What’s So Great About America?

Some thoughts about American exceptionalism, and the apparent allergy to the notion from the Left:

Republicans must take care that “exceptionalism” doesn’t collapse through thoughtless repetition into a mere slogan, another bit of political cant like “Take Our Country Back” or “Move America Forward,” losing all meaning even as it wows the focus groups. For the line of argument that Rubio pursues, his way of framing the choice that voters face in the Obama era, is uncommonly—you might say, exceptionally—useful, for three reasons.

First, the idea of American exceptionalism has the benefit of being true. The United States is fundamentally and demonstrably different from other countries. It is bound together by a founding proposition, and properly applied the proposition has brought freedom and prosperity to more people, and more kinds of people, than any other. Second, a large majority of Americans believe American exceptionalism to be true. And third, it drives Democrats right around the bend.

It’s not clear why. Maybe liberal polemicists don’t quite understand what the phrase means, and so they pummel it into a caricature. In Politico last week, under the oddly truncated headline “U.S. Is Not Greatest Country Ever,” the columnist Michael Kinsley wrote that exceptionalism is “the theory that Americans are better than everybody else.” The next day, on a well-trafficked liberal website, another columnist said much the same thing—they tend to run in packs, these guys. Other countries, this columnist wrote, are “investing in infrastructure,” unlike the United States, which apparently just spent $780 billion in stimulus on chopped liver. At the same time, he went on, “the Republicans have taken refuge in an antigovernment ideology premised on the lunatic notion that America is the only truly free and successful country in the world.”

Assuming they were offered in good faith, these characterizations are hopelessly confused, conflating exceptionalism with jingoism or xenophobia or mere self-aggrandizement. (He got the antigovernment part right, though.) But even if they do understand what the term means, we can’t be sure that professional Democrats really believe it. Liberalism in its present degenerate form is reactionary—a gesture of irritation at the backward quality of ordinary American life, at its culture, its food and dress and amusements and politics, and especially at the mindless and sentimental patriotism that unsophisticated Americans are so quick to embrace.

Read all.

It strikes me that a lot of the hysteria about the change in direction of space policy this year arose from a knee-jerk assumption that it was just one more way in which the president was trying to make America unexceptional. But in fact, the Apollo program and paradigm is an exception to exceptionalism in its big-government, central-planning approach, and ironically, the new plans are much more in keeping with traditional American values. I think I’m going to do an essay on this to at least convince those Republicans who sincerely oppose it on what they mistakenly imagine are conservative ideological grounds, and aren’t driven by the pork considerations.

24 thoughts on “What’s So Great About America?”

  1. I’m currently in Canada, and noticed something last night.

    In the States, the emphasis is on exceptionalism. We show how great the US people are, in word and deed – even on the mass market media.

    In Canada? They have shows like “Canada’s Worst Driver” and “Canada’s Worst Handyman”. After watching them last night, I’d hate to deal with the runner-ups for the TV show.

    It’s interesting, though, that we in the US talk about how our citizens are the best, and in Canada they have contests to see who is worst.

  2. The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

    The ninth amendment, contrary to Bork’s ink spot, is the actual embodiment of American exceptionalism. Obama has made it clear he doesn’t get it, but most don’t get it. Even many of the enlightened commenters here don’t get it.

    Liberty means it’s impossible to enumerate a free persons rights.

    Government should be limited to only the minimum of laws necessary and proper to keep one persons rights from interfering with someone elses.

    The danger of governments is that they restrict rights via justifications that may sound good to a majority but are not necessary or proper.

    We say our government exists with the consent of the governed, but it doesn’t because that’s a logical impossibility. Like every other government, it exists by force. Our exceptionalism is a counter to that force. It’s the presumption of liberty.

  3. Other countries, this columnist wrote, are “investing in infrastructure,” unlike the United States, which apparently just spent $780 billion in stimulus on chopped liver.

    Someone who thinks there was $780 in stimulus spending is safely ignored.

  4. Ken gets it. American Exceptionalism is about respect for individual rights, that the government is rightly limited in its reach. That ordinary people can, given the chance, achieve great things.

    By mis-characterizing it as “the american people are exceptional”, they can dismiss it as no different from racial supremacy. Recognizing it for what it actually is would be a knife would to leftist demands for more control at the expense of the individual.

  5. Does this mean you can be safely ignored?

    Yes, Jim can be safely ignored — the stimulus was $787 billion. The Turing Machine between his ears seems to be halting on the modestly glib phrase of “spent on chopped liver.” Like Data on ST:TNG, it “does not compute” and he’s whining to Capt. Picard that the money has not all been spent, nor is it allocated for sliced organ meat.

  6. Rand, I hope you write about more than just the economics and address some of the other ideological viewpoints.

  7. Ken is right. Contrast our Constitution’s approach to rights as specified by the 9th Amendment to the EU Constitution’s approach in the Charter of Fundamental Rights:

    The Charter contains some 54 articles divided into seven titles. The first six titles deal with substantive rights under the headings: dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizens’ rights and justice, while the last title deals with the interpretation and application of the Charter. Much of Charter is based on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the case-law of the European Court of Justice and pre-existing provisions of European Union law.

    The first title, dignity, guarantees the right to life and prohibits torture, slavery and the death penalty. Its provisions are mostly based on the ECHR, although Article 1 closely reflects Article 1 of the German Basic Law.

    The second title covers liberty, privacy, marriage, thought, expression, assembly, education, work, property and asylum.

    The third title covers equality, the rights of children and the elderly.

    The fourth title covers social and workers’ rights including the right to fair working conditions, protection against unjustified dismissal, and access to health care.

