Friday, June 01, 2007

Do You Believe in American Exceptionalism?

One of the appeals that conservatives make to the American public is that of "American exceptionalism." "American exceptionalism" is defined in Wikipedia as follows:

American exceptionalism (cf. "exceptionalism") has been historically referred to as the perception that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations, because of its unique origins, national credo, historical evolution, or distinctive political and religious institutions. The difference is typically expressed as some categorical superiority, to which is usually attached some rationalization or explanation that may vary greatly depending on the historical period and the political context. As Ross (1991) has argued, there are three generic varieties of American exceptionalism:

1.supernaturalist explanations which emphasize the causal potency of God in selecting America as a "city on a hill" to serve as an example for the rest of the world,
2.genetic interpretations which emphasize racial traits, ethnicity, or gender, and
3.environmental explanations such as geography, climate, availability of natural resources, social structure, and type of political economy.

When Ronald Reagan referred to America as a "shining city on a hill" not only was he using a phrase that had biblical overtones, but also one that explicitly referenced the idea of American exceptionalism. Indeed, one of the problems that the left has had with American voters over the last 30 years has been the since that liberals and progressives are too quick to recognize America's faults and refuse to recognize her virtues.

Liberals and progressives need to reclaim the doctrine of "American exceptionalism" and free it from the militaristic and imperialistic overtones that conservatives and right-wingers bring to it. America is exceptional, but not for the reasons that Bush and Cheney think.

America is exceptional because it has a heritage of tolerance for different ethnic and religious groups. Does this mean that America is perfect or has ideal racial and ethnic relations? No, but it does mean that we have managed to create a society that has a lot of different cultures and races living together relatively peacefully.

America is exceptional because it believes in the rule of law. One of the proudest boasts that Americans use to make is that the United States is a "nation of laws, not men." We take justifiable pride in our legal system.

America is exceptional because it developed the idea of separation of powers, because it developed the idea of three branches of government acting as a check on each other.

Along with the idea of separation of powers, America developed the idea of an independent judiciary. One of the biggest threats to the rule of law is a judiciary that is not independent of the executive branch of government.

America is exceptional because it accepts immigrants from other lands. Not every society does this. Sure, we are having a debate, sometimes bitter, about immigration, but most of us have ancestors who came from other countries.

Now, here is the thing about the above examples of "American exceptionalism". They are all under attack from radical right-wingers whose idea of "American exceptionalism" is based on notions of cultural, political, military, and/or economic hegemony. Yet, most Americans would agree that the above things make America exceptional. It is time to reclaim the idea of American exceptionalism from the right and make it part of the language of the left.

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