OK, I’ll admit it. I looked it up.
In the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin chastising Americans through the pages of the New York Times, I looked into the concept of “American Exceptionalism.”
Sure, I had heard the phrase in recent years. I had heard that our own president doesn’t believe in American Exceptionalism, and therefore he must be a secret Muslim or something. But I didn’t realize that the idea of the United States being exceptional dates all the way back to French author Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s. Not just average, not merely pretty good, but exceptional. Kind of like the difference between the acting abilities of Lindsay Lohan and Meryl Streep.
There is a lot of truth behind the concept, and it rests upon the nature of this country’s founding. Born of a revolution, built upon the notion of individual freedom, grown upon a foundation of capitalism, the United States has a unique history and structure that for centuries has allowed its citizens to thrive. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset pointed to five factors: Liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.
So, this idea has kicked around for 180 years or so, and when President Obama was asked about it during his first overseas trip after taking office in 2009, he said something about how the Brits and the Greeks probably think their countries are exceptional, as well.
That provided a lifetime’s worth of fodder for conservatives, who conveniently ignored the fact that Obama added, “We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”
Uh oh. It seems as though Obama did understand and embrace the concept of American Exceptionalism. Better not tell the talk-radio hosts.
Anyway, Obama invoked this concept when he tried to sell the public on the idea of bombing Syria. “When, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act,” he said. “That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
Putin responded with an opinion piece in the New York Times, closing with this: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Delivering a slap shot
This generated a bit of a media firestorm. Americans, apparently, don’t appreciate being lectured about democracy by a former KGB officer who has been in power for 14 years.
And that’s what led me to the Internet to look up this concept of American Exceptionalism. We are, after all, the country that gave the world Bruce Springsteen and Steven Spielberg and Michael Jordan. And how about the Miracle on Ice, Vladimir? Remember that one? A group of scruffy amateurs beat the “Greatest Hockey Team in the World,” which happened to come from your country, and won gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Yet while the Miracle on Ice might serve as a strong example of American Exceptionalism — a synergy of egalitarianism and individualism and all the other things Lipset identified — the best argument in favor of the concept came from Adam Ozimek at Forbes.com.
Ozimek wrote about a Gallup poll in which potential migrants worldwide identified which country they would move to if they could. The United States was the preferred destination — more than three times more popular than the No. 2 nation (United Kingdom).
Are we perfect? Of course not. But for all our problems, to much of the world we remain a shining city on the hill. That’s pretty exceptional, and I didn’t really need to look that up to know that it’s true.