ex-cep-tion-al (adjective): unusual; not typical; extraordinary; unique; special
American exceptionalism is an oft-used phrase that is generally taken as a bit of patriotic pablum that few people actually earnestly believe in the modern day. The concept’s critics suggest that it is inaccurate and jingoistic, and claim that ‘American exceptionalism’ ignores all of the country’s many flaws, past and present. Some who embrace it are naive in their understanding of America as purely good and entirely perfect, and use ‘American exceptionalism’ as a club with which to beat political opponents. Both are completely wrong. American exceptionalism is real, it matters, and it’s why I could never see myself living anywhere else.
First, it’s important to challenge the idea that most critics and supporters of the phrase embrace: that American exceptionalism is a synonym for American excellence, greatness, or supremacy. The word ‘exceptional’ has been colloquially defined as such in the eyes of many, but as the dictionary definition above states, the term is value-neutral. For instance, a prize-winning book can be exceptional, but so can the unspeakably cruel acts of a serial killer. Exceptional simply means unique, uncommon, atypical, or special; it makes no moral judgment on whether that uniqueness is good or bad. Using this proper definition, America is absolutely an exceptional nation, and has been from its start, 245 years ago today.
No other major nation was founded, as we were, on the basis of an idea – and not just any idea, an extremely radical one: that of liberty and freedom of the individual person over the rapacious control of a monarchical, unrepresentative State. Have we always lived up to those lofty ideals? Of course not. But that does not impugn the ideas themselves, only the flawed individuals who strove to reach the heights laid out in our founding documents. No other nation has a Constitution like ours; one that protects the individual rights that are innate to our persons against the power of government, one that separates powers and delegates authorities so as to deter power-grabs and personal autocracy, one that both remains solid and has the capacity to evolve over time with popular support. No other nation goes so far to actually protect the rights laid out in their constitution, even if the exercise of those rights is politically unpopular or goes against the prerogatives of a powerful group.
Speaking of rights and individual freedoms, no place on Earth is as free as is the United States. Americans are able to freely speak and write without fear of judicial sanction, something which is increasingly disappearing, even in the Western world. So-called ‘hate speech’ isn’t a thing in the United States, publishers have significant protections against frivolous libel suits, and we have no blasphemy laws. Sure, that may mean that we have far more vocal extremists than do other nations, but that is a true indicator of our freedom. We also have some of the most robust protections for religious rights and practices in the world; that certainly matters when we are also the most pluralistic nation on the planet in terms of religion. We have more Christian denominations than could be counted in a lifetime, have a growing and well-integrated Muslim population, the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, large populations of Hindus, Buddhists, and other eastern faiths, and an enormous group of atheists and agnostics. None of these groups is privileged or discriminated against by our government, which is more than could be said for any other nation. Sure, this means we have far more bizarre cults than other countries, including groups like Scientology which have gone global. Our religious entrepreneurs have existed throughout American history, and were one of the reasons that the country was settled in the first place: Puritans fled religious persecution abroad, as did the Catholics of Maryland. Religious difference also led to the creation of Rhode Island by the dissenter Roger Williams, as well as the settlement of Utah by the Mormons. This pluralism may seem quaint in the modern day, but in terms of history, it is absolutely unique: wars over religion tore apart much of the globe for more than a millennium.
Our rights are not limited to those laid out in the First Amendment; in fact, many of the other rights in the Constitution are even more exceptional. America is the only nation on the planet that specifically protects the right to self-defense through the bearing of firearms, not just to defend one’s hearth and home from predatory criminals, but also against a tyrannical government. As such, we have the most gun ownership in the world, by far; this unique liberty is – whether you like it or not, and I personally like it – a true definition of exceptionalism. Nowhere else are people granted the legal defenses that we are, often privileging the defense of the accused over the claims of the government or the accuser. For this civil libertarian, the protections granted by the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments are paramount to American liberty and serve to support the thesis of exceptionalism.
