In 2000 I was standing in for my boss at the time, then-representative John Shadegg (R., Ariz.), as I spoke to an AP Government class in Phoenix. It was the first time I had visited a high-school class on his behalf, but I had my spiel ready. I knew exactly how to kick it off: Raise your hand if you think ours is the greatest country in the world.
From there, I had planned to launch into a speech explaining that our democratic values, federalism, and respect for individual freedom made us great. Slight hiccup: Only half the class raised their hands. I was floored.
I don’t remember exactly what I said after that. I probably stuck fairly close to my script, but in my mind I was screaming, “What?! How could these kids not think ours was the greatest nation on earth?”
In every class that I spoke to after that, I always began with the same question, and I always received the same response. The Pew Research Center confirms that my anecdotal experience accurately reflects the reality. In a 2011 study, Pew found that only 32 percent of Millennials agreed with the statement that “the United States is the greatest country in the world,” while 64 percent of the Silent Generation believed that statement to be true.
In a February piece for National Journal titled “The End of American Exceptionalism,” Peter Beinart wrote: “When conservatives say American exceptionalism is imperiled, they’re on to something. In fundamental ways, America is becoming less exceptional. Where Gingrich and company go wrong is in claiming that the Obama presidency is the cause of this decline. It’s actually the result.” I agree.
From our education system to popular culture, America no longer recognizes and affirms its exceptionalism. As he departed the White House in 1989, Ronald Reagan warned: “Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.”
This year, Reporters without Borders ranked the United States 46th in its World Press Freedom Index, just behind Romania. In the Heritage Foundation’s 2014 Index of Economic Freedom, the United States comes in 12th, considered “Mostly Free,” while Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia top the list.
As our sense of American greatness declines, so too does our willingness to defend those very principles that make us so exceptional. The IRS limits the free speech of nonprofits, the government spies on citizens and journalists, and the White House bypasses Congress — the people’s representatives — legislating through executive order and federal-agency regulations. It’s a vicious cycle: Americans no longer believe our nation to be exceptional, we therefore elect politicians who make us less exceptional, and the qualities that made us great erode.
When America showed that a free democracy is the best and most productive form of government, the world followed. But now, as America loses its way, freedom stumbles around the world: in Syria, Iran, North Korea, Ukraine, and resurgent Russia.
Enter American Encore, an organization founded to remind Americans that, in the history of humanity, we are truly unique, “a nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” American Encore will remind Americans that freedom leads to prosperity, and that if we hope to advance as a society, we cannot take any freedoms for granted.
American Encore will begin by fighting back against the Obama administration’s assault on the First Amendment. After all, a nation founded upon ideas cannot hope to survive if it restricts free expression.
— Sean Noble is president of American Encore, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting free speech and economic freedom, and returning America to greatness.