What does American Exceptionalism mean?
The theme that the United States is an exceptional nation has reverberated in our culture â and echoes on the campaign trail -- but what constitutes that exceptionalism is still open to question. To President Reagan, we are that "city on a hill," bringing liberty to the world.
Many countries have a strong patriotic tradition, but Americans generally believed that our system is best and well worthy of export. Yet, while American interventionism abroad may have been couched in the language of freedom and democracy, it has been conducted primarily for economic and geopolitics interests.
In this past decade, we have intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying we would bring democracy in the process. Perhaps we are learning that it is harder to export representative democracy than corn or cars. Some nations have histories and divisions that make them unlikely candidates to convert to our system. In the 1970s, Hedrick Smith wrote that the Soviet Union would most likely never become a democratic nation. Observing Russia today, we can see the wisdom in his words.
American exceptionalism may be more easily found by looking inward rather than at what we've tried to send out. We have experienced great immigration from every section of the globe. While not the often touted melting pot, people of every heritage have melded into the American system. Achieving equality under the law and acceptance of diversity has not been a quick or easy process and inequalities remain. But, it has occurred. Americans generally reify our Constitution although they remain critical of the politics our system produces. That veneration of the founding document is prominent in the Tea Party movement while it assails government itself. However, that very Constitution was drafted by politicians, as UMSL professor David Robertson reminds us, who had to compromise to achieve the document we revere. And the complications involved in governance and policymaking, which were built into the system, make us exceptional in that, unlike European nations, we have never achieved a guaranteed annual income or universal health coverage (until perhaps 2014).
Only a minority of nations have federal systems. Ours has 50 states, each of which has a unique governance system and laws governing taxation, education, commerce, etc. Thus an American may find differences in some or all of these areas when moving from state to state. Social laws on such things as adoption and marriage differ, as do state redistributive programs, such as food assistance or unemployment coverage.
Given our heritage of 13 colonies and the need to win each over to the new Constitution, it is not surprising to see these differences or states' rights protected. Robertson notes that states' ability to influence their economies has led to economic competition that continues to this day. This competition, he finds, makes state policy generally pro-business.
That leads to another example of our exceptionalism. The private sector has always enjoyed a favorable position here. The Supreme Court gave corporations protection under the 14th Amendment in the latter half of the 19th century. And the current court extended free speech to corporations acting to influence the electoral process. Business tycoons have enjoyed considerable popularity, as many believe that anyone â through hard work and pluck â could make it in the United States. "Making it," of course, means economic success. Yet, today, America's wealth is heavily skewered to the top 1 percent of Americans. The chasm between rich and poor is greater in the U.S. than in any other democratic country.
The debate over the debt ceiling illustrates the difficulty of getting anything done with our separation of powers and checks and balances. Our Founding Fathers signed off on a system that presents many counterweights to unified action. The Constitution created a framework, according to Robertson, that made it very difficult to create sustained policy-based coalitions. Our political parties had been wide tents with no discipline over members. The House of Representatives has always had more of a local than a national bias.
While clear, quick action has been taken at times in our history, these moments are far from common. Some would say this is all to the best, as it forces slow, careful deliberation and not too much government. Yet, interestingly, we are seeing one of our political parties become increasingly ideologically focused. Whether that ideology of small government, little regulation and no new taxes will take hold is still open to question, but it does indicate a new chapter in American history. Europe's parties have often been ideological or at least representative of capital or workers. Perhaps we can see this as a new addition to the exceptionalism dialogue.
Will we remain different from the other democracies? That dialogue is most likely to continue and to reflect the different ways of approaching the question.
Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. To reach her, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.