Though historians and political scientists have varying definitions to what this term precisely means, most experts would probably agree this phrase stresses a nationalistic feeling that the United States is a nation superior to others. We exist as the Puritanical 'city on a hill' -- the model which other nations ought to follow. And because of America's greatness, we ought to have the predominant position in dictating world affairs.
Many instances can be pointed out in American history that points to its greatness and high minded values. The question now -- is America truly exceptional? To address this issue necessitates breaking the question into two smaller questions. Has America been exceptional and more importantly, have we lost our 'edge'?
The United States has undoubtedly shown its greatness over the past 235 years. Americans have persevered in the most difficult of circumstances and thrived in an unforgiving environment to achieve a status as the great power in the world. How so? To wit:
1. America's political structure provides advantages and freedoms that are the envy of the world. The constitutions of our individual states and nation have been copied by nations all over the world. When the United States created its republic with broad freedoms and the widespread ability to participate in government, this was a novel concept that bucked the notion that monarchy was the only sustainable form of government. What other democracy truly excelled aside from ancient Athens or the Roman Republic before the 18th century? Alexis de Tocqueville, a prominent 19th century French philosopher, went so far as to proclaim the uniqueness and exceptionality of America in his highly regarded work, Democracy in America.America has a history of setting itself apart from other nations. And though we as a nation have great qualities, the larger question is yet to be determined. Has America lost its edge? And if so, has this affected the power and prestige of the United States?
2. Social mobility has set the United States apart from other nations. The fact that citizens of this nation have to ability to change the outcome of their economic and social condition counters the aristocratic society exhibited in Europe and the rigid caste systems of Asian cultures. Though many liberal critics argue social mobility is an illusion or limited in modern America, one needs to look no further than current President Barack Obama that a man can rise from poverty to any position. Other great examples? Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates, Andrew Carnegie, Bill Clinton, Henry Ford, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, the Wright brothers, and Thomas Edison are but a few men whose talent and abilities helped them move from a lowly state to positions of prominence. In the United States, nobility, honor, and respect are not bestowed, they are earned.
3. The acceptance of immigrants and utilizing their skills. Not all nations have been eager to accept the poorest citizens from other nations, who used their skills to advance our society. America has traditionally been willing to take in immigrants, immortalized in Emma Lazarus' famous poem "The New Colossus". "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free ..."
4. Americans have also been noted for their spirit of hard work and innovation. As far back as the advent of the Jamestown colony, the inhabitants of this land have valued hard work and the ability to overcome the obstacles. Look at the ability of Americans to settle the frontier, work the land, and endure hardships to produce the needs of the nation. Problem solving has always been part of the equation. The phrase 'Yankee ingenuity' should be somewhat familiar. Many of the world's great innovations and technologies originated in this country. Airplanes, television, iPods, radio, organ transplants, rock n roll are but a few of our contributions to the world. Moreover, America has prospered in part because of a sense social responsibility -- voluntarily acting in the best interest of society above personal motives. Many of the innovations and much of the hard work employed was done for the betterment of man, and not solely for profit.
5. One of the great qualities often overlooked is a system of mandatory education implemented in this nation. America seeks to provide education to all its citizens (and non-citizens, too) and give everyone an opportunity to better themselves. Additionally, the United States has crafted a vast system of higher education that offers more opportunity than any other nation in the world. The ability to obtain an eduction is without a doubt the great equalizer in allowing people to change their social and economic standing.
With respect to the political structure of the United States, this nation still enjoys more liberty and ways to freely participate in government than anywhere else in the world. However, individuals in our society have taken those freedoms for granted. Previous generations of Americans have endured great hardships and conflict to preserve the liberty enjoyed today. What hardship has America endured lately?
Even the poorest Americans are taken care of through government programs and assured of some assistance. The 'Great Recession' of the past three years has left many Americans in economic trouble, but I have seen no soup lines nor has there been a major shift in homelessness. No great threat has arisen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 provoked a sense of concern about protection of our way of life, that concern has been brief and Americans have been lulled back into complacency.
Our political structure also threatens to devour itself because of the inability to reach any agreement on major issues, such as creation of a responsible budget. The polarization between Democrats and Republicans demonstrates nothing of cooperation or bipartisanship to pass laws for the good of the people.
A piece of good news for the United States -- social mobility is still very fluid. Any person who wants to better themselves has every opportunity to move up in society. Opportunities in the work force and education are not closed off to anyone. If you demonstrate marketable skills and ideas, nothing is beyond your reach. Programs exist to allow more entry points to education than ever before in history. Public education is free, and still mandatory. No one is forced to accept any job or role in society. And this is a great advantage considering many nations pigeonhole students into certain professions based on perceived aptitudes. Other nations, including the modern states of China and India, have proven incapable (or unwilling) to educate their citizenry. Though successful in maintaining these aspects of American exceptionalism, the United States lacks certain elements that have made it great.
The American policy on immigration is inconsistent, at best. Quotas are in place about the number of immigrants allowed from various nations and while a cap on immigrants is a fundamentally solid idea, the collective opinion about immigration has diminished. Citizens quickly dismiss immigrants as having any value to the nation. Yet, these same people forget their place -- their ancestors were among the immigrants allowed an opportunity to make a life here. Poor governmental policy fuels the sentiment of anti-immigration. Quotas present challenges to legitimately productive individuals, yet the southern border remains unchecked and allows the illegal entry of millions of workers who care little for the United States. We have failed to respond to this challenge and permitted the nation to wrongfully seek to isolate ourselves from those who would be among our more productive members of society.
Among our worst failures is the loss of the 'can-do' attitude and the desire to innovate. Americans no longer seem to want to excel; they much prefer to live in comfort and be satisfied with being 'good enough'. Because Americans have faced no great threat, little exists to motivate them. Why does society need to push itself? What's on the line? Nothing. As Thomas Paine wrote, "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly."
Instead of creating superior methods of 'doing', we take shortcuts such as sacrificing constitutional principles, outsourcing work, providing handouts instead of a hand up, and foregoing diplomacy for violence. The hard work of past generations has mutated into a sense of entitlement that is sickening. We expect to be the greatest without having to work for it.
So, have we lost our way? Not quite -- America still retains some of the qualities that make it superior to other nations. However, I can't say this nation is truly exceptional in terms of worldwide leadership. The citizenry is too eager to rest on the accomplishments of the past and lack the wherewithal to propel the nation forward.
From my estimation, the catalyst for our complacency is the lack of a great foil. Without an adversary or foe, America is like a great prize fighter seeking the next contender. Lack of progress comes not from being knocked out in the ring, but from the idleness which diminishes skill and desire.
Times like these make me miss the Soviets.