American Exceptionalism – Giving Thanks…
Posted by Roberto Matos on November 27, 2011
As of late, I’ve been lucky enough to engage in a series of informal debates over the question of American Exceptionalism with several liberals. This theory posits that American Civilization – by virtue of its economy, government, political system, and culture – is qualitatively unique and privileged in such a way that it maintains a significant, if not blessed advantage over other nations. It is not meant to discount the uniqueness or exceptional nature of other nations. Nor should it necessarily be perceived as an assertion of American superiority. American Exceptionalism merely acknowledges the fact that a variety of formative historical circumstances have endowed both American state and society with decidedly distinct and, dare I say, virtuous characteristics.
I was confronted by “critical” skeptics after touting this theory and, in light of this, feel obligated to defend the theory here by providing historical context. Pointing to slavery, discrimination, and poverty, skeptics are far too eager to label the United States another “imperialist superpower” with “flowery rhetoric.”
1.) America’s political and legal system has been a model for exceptional governance for decades. From its inception, and not without some difficulty, the American political system was the first to strive to embody the ideals of representative democracy in the form of a democratic republic. The first nation founded upon a core set of philosophical ideals, America was a pioneer in that it actually put representative democracy and social contract into practice and remained stable and prosperous! At the culmination of the Enlightenment, classical liberalism inspired, fueled, and guided its revolution, as the American mission was born. Being the first nation which explicitly set out to protect the natural rights – individual rights and civil liberates – of its citizens, the US, with its Bill of Rights, was the first country to establish itself as a bastion of liberty. Particularly, the ideals of liberty, limited government, separation of church and state, civilian control of the military, due process (and eventually equal protection), consent of the governed, justice and equality, free press, free speech, free and fair elections, and free exercise of religion, freedom of petition and assembly and right to privacy were elevated as realizable goals. America’s Constitution, first of its kind, enshrined the enlightenment ideals of Separation of Powers, Federalism, and Checks and Balances, which were embodied in its government’s structure and system. Adaptable and adjustable, the US Constitution, a model unto itself, has been the most well-sustained among nations. As a “Shining City on a Hill”, Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty” is unparalleled.
2.) Economy – This political environment has provided fertile ground for economic prosperity unseen in world history. It’s unleashed the overwhelming powers of the free market and individual productivity. American capitalism has accounted for much of the American advantage. The frontier culture cultivated a spirit of vitality and rugged individualism which shaped the American entrepreneurial character. This energized American Capitalism and fueled its evolution from colonial mercantilism, to advanced agrarian economy, to thriving, robust Industrial and manufacturing market place, to post-industrial service-oriented commercial economy, to high-tech, digitally based information economy. American business opportunities have attracted corporate capital and investment from oversees and throughout history. Wall Street and corporate finance have supplied capital for investment. Small business and consumerism have been the engines of growth. Sustained Innovation, invention and ingenuity have been ensured by the constitutionally guaranteed rights to private property and private contract. Unprecedented private sector growth and massive economic expansion have been the cornerstones of American Prosperity and the primary signatures of Exceptionalism.
3.) Upward Social Mobility – This system of American Capitalism has facilitated the highest standards of living, the highest incomes and earnings, the highest quality of life for families, the broadest range and breadth of economic opportunity ever imaginable. Sharply departing from the Aristocratic socio-economic model of old Europe, upward mobility – the prospect of moving up the economic latter from the working poor to the working class to the middle class to the upper income bracket – has been the central feature of the promise which the American Dream ensures and which the American identity embodies.
4.) Massive immigration influx is only another example of exceptionalism. Immigration-induced surplus labor has fueled economic expansion. Abundance of opportunity, rapid economic growth and the promise of a better future have secured America’s place in the immigrant’s dream. No other society in history can be said to inspire such animation and willingness to migrate in so many tens of millions. The power to govern the course of one’s own destiny, to oversee one’s own personal agency, and to make the best of one’s own personal potential is most pronounced and achievable in this land of immigrants. The millions of migrants who risk their lives rushing across the southern boarder every day are a testament to this.
5.) Race/Ethnicity/Religious diversity and Assimilation – Despite what, admittedly, has often been an unforgiving record in this realm, it is an undeniable fact that American society has become a melting pot – or even tossed salad or mosaic – of ethnic and racial coexistence and cultural diversity, the likes of which are quite unique and which animate America’s market place of ideas. Not unified by any common ancestral stock, we’re untied by an idea – a belief in the power of individual agency, individual dignity, representative government and a love for life, liberty and happiness. America assimilates its newcomers and minorities within one to two generations, while European countries seem to be struggling with riotous and stratified minorities who are isolated within their new countries. Tellingly, my most liberal of companions gave pause when I asked them the following question, which seemed to persuasively make the case for exceptionalism: “what other nation on earth, with such a tumultuously painful racial history (similar to that of the US), would elect a racial minority as its President?” Only in America would such an astonishing event be possible.