A recent comment by President Obama and reply by Russian President Putin brought to the fore the question whether America is exceptional. CNN followed the exchange with several opinion pieces. This one American 'Exceptionalism:' Who are they kidding? argued that there is nothing exceptional about America - at least, any more. That agrees with most of the posters on social media and Internet forums.
It appears that today thinking of America as exceptional is positively un-American. (See the comments on this CNN site "Despite fights about its merits, idea of American exceptionalism a powerful force through history."
Of course, "exceptional" is a slippery term. What did President Obama mean by it? What did Putin mean? And what do the posters on the various social media sites mean? It is hard to tell, though it appears everyone has an opinion. Nevertheless, despite the muddiness of the issue, I'd like to argue that America not only was exceptional but remains exceptional.
Let's begin at the beginning. Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831 just a few decades after America became a nation. Though those who today reference and quote de Tocqueville and his book Democracy in America seem to mine the negatives, a reading of the book seems to me to clearly reveal de Tocqueville's admiration for America and his conviction that, at least in his day, America was exceptional. But in what way?
First, America was exceptional in the independence of her people. De Tocqueville writes: "Americans are taught from birth that they must overcome life’s woes and impediments on their own. Social authority makes them mistrustful and anxious, and they rely upon its power only when they cannot do without it." That is what made us and continues to make us pioneers. It makes America a seedbed of entrepreneurs and inventors. Though we created an industrial society in the 1800s and early 1900s that was the greatest any the world had seen, our strength always has been in the individual and in his or her ingenuity and drive.
Things have changed a bit lately, as most reading this will note. Since the 1930s we have created a welfare society that may itself be exceptional, though not admirable. That welfare mentality has undermined the individualism that made America great. But it remains that many of the most successful entrepreneurs are Americans.
A second way America was exceptional was in our government. De Tocqueville writes: "As the first people to face the redoubtable alternative I have just described, the Anglo-Americans were fortunate enough to escape from absolute power. 'Their circumstances, background, enlightenment, and, most of all, mores enabled them to establish and maintain the sovereignty of the people.'" Of course, in de Tocqueville's time most other nations were monarchies; so when Americans chose, in contrast, to organize our government on the principles of democracy, we were exceptional in the world. Since then that model of government has proved attractive to many other peoples, so that today other nations have followed our example - a tacit recognition by those nations of the admirable and exceptional nature of America.
For us, the legacy of our nation's fathers remains in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And that legacy continues to mark America as exceptional in the protections accorded to our citizens. It is for that reason that Americans who value the principles passed on to us guard our constitutional rights energetically.
That brings me to the third way America is exceptional. The freedoms our constitution guarantees us have been a lure to people from around the world who, experiencing oppression and hopelessness abroad, have sought the sanctuary and freedom and opportunity of America. Between 1836 and the First World War more than 30 million Europeans immigrated to the United States. Among them were my great great grandparents, and probably yours.
But Europe was not the only source of immigrants. Take a drive around any American city and you will find Chinatowns, Little Italys, Latino, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and Middle Eastern neighborhoods - complete with shops, restaurants, and places of worship peculiar to the immigrants' ethnic origins. We are a nation of immigrants who came to America because of the freedom and opportunity and safety we believed we would find here. And most found what they sought. It is true that many other countries have welcomed immigrants, especially of late, but few have been so remarkably embracing as the United States.
Finally, America is exceptional in the character of our people. Part of that is certainly a product of our faith. Christianity built into us the virtue of personal responsibility and generosity. (Compare the nations that do not have that heritage. Few come close to the generosity of those nations whose culture is Christian.) Americans more than any other people give of our money and our selves to help others. We go to Africa to dig wells. We spend out lives in Asia to provide medical care where there is none. We built schools. We deliver disaster aid. We open our pocketbooks when there is a need here at home. We run missions in every city of America. And it goes on. Others are, of course, generous. But by most measures we are still the leaders, and not only the leaders but the example others have followed. In that I think we are genuinely exceptional.
The naysayers point to our failures. We still fail to provide health care to all equally. We still lag in some areas of education. We have poverty, though our poor are by most measures rich compared to the poor of many countries. We throw our weight around and make plenty of mistakes, Vietnam and, some say, Iraq among them. And we have often acted as a nation with only our own interests a heart - never mind that we rescued Europe and China from despots in the 1940s at great expense to American lives and material. But those are either continuing challenges that we are addressing or limited missteps that do not reflect the character of our people. Step back from these for a wider view, and America looks far different from the picture the naysayers paint.
America is good. America remains a land of freedom and opportunity. Americans are still people of character. America is, yes it is, exceptional.