Why America Is Exceptional

The United States of America is a unique nation.  When I was a student in elementary school, this statement was broadly accepted, yet today, given the challenges that we face, we suffer from self doubt.  But hope and faith are part of what it means to be an American, so we need to find our values again.  Let’s look at what this status for our nation and what we can do to keep it.

The first characteristic is our representative democracy.  Yes, there were forms of government that approached what we have.  The ancient Greek city states led the way; Iceland and Switzerland had forms of representation in the Middle Ages, and the English parliament gave us our most recent model.  It is also true that we took many years to live up to the ideal.  All of this being said, the fact that one person has one vote is extraordinary.  It’s not one person of the right class or ethnic group or sex; it’s one person.

We aren’t the only nation to have this, but other nations that are achieving it often look to America for inspiration.  The students in Tiananmen Square quoted Thomas Jefferson.  The revolutionaries in France saw our success and lopped off the heads of their upper class.  Where they went wrong was to allow that revoution to be one of class against class, rather than individual against society.

We do struggle with keeping each person’s vote equal.  The recent Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case means that those entities with plenty of money have a louder voice than the average individual.  Of course, that has always been the case.  It’s easy to say that we must ignore money and go our own way.  The hard part is actually doing that.  For a democracy to work, the citizens must think for themselves, coming to reasoned decisions about how to vote.  Millions of dollars can buy a lot of time on television, but they cannot make an idea right, and it is the responsibility of each of us to do the work of coming to our own conclusions.

I have used the word “individual” several times, and that is because individualism is another characteristic of American exceptionalism.  The origin of this lies in the Germanic tribes that colonized Britain and created English culture.  Many of those tribes had elected leaders and expected individuals to speak for themselves in courts and councils.  The culture respected explorers and free market adventurers.  While there were a variety of motivations that brought colonists to this continent, one of the primary ones was a desire to live without the boundaries of class and guild.  Compare the United States and Canada to Latin America.  The Europeans who settled in North America tended to be shop keepers, small farmers, and fur trappers, while Central and South America was occupied by plantation owners and those who sought to exploit mineral wealth.  In other words, those who worked for themselves created a new society.  The others continued the stagnation that was inherent in the feudal system.  (I’m from the South, but I have to admit that the reason that the southern states lost the Civil War was their stubbornness in clinging to the plantation as the definitive model of social order.)

The idea of a new society is the next point.  Americans do value tradition, but perhaps only in the way that we value that picture of Grandma that hangs in the hallway.  We look at it now and then and dust it occasionally, but we go our own way.  We decided to recognize each person’s right to choose a religion, to speak thoughts that others object to, to own and carry a weapon, and to practice a profession of choice, not parentage.  These were all in contradiction, to one degree or another, to the home countries of the colonists.

It’s difficult to hold change as a value, since change does not always go in a good direction and often leaves behind things worth keeping.  By itself, the urge to try something new is nothing.  What matters is that in America, we have the freedom to experiment.  Some ideas succeed, and others fail, but the attempt is not condemned from the beginning.

And what of those who do fail?  Jesus’s question of who is my neighbor guides the desire of Americans to help others.  One of my concerns with the Tea Party in specific and libertarianism in general is an apparent unwillingness to keep a safety net for those who try but fail.  Unemployment benefits, universal healthcare, and aid to small businesses are good ideas, not on account of being charitable, but because they make taking risks easier.  People who can get back up after falling flat are able to experiment again.  The model here is the pioneers who extended our country across the continent.  No one is going to pull my wagon for me, but we’ll circle the wagons when we’re under attack.  I have to care for my own farm, but we’ll get together to raise a barn or harvest a field.

Finally, though, I’m going to return to an idea that I mentioned in the opening of this essay:  hope and faith.  The notion of America as a city on a hill goes back to the beginning of our country.  It is the belief that we are special and an example to everyone else.  This can be indulged into smugness.  The values that I have addressed here are what give us the right to believe that we have something good to offer to the world.  We must also keep faith with the idea that the future can be better than the past and that our labor will get us there.