Enough about our founding documents, although I could go on about them all day. America is also exceptional in its diversity and plurality. Not only do we have a representative federal government, we also have fifty states and multiple territories that have significant autonomy and can make laws for themselves. No other nation allows for the plural democracy that we do, where folks in California can live in an entirely different manner than those in Wyoming, all within a broader polity that respects those divergences. We also are, by far, the most racially and ethnically diverse major country on the planet. We have a panoply of ethnicities, races, and origins, as well as a large ethnically-mixed population. No other country has such a blend, all of whom are embraced and seen as American by the country at large. American culture is a blend of these myriad cultures, constantly evolving and incorporating new traditions into our national cultural quilt. Part of this exceptional culture is our historical openness to immigration, something that is not matched by any other major country. We are still the number one destination of immigrants across the globe, a testament to the enduring idea of America as an exceptional nation.
America is exceptional economically, technologically, and entrepreneurially as well. No other country has created and developed as many modern innovations as we have: from the telegraph and the personal automobile, to the lightbulb and the airplane, to the computer and the atomic bomb, to penicillin and the polio vaccine. The past year of awful plague would have been far worse without American exceptionalism: the invention and distribution of three (!) miracle vaccines, the connections we have made and kept through the use of social media and tech platforms, and the ability for all manner of items to be delivered directly to our homes. We were the first to split the atom, the first to land on the Moon, and the first to break the sound barrier. We have a culture of entrepreneurship unlike any other, where people of all social classes, races, and national origins can work hard to create the business of their dreams. These businesses are not guaranteed to work out, but the freedom to pursue that opportunity and the culture which supports it are just not available in any other place. We also have the highest median income and standard of living for any country as populous as ours, and access to items considered luxuries in most places – air conditioning, personal computers, automobiles, and televisions – is almost universal here. Our country has exceptional geographic diversity too; no other nation has the range of environments that we do, from the tropical islands of Hawaii, to the mesas of the Southwest, to the Rocky Mountains, to the plains of the Midwest, to the unique forests of Alaska. We have immense coastlines on two major oceans, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, all of which are special in their own ways. We were the nation that invented conservation in the modern sense, and our country is chock-full of amazing national parks.
With all the good of American exceptionalism comes some bad as well; this only proves the point that we are truly an atypical country. We have extremely high levels of interpersonal violence (and always have), largely due to our culture and the widespread availability of tools which can be used to hurt or protect. We have high levels of consumer debt due to our culture of prosperity and innovation. We have more obesity than do most other nations, and likely have higher rates of certain illnesses which come along with that. Our auto fatalities are also higher than most developed nations, a price we pay for the car-driven society we live in. America’s electoral system is replete with undemocratic aspects, from the Electoral College, to the existence of states, to the Senate itself. No other country – for good or ill – has such a mixed system. As such, political changes often get done here more slowly and incrementally than in other countries, due to our protections for minority rights and our separation of powers; I find this to be positive, but I can see how some would think differently.
But that’s the rub: we live in a country where thinking differently is not only normal, it is celebrated. That is a prime example of our exceptional nature. We are a land of liberty and freedom; that is exceptional and presents itself in both positive and negative ways. The good and the bad parts of our exceptional country all come back to that simple value: individual freedom and rights are held as paramount and are privileged above the purported needs or wants of any single community or interest group. In the United States, Rousseau’s ‘general will’ is ignored. People may find that to be a bad thing: some on both right and left would rather that government supported their version of the ‘good’ and stamp out those lifestyles and rights which interfere with their vision. That is a common governmental practice in nearly every other nation on Earth, but not here. In America, we are more than content to let a thousand flowers bloom in a glorious example of liberty in practice. That is American exceptionalism. That is freedom. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Happy 245th birthday to the greatest and most exceptional nation in the history of the world. It’s been an amazing and unique ride, and it is up to us to keep it going for future generations of exceptional Americans. Have a wonderful Independence Day.