    The fifth title covers the rights of the EU citizens such as the right to vote in election to the European Parliament and to move freely within the EU. In also includes several administrative rights such as a right to good administration, to access documents and to petition the European Parliament.

    The sixth title covers justice issues such as the right to an effective remedy, a fair trial, to the presumption of innocence, the principle of legality, non-retrospectivity and double jeopardy.

    The seventh title concerns the interpretation and application of the Charter. These issues are dealt with above.

    Under which Constitution would a person have the most liberty:

    1. One where rights are presumed to exist, or
    2. One where your rights are explicitly enumberated, raising the question of whether any other rights are possible.

  8. Having spent five years in the military defending America, I believe in American exceptionalism. Speaking strictly for myself, exceptionalism isn’t inherent – it’s earned. It’s like saying that “my football team is the best.” Win-loss records matter, but the final arbitrar is who wins this week’s game. This leads to two observations:

    1) A team can start the season with the best record ever, but if the team has spent the off-season sitting on their couches eating Cheetos, they probably won’t win many games. Results matter.

    2) Exceptionalism is relative. Being the best football team means beating other teams. Those other teams may be improving over time. Last year’s victory by four touchdowns may be this year’s victory by a last-second field goal. Having seen data that suggest Europe has higher upward mobility than the US, I’m concerned that the other side is catching up.

    In short, results matter. Saying “America is exceptional” is true but trivial. The real question is “how do we stay

  9. The execution of Apollo isn’t especially exceptional. It was the same approach used for other big technological projects such as the Manhattan Project, the Polaris system, SAGE, and the Minuteman missile. The organization of those projects are still excellent models for projects aimed at solving a particular technological problem. They’re just not the answer to everything. Like the old proverb says, to the owner of a hammer, everything looks like a nail…

  10. “Exceptionalism” means that America has certain cultural comparative advantages. Top of the list are the notions that all humans are equally valuable and that nothing outside of deity is more valuable than humans. Contrast this to other worldviews:

    1. The state is more valuable than the individual.

    2. Philosophical goals are more valuable than humans.

    3. The tribe (or set of tribes) is more valuable than the individual.

    Rejecting these three notions makes human rights advancement a possibility. We’ve done so better than anyone else.

    On economic human rights, there are a few nations (and one Chinese city-province) that have us outclassed, though.


  11. Yes, Jim can be safely ignored — the stimulus was $787 billion.

    Follow your own link. The US never “spent $780 billion in stimulus”, and only a lazy or dishonest hack would write that we did.

  12. From an external perspective. When I first visited the USA in 1977, it was the most amazing place I’d ever seen.

    Each time I’ve come back it has been less amazing in comparison. Generally speaking compared to pretty much anywhere it still, in my opinion, carries the crown, but the differential from 1977 to 2010 is significantly less than it was.

    In terms of infrastructure the USA is starting to fall behind, roads, rail, bridges and so on are all now dramatically worse than their European equivalents and that’s actually just said.

  13. Jim: as a civil engineer friend of mine pointed out recently, while the stimulus money is allocated, they’re still working out how to spend a lot of it.

    For some weird reason major civil engineering projects take a LOT of planning. Who’d have thought it eh?

  14. Unfortunately Chris’ link about economic mobility is directed to a single study by Isabel Sawhill & John E. Morton. The claim is based on a single graph described as “Author’s calculations of intergenerational income elasticities in Corak, 2006.”

    If you google that phrase you will find an actual source, in which (after a very healthy dose of wonkese) you discover that basically the author based his calculations on the income difference of fathers & sons. That’s it. No women, no differentiation based on education. Considering such a simplistic approach, I suspect most, if not all, of the European mobility reflects the change between first-generation immigrants and their sons. Given the great degree of emigration to Europe the past two generations, it should not be too difficult to arrive at such a conclusion.

    So Chris’ claims are based on a single, poorly-researched work. Good job.

  15. Casey – do you mean 20-page study (PDF link)? Because when I read it I see not just one study but a bunch of them, backed up by a lot of US census data. Census data like Those in their thirties in 2004 had a median income of about $35,000 a year. Men in their fathers’ cohort, those who are now in their sixties, had a median income of about $40,000 when they were the same age in 1974 (see two right bars of Figure 4). Indeed, there has been no progress at all for the youngest generation. As a group, they have on average 12 percent less income than their fathers’ generation at the same age. (Bold in original).

    I suspect the reason that the studies focus on men’s earnings is that for much of the period in question women weren’t nearly as active in the work force.

  16. Indeed, there has been no progress at all for the youngest generation.

    Wow, “no progress”, huh? I wonder how much dad paid for an iPhone…

  17. …exceptionalism isn’t inherent – it’s earned. It’s like saying that “my football team is the best.”

    No Chris, exceptionalism has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with being the best. It has to do with being different. Entirely different.

    We are losing that exceptionalism by accepting the nanny state not just at the federal level but most importantly from the local level. Tin gods are the nature of man. They’re influence is pervasive and relentless. Our natural tendency is to give up the fight and consider anyone putting up a fight as some kind of cuckoo.

    What makes our founding amazing is that somehow they understood this and somehow they got most of it right.

    “You have a republic, if you can keep it.”

  18. No Chris, exceptionalism has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with being the best. It has to do with being different. Entirely different.

    Well, freedom from tyranny isn’t given freely – that must be earned, right down to the bloody individual level, if necessary. When the nation is finally over-run with collectivists (as it appears to almost be), then, no, we won’t be exceptional anymore regardless of how much money we make.

  19. Your right Titus, but the key point is America is exception from other countries not because we’re rich, but because we are founded on the principle of individual freedom. We are losing that, but the flame hasn’t been entirely put out. Individual freedom results in riches.

    Yes, we earn our freedom by being vigilant and fighting for it.

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