American Exceptionalism: What Is It?

Posted on September 16, 2013. Filed under: History, Society, World Affairs | Tags: |

English: American Flag blowing in the wind

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent comment on my post about Putin and his mocking of “American Exceptionalism” gave me cause to think.

What is American Exceptionalism, exactly?

Is it the belief that American is the greatest nation on earth, that we are better than everyone else?

There are those who have called “American Exceptionalism” a myth, and honestly, I would expect nothing less from the Huffington Post. But if you read the column that I linked to, he isn’t talking about American Exceptionalism at all, but American Exceptionism, and the actions of our government do not necessarily mean that it has the support of the people. Current events in Syria are proof of that. Vietnam was proof of that.

Since the Second World War, this nation has been getting involved more and more in the business of sovereign nations. For the most part we have done most of the heavy lifting, while China and the former Soviet Union just sent equipment, and in a few cases, particularly in Korea, troops.

But getting involved in other nation’s business does not make us exceptional. The government taking an attitude of “good enough for me, but not for thee” does not make us exceptional.

It is the people who make us exceptional.

But the author of the HuffPo piece seems stuck on the 20th Century, thinking that is where the concept came from.

It didn’t.

The Washington Post has a pretty good write up about American Exceptionalism, but while I think it scratched the surface, it did not go far enough. It doesn’t go far enough, because like the Huffington Post piece, it assumes that the government is what makes us exceptional.

It isn’t.

Like I said, the Washington Post scratches the surface, but doesn’t look any deeper.

[American Exceptionalism]  “can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire.”

Those are the words of political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, which the Post quotes, then moves on to Exceptionalism as a government function, ignoring what he said.

The concept of American Exceptionalism has been around a long time.

The concept originated, believe it or not, by a French political thinker; Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1840’s. The term has since been hijacked, like most other things, by politicians.

Most Americans think that the US is the greatest nation on earth, warts and all.

That’s what makes us exceptional, in part. We were the first nation to break away from a major power and form our own government. We were the first to decide that we were not beholden to the government, that government is supposed to be beholden to us. The idea that government does not grant us rights, but is supposed to protect those rights. The notion that all men are created equal, but do not mistake that to mean that we all remain equal. Your life is what you make of it, not what the government makes of it. Have we had our struggles with that concept? Certainly, but we have worked towards correcting that problem.

We believe that we all have the same rights. That does not mean that those rights do not get trampled from time to time, but we all have them. So far in this century, the government has done more to take away our rights than at any other time in history. When we talk about taking our country back, we do not mean that we want to take it from the blacks, or the Hispanics, or the Asians. It means that we want to take it back from the government.

This country works best when government gets out of the way, not when it gets in the way, over taxing and over regulating us, passing silly laws, or laws that unduly burden the citizenry.

This country has a long history of heroism and individualism, and it is that individualism that makes us great. Look to the two world wars for examples of that individualism, the airborne troops scattered over Normandy, Sergeant Alvin York in the First World War, who fought the Germans despite being a conscientious objector. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who went to the moon and back. The pioneers who moved west.

For all of our faults, and those who would tell us otherwise, this nation above all is still the freest in the world. More people try to make their way to this country than any other country.

Our exceptionalism does not spring from government, just as our rights do not.

If you believe that the idea of American Exceptionalism is the idea that we feel we are better than everyone else, then you really don’t know what American Exceptionalism is, or what it is all about.

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