For Republican presidential candidates the phrase “American Exceptionalism” has taken on almost talismanic qualities. Newt Gingrich’s new book is titled, A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. “America the Exceptional” is the title of a chapter in Sarah Palin’s book America by Heart.
What Is So Exceptional?
Woe be to those who take issue with the phrase. 2008 Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee declares, “To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.” 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney insists, “The reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism is misguided and bankrupt.”
What is this American exceptionalism that Republicans so venerate? After interviewing many Republican leaders, Washington Post Reporter Karen Tumulty concludes it is the belief that America “is inherently superior to the world’s other nations.” It is a widely held belief. Indeed, most Americans believe our superiority is not only inherent but divinely ordained. A survey by the Public Religious Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agree with the statement, “God has granted America a special role in human history.”
Let me make it clear at the outset: I too believe in American exceptionalism, although I don’t think God has anything to do with it. However, I suspect my perspective will find little favor among Republicans in general and Tea Party members in particular. I believe that America is exceptional in the advantages we’ve had over other nations, not what we’ve done with those advantages.
Indeed, to me there are two American exceptionalisms. One is the exceptionally favorable circumstances the United States found itself in at its founding and over its first 200 years. The second is the exceptional way in which we have squandered those advantages, in the process creating a value system singularly antagonistic to the changes needed when those advantages disappeared.
Born Rich and Lucky
Americans did not become rich because of our rugged individualism or entrepreneurial drive or technical inventiveness. We were born rich. Ann Richards’ famous description of George Bush, Sr. as an individual is equally applicable to the United States as a whole, “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”
When asked to identify the single most important difference between the Old and New World, renowned historian Henry Steele Commager responded, in the New World your baby survived. The New World had an abundance of cheap land which meant the New World, unlike the Old World, was largely populated by self-reliant property owners. Coupled with a moderate climate and rich soil, immigrants could grow all the food needed for their families, livestock and horses. There was plenty of clean water and sufficient free or low cost wood to build and heat one’s house.
The fact that Americans could choose to live on a farm also gave them significant bargaining power with employers. As a result wages in the New World were much higher than in the Old World.
The United States also benefited enormously from tens of millions of immigrants who, through a Darwinian-like process of natural selection, were among the most driven and entrepreneurial and hardy of their native countries. And on the dark side of the immigration picture, we also benefited immensely from millions of involuntary immigrants who provided an army of unpaid labor for southern plantations.
American exceptionalism must also include our unique advantage in having two oceans separating us from potential enemies. After 1815, no foreign troops ever again set foot on American soil. Indeed, America has benefited mightily from foreign wars. Arguably, the conflict between France and England had more to do with our winning independence than our own military efforts. In the first half of the 19th century, European wars led political leaders to peacefully sell huge quantities of land to the United States for a pittance (e.g. the Louisiana purchase of 1803 doubled the size of our infant nation).
A century later foreign wars again dramatically benefited the United States. “In the twentieth century the American economy was twice left undamaged and indeed enriched by war while its potential competitors were transformed into pensioners,” notes historian Godfrey Hodgson. After World War I the United States became the world’s creditor. After World War II Europe and Japan lay in ashes while the United States accounted for a full 40 percent of the world’s economy.
The list of exceptional advantages must also include our vast reserves of fossil fuels and iron ore. For our first 200 years we were self-sufficient in oil. Today we still export coal and are largely self-sufficient in natural gas.
Making a Sow’s Ear Out of a Silk Purse:
The Culture Born of American Exceptionalism
Americans became the richest people on earth not because we were endowed with inherently superior national traits nor because we are God’s chosen people, nor because we have an elegant and compact Constitution and a noble sounding Declaration of Independence. We became rich because we were exceptionally lucky.
But the myth that we became richer than other countries because of our blessedness encouraged us to develop a truly exceptionalist culture, one that has left us singularly unequipped to prosper when our luck changed, when inexpensive land and energy proved exhaustible, when the best and the brightest in the world began staying at home rather than emigrating to our shores, when wars began to burden us and enrich our economic competitors.
The central tenet of that culture is a celebration of the “me” and an aversion to the “we.” When Harris pollsters asked U.S. citizens aged 18 and older what it means to be an American the answers surprised no one. Nearly 60 percent used the word freedom. The second most common word was patriotism. Only 4 percent mentioned the word community.
To American exceptionalists, freedom means being able to do what you want unencumbered by obligations to your fellow citizens. It is a definition of freedom the rest of the world finds bewildering. Can it be, they ask, that the quintessential expression of American freedom is low or no taxes and the right to carry a loaded gun into a bar? To which a growing number of Americans, if recent elections were any indication, would respond, “You’re damn right it is.”
Strikingly, Americans are not exceptional in our attitudes toward government. In a survey of 27 countries, two thirds of the respondents on both sides of the Atlantic answered yes to the following question, “Does the government control too much of your daily life? Is it usually inefficient and wasteful?”
What makes us exceptional is our response to the next question. “It is the responsibility of the government to reduce the difference in income.” Less than a third of Americans agreed while in 26 other countries more than two thirds did.
Citizens in other countries are as critical of their governments as we are. But unlike us, they do not criticize the importance of government itself or the fundamental role it plays in boosting the general welfare. They do not like to pay taxes, but they understand the necessity of taxes not only in building a public infrastructure but also in building a personal security infrastructure.
Far more than other peoples, Americans believe that skill and hard work are the keys to success and wealth is a measure of how hard you work or how skilled you are. That leads us to believe that people should have the right to amass as much wealth as they can and view a graduated income tax as a punitive penalty on success and a sturdy social safety net an invitation to slothfulness, reduced productivity and an overall slowdown in economic growth.
The expression, “the nanny state” is singularly American. The expression “We’re all in this together”, while rhetorically still extant in the United States, less and less describes the values that motivate our policies.
There Are Alternatives
In contrast, Europeans believe luck and circumstance are more important than hard work and skill and a sturdy social safety net is needed to help those who are unlucky. Acting on this principle, they have designed most of their social benefits to be universal, as have Canada and Japan, unlike here where residents have to prostrate themselves before bureaucrats to validate their penury before they are grudgingly doled out ever-smaller and temporary amounts of assistance.
One consequence of universality is that even while they complain about taxes, Europeans can point to many aspects of their lives where they directly and personally benefit from taxes (e.g. universal health insurance). Americans cannot.
For many Americans even means tested benefits are unwelcome. The term “welfare” is a pejorative a handout given to undeserving people who will use it in unworthy ways. Ronald Reagan’s lethal phrase “welfare queen” accur