American Exceptionalism is in crisis mode. Maybe President Obama articulated it best when he was asked about it in 2008.
“Sure I believe in American Exceptionalism,” he said, “just like the Brits believe in British Exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek Exceptionalism.”
Some people just don’t believe in American Exceptionalism anymore. Some people actually find the whole notion of American Exceptionalism to be unfounded, nationalistic hubris created to justify American cockiness and aggressive foreign policy. While American Exceptionalism and its drivers are changing, we are still an exceptional nation, but for different reasons and with different implications than before.
To understand this change, one must first understand the origins of American Exceptionalism and what it has historically meant. The idea of American Exceptionalism is commonly traced back to Governor John Winthrop’s 1630 “A Model of Christian Charity” speech. Winthrop declared, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”
Contrary to popular belief, Winthrop meant that Europe would be watching to see how the American experiment unfolded, not that we’re somehow on a pedestal above other nations. He understood that the New World provided a platform for trying new governance. If we succeeded, then people would voluntarily follow our example. The concept of American Exceptionalism was never meant to prove that we were better than everyone else, just different: the exception to the European rule.
As American society wore on, we developed three factors that set us apart from Europe. First amongst them is our religiosity. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his famous Democracy In America, we have historically been a very religious set of people, and that sets us apart from many other nations. de Tocqueville noted that, because Americans were so religious, we were more inclined to work hard, adhere to strict moral codes, believe in personal responsibility, take pride in being self-sufficient, and uphold family values.
Additionally, the United States has always been a unique defender of freedom at home and abroad. Internationally, we were the force that turned the tide in both world wars and, domestically, our Constitution was designed to safeguard against tyranny in all forms with careful checks and balances of power. Mitt Romney took to calling the United States “the hope of the Earth” throughout his 2012 campaign, reflecting on our commitment to propagating liberty.
Finally, the circumstances of our country’s founding were exceptional. We were one of the first successful anti-colonial revolutions, and we birthed a country that did not have a history in feudalism. Because of these circumstances, social mobility and opportunity have abounded in the United States, and the idea of a Marxist proletariat working class, stuck in squalor, is foreign. We generally believe that hard work can get anyone ahead.
Of course, these three factors don’t have positive connotations to many groups of people in our country. Religiosity is definitely declining, especially amongst younger generations, and religiosity is the main driving force for pro-life and anti-LGBT movements, further alienating more and more people as the national dialogue becomes more accepting.
Additionally, as we look back on slavery and racism in America, it’s increasingly apparent that we were only guardians of domestic freedom for white men until about 50 years ago, and even now we’re a far cry from living in a colorblind society. Also, guarding freedom abroad gets us into nationally and internationally unpopular wars, notably Iraq and Vietnam.
Finally, after the recent recession, the middle class has become increasingly worse off, and social mobility has been damaged. As a recent study by The Equality of Opportunity Project noted, American social mobility is not the same as it was 50 years ago.
Clearly, American Exceptionalism and its drivers are changing, but perhaps appropriately. Fleeing religious persecution, dying for freedom, and starting fresh on new land aren’t even distant memories anymore — they’ve entered into the lexicon of American folklore. But a change in the factors that birthed American Exceptionalism doesn’t spell its demise. We are still an incredibly unique nation, relying on two new factors to create a lifestyle and culture that can’t be found anywhere else in the world: entrepreneurship and federalism.
Religiosity contributed to Exceptionalism because it drove people to put in an honest day’s work and lead a virtuous lifestyle in the eyes of God. Religion is declining as a motivating factor, but there are people in this country working harder than their religious predecessors, driven instead by their passion and ambition.
The United States has become the global capitol of entrepreneurship, touting enterprising, risk-taking visionaries who sleep under their desks and work long hours into nights and weekends to follow their dreams and create something they believe in. While your stereotypical religious family man is seen less and less, entrepreneurs are creating their own brand of rugged, individualistic apotheosis. It’s hard to imagine the lexicon of American folklore 100 years from now without the names Zuckerberg, Gates, and Jobs. Without the fear of God, startup culture is promoting hard work and driving economic growth in a way that’s unique to this country.
In the San Francisco area alone, there were 7,439 new ventures last year, and in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Pittsburgh combined there were 7,744, according to StartupBio.me. Compare that to all of Western Europe, which had a total of 2,917 new ventures, and it becomes apparent that religion isn’t necessary to sustain the levels of hard work that make our country exceptional.
Aiding entrepreneurship in keeping America exceptional, our federalist system of government provides a platform for experimental governance seen nowhere else in the world. The system of states being able to experiment with most powers of government, while all living under one prosperous federal framework, gives our government the ability to adapt to new circumstances much quicker than other countries, and also allows us to try new policies with limited consequences.
Examples of federalism are far reaching and varied. SeaTac, a city in Washington, recently raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour in an effort to explore the effects a higher minimum wage would have on the community. In 2011, Vermont passed statewide legislation that created, essentially, the first single-payer healthcare system in the country. Additionally, Colorado and Washington have experimented with legalizing recreational marijuana, and states across the union have started allowing same-sex couples to get married.
These changes have had an effect in Washington and across the globe. The Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as a response to state-by-state same-sex marriage legalization. This decision has brought the issue of same-sex marriage into the national dialogue in places like Ireland and Chile, where same-sex marriage is still considered taboo.
No other country has a platform for intranational legislative experimentation the way that the United States does, and as the role of government in people’s lives continues to change, federalism paves the way for continued innovation and improvement.
Throughout the course of history, our willingness to try new things — whether we succeed or fail — has paved the way for improvement across the globe. From the immeasurable amount of good that cell phones are doing to lift people out of poverty in Africa, to understanding that alcohol bans aren’t going to work, America’s differences have made the world a better place.
As Winthrop noted almost 400 years ago, people around the world look to our example to learn. We don’t have to be better or worse than any other country, just different. Let’s keep America weird.