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.