Why does the left reject American Exceptionalism? Is it not exceptional that our country rose in less than 200 years to be strong enough to free Europe from Nazism and Asia from domination by the Japanese empire, to be the only nation to put a human being on the Moon, to have more great universities than any other country, to be the country people all over the world still want to come to, to become the world’s biggest economy, and the world’s greatest innovator?
The list of the inventions and innovations America has produced is incredible and includes the sewing machine, electric lights, escalators, cash registers, credit cards and a supersonic aircraft among many others (full list below).
We also won the Cold War with the Soviet Union, became and remain the world’s sole superpower, and invented a few other things such as the space shuttle, the internet, CMOS, DNA computing, and the Segway PT, to mention just a few.
But in spite of the overwhelming evidence of our exceptionalism, it has become clear in recent years that the left does not believe America is an exceptional country. President Obama seemed to feel this way himself when he said to the Financial Times on April 4, 2009, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
He seems to be saying people everywhere think their country is exceptional, so none actually are because by definition exceptionalism must be the exception, not the rule that applies to everybody. But this is nothing new; the left has long been anti-American in significant ways. It sees our success as ill-gotten, unfairly achieved through slave labor, taking land from native tribes and Mexico, and exploitation of labor and resources by “evil” capitalists.
Those things are a part of our history; we can’t deny that, but we must put our history into context with the rest of the world. The history of the entire world has been of innumerable wars, violent conquest, the rise and fall of nations and empires, changing borders, slavery, and exploitation. In this we were no different than the rest of the world, and a strong argument could be made that despite our “sins”, we were / are more fair and humane than many countries. Thus, to ascribe our unparalleled success to these things is illogical and imperceptive. Further, other countries had sufficient land and resources to excel, and many did develop and become powerful and wealthy. So why did America outpace them all?
In my view a unique synergy of three crucial things enabled our American Exceptionalism: our Constitution, the Rule of Law, and traditional values.
Our unique Constitution afforded early Americans with freedom and opportunity unfettered by government. Just think of how small and impotent our federal government was in 1789 compared to now. George Washington had three Secretaries in his cabinet: State, Treasury, and War, and he had an Attorney General. In the beginning the only federal law was the Constitution and there were no regulations. By comparison our federal government now is almost infinitely larger and more powerful. Thus, the people were almost infinitely more free than we are today, especially those outside the large cities.
The Rule of Law means the law is supreme rather than arbitrary decisions by government officials. It also implies all are subject to the laws. Without the Rule of Law the Constitution means nothing because it is only words on paper, and without the will to uphold those words, they are powerless. But the Rule of Law – the will to uphold laws – lies only within the hearts and minds of people, and thus is ephemeral. If those in positions of power choose not to uphold the Constitution or other laws, and judges or others with authority choose not to punish those who violate laws, then there is no Rule of Law and everything becomes arbitrary as those in power decide which laws to uphold and when.
And as we have seen over recent decades, the will to uphold the Rule of Law has changed and weakened as government officials increasingly ignore the Constitution and other Laws laws, and as judges interpret them to suit their preferred outcomes, not to uphold them as written or historically understood. This weakening of the Rule of Law has accelerated in recent years.
The Constitution is the Supreme Law of the land; it is the only law written by the people before the federal government and U.S. Congress existed. But now it is routinely ignored because the will to uphold it is fading fast. And with it goes our entire unique system of government – the delicate balance of powers between the three federal branches, and the power of the states. The system of government that enabled our greatness and enshrined our freedoms is nearly lost to an ever increasingly powerful central government and worse, and every increasingly powerful executive branch. One day we may awaken and find that our exquisite republic is gone, the Constitution and the Rule of Law replaced by the tyranny of a de facto dictator.
Unfortunately, as the will to uphold the Constitution and the Rule of Law has diminished, so has American traditional values. The pioneers who settled this land and built it with their bare hands were self-reliant. They would not ask the government, or anyone else, for free food or money, most would not accept it if offered. They believed they alone were responsible for their livelihood; to accept something without working for it would be unacceptably shameful to them. All they wanted from the government was the opportunity to provide for themselves. Likewise, businesses just wanted the government to leave them alone and allow them to keep the fruits of their efforts.
This freedom and opportunity created great incentive for both individuals and businesses to work hard, innovate, invent, produce, and thus provide ever expanding products, services, and technological advances to the nation and later the world, and to build wealth like the world had never seen before.
But the traditional values that made Americans strong and self-reliant have changed profoundly too. Now over one hundred million Americans receive some form of federal welfare. And businesses are restrained by countless laws and regulations, while at the same time, many of them seek and receive corporate welfare through bailouts, tax loopholes, and favorable regulations. Thus the almost total independence and self-reliance of individuals and businesses has been replaced by dependence on and partnership with the federal government. As a result, the incentive to produce and succeed has decreased and much of the nation now turns its lonely eye to Washington and idly waits for succor.
So the left may snicker among themselves and believe conservatives are ignorant and naive about American exceptionalism, but they miss the point entirely. The left does not appreciate the greatness of our original system of government, and the importance of the Rule of Law and traditional values that combined to enable our success. That is why they are so willing and even desirous of throwing it all away. They believe our country was conceived in sin and that a better world can only be created by destroying our Constitutional system. But we know better, so it is up to us who do understand why America is exceptional to restore the things needed to preserve it. If we do not, all that will remain is the memories of when America was exceptional.