Is the United States Still Exceptional? A Succinct Symposium
Right before Thanksgiving two weeks ago, we emailed the following question to holiday celebrants: “During these exceptionally tough days, albeit days of thanks, do you believe the United States remains exceptional among the nations of the world, both present and past?” About 40 people kindly responded, and as you can see below – and as you might have safely and patriotically guessed – their answers were overwhelmingly yes, although sometimes with asterisks. It’s a compelling collection of brief pieces that speaks in both thematically akin and varied voices. It’s also a quick and useful primer on American basics.
In introducing the symposium two weeks ago, I also wrote that we would award two tickets to American Experiment’s 2009 Annual Dinner, next spring with Charles Krauthammer, to the author of the most “insightful and intriguing submission.” The competition was severe, at least the equal of anything at Target Center these days, but my colleagues and I pleased to announce that the winner is Larry Colson of Maple Grove, MN. Not only is his piece intriguing and interesting, it’s also imaginative. And on top of that, he kept it within the 100-word maximum. Let’s just respectfully say not everyone did so. Congratulations to a true gentleman and pithy scholar, with equal thanks to all participants, regardless of their original or scaled-down word counts.
Founder & President
Yes, I believe the United States remains truly exceptional and that this will remain true into the future. There are two basic elements that allow any society to prosper and the United States has enjoyed both since its beginning. One is ethical commerce. When you make a deal in this country you know you can count on it, and there is a path for indemnification should one party not perform. Two, more than any other country, we have very little infringement upon intellectual capital and individual ability. The best are better here which allows for much greater prosperity for all.
St. Paul, MN
My wife Kay and I are currently in Namibia. I am a volunteer through the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help, which is partially funded through USAID. My assignment is as an Organizational Development Advisor with Rundu and Caprivi colleges of education. Our Namibian friends were naturally excited about the recent election, as were a number of other Sub-Sahara African nations. The appreciation of the Namibians in our circles for our democracy and our country is clearly evident. The United States has provided substantial help to Namibia, especially in the areas of HIV/AIDS and education. It is appreciated. In the three months we have been here we have not heard disparaging remarks about our country. What we have experienced are admiration and respect. Do we have difficulties and warts and make mistakes? Yes. But the difference is that we are transparent and our difficulties and successes are paraded for all to see. That is part of what makes us exceptional.
Don and Kay Andersen
I do believe that the United States is still the best and an exceptional place in the world. But perhaps we’re not the best by as large a margin, and not as exceptional as before. I would submit that essentially Jesus was not kidding and the more we forget His message, the more we will cease to be both “best” and “exceptional” in any positive sense.
In times of still exceptional riches relative to mankind’s long history, it would be good for our society to remember Proverbs 30: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.”
We should also remember Jeremiah 9: “Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise loving kindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord.”
I haven’t been to another country. My love of America is from a childhood of narrow-minded religious tradition and close-minded patriotism during World War II, which began for me December 7, 1941, when I was 10 years old. How troubled I was at the announcement on the radio in our farmhouse! Human beings worldwide are abusive toward others – both emotionally and physically. Now religious-based terrorists want control. I’m a pessimist and not “sophisticated,” but for me the United States is truly exceptional among the nations of the world.
Without question, the United States of America is exceptional. We are the only nation where one can pursue any dream and aspiration with a reasonable belief he or she will be successful. Whether one’s desire is to merely exist in relative safety and security or to strive for wealth and fame, in America, we have the freedom to choose either path. It is the freedom exercised through those choices that makes America unique and allows people to live as they choose and it is only by making choices that freedom moves beyond the realm of theory and into practice.
Benjamin P. Arnold
I say yes, the United States is truly exceptional. But as important a question as the one posed is this: What of the future existence of the United States and its good influence on humankind? There are two reasons to be sanguine. First, so far, the world has experienced or tested no better government than our youthful, imperfect union. Though imperfect, our constitutional democracy nurtures changing our collective mind without killing diverse citizens. And second, no other nation is likely in the near term to supersede the United States as the best hope in the pursuit of happiness.
Lee Beecher, M.D.
Maple Grove, MN
The “American Experiment” is undeniably the most exceptional experiment in human governance, freedom, and creativity the world has witnessed. Despit
e the unique benevolence of the independent and dependent variables that make up this experiment, the constant/control is no different than any other experiment of its kind. The constant, indeed the control, is man – men and women who require more external government as internal self-government degenerates and disappears. Never before in human history has the internal government of men so quickly conceded to forms of external government on such a massive scale, making the United States exceptionally unexceptional.
Our rabbinic leadership has pointed out, time and again, the unique nature of the United States and why it is a fundamentally good country (even when we sometimes do the wrong thing). The United States is the only country in the world that was founded for the purpose of doing good deeds. Other nations may make attempts to do to good and do it well, but their foundation was one of self-interest. In Hebrew we refer to America as the Malchus Shel Chessed – the Kingdom of Acts of Kindness. It is this aspect of goodness at the country’s foundation as expressed in our mission statement (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) that ensures that America will continue to be a country of righteousness for many years to come.
