What Makes Us So Special?
Defining what makes American exceptionalism exceptional.


Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru started a discussion on American identity with their essay, “An Exceptional Debate.” National Review Online asked a few of our friends and contributors to continue the conversation.

“In the beginning, all the world was America,” John Locke wrote in his Second Treatise of Government in 1689. Well, times have certainly changed.

As Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru observe in their keen essay, these days America stands apart — culturally, politically, economically, and philosophically. It is, on the one hand, the most advanced example of the kind of liberal society that John Locke sought to lay out in that very treatise, yet on the other hand it offers an example of why liberalism alone is not enough.

Advocates of American exceptionalism generally offer one of two arguments in its behalf: the case for our exceptional creed, and the case for our exceptional history. But taken by itself, each of these arguments actually undermines our claim to uniqueness.

Our creed — that is, our belief in individual liberty and equality, and in the liberal society that protects them — is after all universal. Can universalism really be the essence of our particularism? And if we are defined by a universal creed, then wouldn’t we expect that over time, and given our successes, the world should become more like us, since the same ideals that move us are available to all?

If on the other hand our experience is what defines us — our roots in the English liberal tradition and European culture, the life-experience of our diverse constitutional republic — then we are unique only in the way that every nation is. As President Obama put it, surely the Brits and the Greeks are unique in the same way: Each is a product of its unique culture.

But as Lowry and Ponnuru suggest, what makes America exceptional is its combination of these two. We are at once a creedal nation and a product of our particular cultural origins. The two act to balance one another and make for a truly extraordinary mix: at once liberal and religious, forward-looking and conservative, substantively idealistic yet temperamentally moderate.

Too many Americans ignore one or the other element of that mix. Some on the left would like to ignore the ways that America’s roots in the level-headed and incrementalist British common-law tradition make it sensible about change and realistic about human nature — and the fact that we are a nation, not just an idea. Some on the right would like to ignore the ways that America’s commitment to enlightenment liberalism makes it deeply idealistic about individual liberty and social equality — and the fact that we have always been a nation on a mission. The combination of these facets of America, embodied in our Constitution, is a sober republicanism unlike anything the world has ever seen.

America is both a place and an idea; a culture and a philosophy. And this unique amalgamation is what makes it not only exceptional but also the last best hope of both liberal idealism and conservative realism in a time when both are in peril.

– Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs magazine. He is the author of Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy.