a republic, Madam, as long as you can keep it.” Our exceptionalism is based on all the above factors – geographical, political, cultural and ideological – that allowed the early pioneers to hew from a largely virgin frontier a new nation, under laws, not people. There is nothing exceptional about anyone of us individually. We are just lucky to be here, but with that good fortune goes a responsibility, to live up to the standards set two centuries ago – to try to keep those factors alive that made America exceptional.