July Fourth was a good day to think about “American exceptionalism.” In general, it’s not a term that I’m fond of. If a nation has to spend too much energy insisting that it’s “exceptional,” maybe it isn’t.
But this is a touchy point with many Americans. A couple of years ago, our deliberative, even-handed president was hit with considerable criticism when he made the mistake of saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
The scandalized responses thoroughly decontextualized his remark. Elsewhere in the same speech, the president talked clearly about just how remarkable and exceptional our country is. But the snippet provided an irresistible opening to critics from the right, some of whom said President Barack Obama doesn’t believe that there’s anything at all remarkable about us, that we’re just like everyone else.
Clearly, the president was making a charitable rhetorical concession to the feelings that many citizens have about their countries. To think of your own clan or tribe or nation as different from and better than all the others — that is, “exceptional” — is one of the most basic human impulses.
Nevertheless, maybe there is something special about America. Current events in Cairo drive home just how hard it is to create and nurture a lasting, effective democracy like ours.
At the same time, our ill-advised attempt to plant democracy in Iraq is sliding in the direction of chaos and sectarian warfare. Other examples abound, but the upshot is that much of the world just has a tough time establishing the kind of functioning democracy that we’ve managed to create here.
Furthermore, our country has been working at democracy for a lot longer than most countries. Of course, our “city upon a hill” was never Eden. Our nation grew out of the destruction of the Indians, slavery, an exploitative war against Mexico, a civil war, and protracted battles to realize the rights of minorities, women and gays.