In May 2011, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, a columnist I admire, wrote an opinion piece titled “The Myth of American Exceptionalism.” In it he opined that the “problem of the 21st century is the problem of culture,” in particular the “culture of smugness,” the emblem of which “is the term ‘American exceptionalism.’ It has been adopted by the right to mean that America, alone among the nations, is beloved of God.”
I wrote a rebuttal, contending that exceptionalism means nothing of the sort, and that no one on the right that I was aware of — and no one, evidently, that Cohen was aware of since he quoted no one to substantiate his thesis — would define exceptionalism as he had.
So I was particularly interested to see a recent “news analysis” by the New York Times’ Scott Shane, a reporter I admire, titled “The Opiate of Exceptionalism.” In it, Shane defines exceptionalism differently than Cohen had — but equally incorrectly. He opines — excuse me, analyzes — that American voters “demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.” He goes on to assert that Americans want their presidents to be “cheerleaders,” and that this is a “national characteristic, often labeled American exceptionalism.”
No, no, and no. American exceptionalism does not imply that — nor is it an assertion of “American greatness,” as Shane also claims. It is something simpler and humbler: recognition that America is, as James Madison said, the “hope of liberty throughout the world,” and that America is different from other nations in ways that are consequential for the world. Let me briefly mention three.
Most nations are founded on blood. America, by contrast, was founded on ideas. This is why anyone from anywhere can move to America and become American. This is among the reasons so many people want to become American — and do. One cannot just as easily move to Japan and become Japanese. Nor can one simply become Ukrainian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Portuguese, or Egyptian.
For those who do become Americans — and especially for their children — anything is possible. Consider such all-Americans as Colin Powell, Jeremy Lin, Bobby Jindal, Tiger Woods, and of course the most obvious example: An African student marries an American girl, and their son goes on to become the president of the United States. When I was a student in Russia years ago, I had friends from Africa and some married Russian girls. Does anyone believe that the children of these couples can hope to succeed Vladimir Putin?
A second way America is exceptional: The ideas on which this nation is based were revolutionary in the 18th century — and still are today. All men are created equal? Governments derive their powers only from the consent of the governed? We are endowed by our Creator with rights and freedoms that no one can take away? China is nowhere close to embracing such principles. Nor is most of the Middle East, the “Arab Spring” notwithstanding. Latin America and Africa have a long way to go. And in Europe, I fear, the commitment to individual liberty has been weakening.
Finally, there is leadership. If America does not accept this responsibility — and that’s how it should be seen, not as a privilege or entitlement, not as a reason to shout “We’re No. 1!” — which nation will? Iran’s theocrats would be eager — but that means they would impose their version of sharia, Islamic law, well beyond their borders. Putin will grab whatever power is within his reach but he would rule, not lead. There are those who see the U.N. as a transnational government. They don’t get why it would be disastrous to give additional authority to a Security Council on which Russia and China have vetoes, or a General Assembly dominated by a so-called Non-Aligned Movement constituted largely of despotic regimes that recently elevated Iran as their president.
Among the evidence Shane gathers in an attempt to prove that America is unexceptional: America’s high rates of incarceration and obesity and the fact that Americans own a lot of guns, consume a lot of energy, and have too few four-year-olds in pre-school. He maintains that one consequence of American exceptionalism is that there is little discussion, even during election campaigns, of America’s “serious problems” and “difficult challenges” all because, he says, “we, the people, would rather avert our eyes.”
His case in point is Jimmy Carter who “failed to project the optimism that Americans demand of their president,” and therefore “lost his re-election bid to sunny Ronald Reagan, who promised ‘morning in America’ and left an indelible lesson for candidates of both parties: that voters can be vindictive toward anyone who dares criticize the country and, implicitly, the people.”
Shane does not consider an alternative analysis: that Carter’s policies contributed to the enfeebling economic phenomenon known as stagflation, and that he presided over a string of foreign-policy failures, among them America’s humiliation at the hands of Iran’s jihadist revolutionaries. He ignores this too: Reagan went on to restore the nation’s economic health and to pursue policies that led to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Shane has every right to believe that America would have fared better under Carter than Reagan, but there is no historical or evidentiary basis to suggest he’s right and a majority of American voters were wrong.
Shane writes that exceptionalism “has recently been championed by conservatives, who accuse President Obama of paying the notion insufficient respect.” The issue is not respect but comprehension. Curiously, Shane omits Obama’s most famous statement on exceptionalism. At a NATO summit in France in 2009, the president said:
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
This is really a way of saying that no nation is exceptional, that all are, as Garrison Keillor might put it, “above average.” But it was America that began the modern democratic experiment. And if America does not fight for the survival of that experiment, what other nation will?
A half century ago, Reagan — not Carter — said: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Today, freedom is under sustained assault by totalitarians, terrorists, and tyrants. It is America’s exceptional burden to defend those who live in liberty, and support those who aspire to be free. This should be obvious. But, as Shane wrote in another context, too many of us “would rather avert our eyes.”
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.