Of all the arguments being made this political season, perhaps none is sillier than the left/right debate about American exceptionalism.
As every schoolchild knows, the
Our economy produces almost a quarter of the world's wealth. The
Yet Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen calls American exceptionalism a "myth" and insists that we should junk a phrase "that reeks of arrogance" and narcissism.
Political commentator Michael Kinsley similarly mocked the idea in an essay for Politico, calling the very notion a "conceit."
Even President Obama seemed to equivocate. Asked early in his Presidency whether he believed in American exceptionalism, he replied, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
Love of homeland is universal, of course. Yet the English writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed something distinctly different about us as far back as the 1830s. Americans pursue their economic interests with passion, he noted, but also enthusiastically form associations to take up public affairs and tend to the needs of their communities.
As social scientist Charles Murray writes, "Historically, Americans have been different as a people, even peculiar, and everyone around the world has recognized it. I'm thinking of qualities such as American optimism even when there doesn't seem to be any good reason for it. That's quite uncommon among the peoples of the world. There is the striking lack of class envy in
Our nation's growth and prosperity has been extraordinary, too. How did our small republican experiment transform and dominate global culture and society? Geography played a big role. Buffered by two oceans and a rugged frontier, we had plenty of cheap land and vast natural resources.
Entrepreneurs were given free license to innovate and create. Profit was never something to apologize for. Rather it was viewed as proof that the businessman offered customers something more valuable than the material wealth they traded.
We also opened our arms to tens of millions of immigrants who dreamed of a better life and helped to build this country. In the process, we developed an astounding capacity for tolerance. Today we live peaceably alongside each other, unperturbed by differences of religion or ethnicity. Compare this to
Not that we don't have plenty of blemishes of our own. At our country's birth, Native Americans were ruthlessly subjugated, millions of blacks were held in slavery, and only white men with property were allowed to vote or hold office.
In the years since, we have discriminated against minorities, fought senseless wars, meddled needlessly in other countries' affairs and incarcerated a greater percentage of our citizens than any other.
More than two centuries after the American Revolution, the principles proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and promulgated by the Constitution still define us as a nation. These permanent truths are not just for us but, as Abraham Lincoln said, "applicable to all men and all times."
I'm not suggesting that other nations don't have proud histories, unique traditions or beautiful cultures. I am delighted when I get a chance to visit
But people around the globe don't talk about the French Dream. Or the Chinese Dream. Only one nation is universally recognized as the
The notion that
In this sense - among others - we are truly an exceptional nation.