This is why America is exceptional.  Will we continue to be?  That’s our choice.  I choose yes and ask you to join me.

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8 thoughts on “Why America Is Exceptional

  1. latftp

    Exceptionally stupid, as was the reasoning behind this post. Exceptionalism is a special pleading. And like any other special pleading it introduces favorable details or excludes unfavorable details by alleging a need to apply additional considerations without proper criticism of these considerations themselves. Essentially, the author is attempting to cite things as justifying as an exemption to generally accepted rules applied to other countries without justifying the exemption.

    Want to see how exceptionally stupid and bigoted the mainstream Americans are this loon thinks are so exceptional? Go to LATFTP.com and see the Tea Party as it really is.

    Reply
    1. Greg Camp Post author

      Stupid in what way? When the rest of the world needs help, we get the call. With regard to a long list of technological innovations, America was the source. You gave no examples of our stupidity. For every fault that you name, I’ll bring up the Second World War, the Apollo program, jazz music, and women’s suffrage as counterexamples, along with many others that could be named.

      Now, I do agree that America has flaws. My article never argued that we are perfect in our performance. What I was suggesting is that as a culture and with our set of values, we do occupy a unique place in human history.

      I presume that the “loon” comment was directed at me. As I did not sink to the level of name calling, I’ll let the remark stand or fall on its own merits. I also did not claim any sainthood for the Tea Party movement, nor do I count myself as a member. In my discussions of them, you will note that I am asking them to be true to their stated value of libertarianism. Perhaps you could have a look at my article that addresses the movement specifically.

      In the future, though, I would appreciate detailed and reasoned comments, instead of unsupported insults.

      Reply
  2. playerpianosara

    “Unemployment benefits, universal healthcare, and aid to small businesses are good ideas, not on account of being charitable, but because they make taking risks easier. ” I completely agree with this statement.
    Living overseas I constantly have to defend why we aren’t a terrible country due to the way we treat each other in terms of social aid (although I can’t understand why people who hate socialism are eager to accept social security checks, medicare, etc.). Many people in England simply can’t understand Americans’ outcry against universal healthcare because they can’t imagine healthcare being denied to anyone. Many also can’t understand why we don’t have federally mandated paid vacation time, or federally mandated maternity/paternity leave, as every other Western country does. If we could get over our fear of socialism I can’t imagine how great we would be.

    Reply
    1. Greg Camp Post author

      Surely we can find something that works that isn’t socialism. My objection to such a system is the collectivist impulse that lies at its base. I support the idea of giving a help up to those who need it, but when that help becomes a mandate, it often ignores what each person actually needs and wants. It’s the central control and one-size-fits-all operation of programs that makes the Social Security office, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the customer service representative, and the HMO burdensome and frightening.

      Yes, I may be living in a Jeffersonian dreamland in which America is made up of small farmers who help raise the barn and then get out of the way. It’s just that the bigger the entity–government, business, church, whatever–the less of an effect that I can have within it and the more control it will have over me. The hard thing is to figure out how to have the good programs that I named while keeping the managers responsive and responsible to the individuals who benefit from and pay for the programs.

      Reply
      1. playerpianosara

        Sorry, I reread my statement and it does sound a little like I am for a totally socialist society, but I’m definitely not. I just think there are certain aspects of both systems that make for a good society. Like you I think if we had more safety nets (in the form of universal healthcare, etc) the chances/risks we could take and the things we could create are almost unimaginable. I meant that people fear the word socialism to such an extent that they refuse to give something like universal healthcare a chance, and I a lot of people who say socialism is evil don’t even know how to define it.

      2. Greg Camp Post author

        You’re allowed to advocate whatever position you wish on this weblog. I do agree with you that too many people debate politics while having no clue about the things that they’re opposing.

    1. Greg Camp Post author

      I’ll attempt to translate:

      Hello. It’s not sure that this is true, but thanks for the attempt.

      Someone can correct me if that’s wrong. How do you disagree, if you do?

      Reply

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