Rabbi Joshua Borenstein
St. Louis Park, MN
Unquestionably the United States was, is and remains exceptional in the world and will continue its leadership role for generations to come. That leadership role has kept the world largely peaceful for over six decades, particularly in Europe, where the most serious conflagrations have occurred in the past. While we suffer broad criticism from many who do little to improve the world’s condition, we continue our leadership asking nothing in return. When WW II ended there were few democracies and little freedom in the world. Freedom House reports that now 89 of the world’s countries, with 46 percent of the world’s people, are free. As recently as 1975, only 40 countries (with 25 percent of the world’s population) were free. Freedom is on the march and U.S. leadership is largely responsible. I was made particularly conscious of this while serving at the U.N. in 2005.
The answer in one word is Absolutely! The better answer is not in words, but by our actions. In October we erected a 25-foot flagpole at our Arizona home. It now flies a 4×6 foot American flag, given to us by our kids for my [Fritz’s] 65th birthday, for all to see. It’s a beauty, and we are proud as heck to have done it. Here’s a question for you: In the midst of the biggest financial crisis of our lives, why has the value of the U.S. dollar increased vs. virtually all other currencies of the world? Must be that lots of others think of the United States as a pretty exceptional country, too.
Fritz & Glenda Corrigan
& Edina, MN
Stop for a moment and imagine the world without the United States. It’s an interesting exercise, for one quickly realizes that in spite of our many faults, the world is a much better place because America exists. On the whole, America and its people embody eleven of the twelve points of the Boy Scout Law. We are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, brave, clean, and reverent – with “thrifty” notably absent given our free-spending government. We work hard, play hard, give generously, and provide leadership to a troubled world, and for that, we are truly exceptional.
Maple Grove, MN
No other nation is based on the Godly principles and values established by our Founding Fathers. Two truths of which we can be certain are: First, these core values will always be under attack. And second, these values are eternal and will not perish. Look around. Our land is filled with beautiful men, women, and young people whose lives reflect these core values. This is a great country as we reflect on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.”
St. Cloud, MN
The U.S.A. exceptional? Yes, of course. Why is America exceptional? Like all other nations, we are people. We share in the brotherhood of man, a brotherhood that transcends the sovereignty of nations. There is nothing distinctive about the gene pool of our citizens. So what is different? Could it be the freedom we each enjoy? Our inalienable rights and our belief that government should be of law and not of men? I pretty much think so, and that is why I believe we are exceptional.
A great many Americans (42 percent according to recent Rasmussen poll) no longer think the United States is truly a land of liberty and justice for all. They no longer seem to share our common historic sense that this nation differs, seminally and much for the better, from other nations. Indeed, thanks mainly to leftist educators’ long deprecation of all that is glorious in our history, many among us now tend to condemn “American exceptionalism” as ignorant and jingoist.
Tell that to the multi-millions of immigrants who have gained their freedom and more than their daily bread, more than any other multitudes in human history, on these blessed shores. In a stirring meditation about Thanksgiving Day in the Wall Street Journal, “What Newcomers Know About Thanksgiving,” Melanie Kirkpatrick interviewed some recent immigrants, among them a girl from Ivory Coast whose father worked as a house boy but who now works for a transit authority, and an Indonesian girl, who is Christian and who recounts her fear of and persecution by Muslims in her native land. Those among our native-born who scoff at America the Exceptional have much to learn from these newcomers.
Candace de Russy
Too often it takes becoming lost to understand the value of home. Our nation’s amazing growth and development over the last 25 years has created an opportunity for non-matters to become driving forces in our daily lives. We no longer have needs unfulfilled, and most have few wants unfulfilled. We have lost our hunger for survival and filled that space with matters that create drama rather than solving problems that create value. Our greatest opportunity is to restore our sense of patriotism, something that has gotten lost as our two controlling parties have turned it into drama as evidenced by one group’s ideology of protectionism with the other manifesting its platform in jingoism. Lost are the binding and common forces that cause groups to forge ahead,
come together, and create solutions. When you’ve been in first place as long as America, bigger challenges need to be presented so we stay sharp, innovative, alert, and attentive. We need recession as it is our best competition and causes the fear we need to change, to improve, to be number one.
Webster defines “exceptional” as “better than average,” and “extraordinary” as “exceptional to a very marked extent.” Accordingly, America remains above average but not extraordinarily so. Western European socialism is engulfing our culture where liberal politicians and judges exalt civil liberties over public order, safety, and security. The imminent far-left control of the White House and Congress foreshadows the expansion of individualism without restraint at the expense of the common good. I hold to the hope, however, of a comeback by true conservatives who subscribe to what has been tested by time, defended by reason, and validated by experience.
Middlesex Township, PA
Despite its problems and faults we are blessed to live in what is still the most free and democratic country in the world, where the transfer of governmental power will take place on January 20 without tanks and guns in the streets. A nation where we not only have the privilege, but the obligation, to criticize those in power, without fear of retribution. Where we can worship as we see fit. And the phrase “In God We Trust” still appears on our currency and coins. As the Russian immigrant, psychologist, and comedian Yakov Smirnoff is fond of saying, “America, what a country!”
The answer remains an emphatic “Yes,” and the election of Barack Obama offers ironic confirmation of American exceptionalism. Ironic because Obama otherwise represents the cosmopolitan liberalism that disdains, or is uncomfortable with, American exceptionalism. Yet as Obama himself has pointed out more than once, only in the United States was his story possible. In the 1850s Frederick Douglass famously asked, “What country have I?” We have at last definitively answered his question.
“Only in America.” On November 5, those were the words of comfort I spoke to my children. Only in America could a black man be elected President when the bulk of the nation is non-black. Be proud, said I, to live in the greatest country in the history of the world, one that has again realized the fulfillment of an American Dream. Though we are facing great uncertainties of late, the American spirit remains strong. We the People of the United States of American still love our country, our God, our freedom, and our dreams. Pray that this continues.
The U.S.A. is exceptional among the nations of the world, past and present. No other country or culture has done what the United States has accomplished in just over 200 years. Our future may be related to the classic fairy tale of the goose that laid the golden egg. The leftists – who will soon control the White House, both houses of Congress, much of the Supreme Court, most of the educational establishment, and virtually all of the mainstream media – have seen the economic and military gold that this country has produced, all done within the context of liberty and lack of central government control. But the leftists want to control this wealth of gold, and they think they can do so by killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. It won’t work, and the goose may rebel. Our future depends on whether the goose – which is really millions upon millions of freedom-loving geese – will choose to fight this leftist tyranny.
St. Paul, MN
As a young Navy chaplain at the Philadelphia Navy Hospital, I experienced the ultimate “boot camp” of ministry. With a young Marine sergeant at my side, it was my unenviable duty to ring the doorbell and say: “I regret to inform you . . . .” My duty? To extend compassion and support to these new “Gold Star Moms” at their most trying time of life. Anti-war sentiment in 1968 was at an all-time high. If protesters expressed similar sentiments in Moscow, they probably would have wound up in the gulags of Siberia. Freedom is not free, but my Marines would say: “In the U.S.A., it’s worth it!” Indeed, we’ve much to be thankful for!
Ken Hyatt USN (Ret.)
These are not exceptionally tough days. We are e
xceptional because we are a splendid example of a free people working together voluntarily to overcome tremendous obstacles. Our history is full of human trials – heroism and sacrifice – often for the good of people we consider outsiders. Our recent history is a sad tale of how wealth and success can corrode character. We remain a tough and generous people, but now we are also champion whiners. We are even teaching others to follow our poor example. I have faith that the underlying character of the American people remains strong. Thank you for working to nourish and renew it.
“ik-ˈsep-shnəl, 1: forming an exception: rare.” Of course the United States of America is an exceptional nation. Our country is different from all others, both past and present, because it is the only one that was built upon a shared creed of ideas. More than topography, traditions, or temperament, the feature that makes us Americans is our mutual acknowledgement that we were endowed by our Creator with rights and with those rights have instituted a government for the preservation of liberty. This special compact – which both binds us and protects us – makes us unique in all the world.
Eric L. Lipman
St. Paul, MN
Were the doors to all countries of the world suddenly flung open, there would be massive movements of people, out of some countries and into others. Despite her current troubles, I believe America would garner a large portion of the inflows because of the opportunities afforded occupants of this land. These opportunities spring from a unique combination of freedoms (including the freedom to keep most of one’s earnings) and a reliable rule of law. America’s can-do spirit and resulting prosperity are the envy of the world and evidence of her exceptionalism.
What a Country!! This country has offered me a wealth of opportunities. I took advantage of some and let others go by. I made foolish decisions and then tried again. For an average person like me with a modicum of ambition and a positive outlook, my country was very forgiving. I treasure my freedom of speech and the ability to move into any social class no matter who my parents were. I recognize the basic goodness of my neighbors and the environmental nonsense of my children and have faith that together we can rise to any challenge the future may hold.
I avoid the word “exceptionalism” since it implies that there are universal laws of history from whose iron authority America alone has somehow been granted an exemption. But Tocqueville used the term more modestly, as an adjective rather than an abstraction. America, he thought, was “exceptional” because the unusual circumstances of its birth led to a unique place in the flow of history. He was right about that, and what he said is still true today. But it is just as true that history has made America a champion of values that deserve to be universal, such as the vision of human dignity embodied in the Declaration of Independence. So if we are exceptional, then we are the exception that points toward the rule.
Wilfred M. McClay
Our nation remains exceptional in the world, not always for our conduct toward other nations and peoples, or even toward ourselves, but for how we identify as being American. Being “American” does not denote a bloodline or even a holistic culture, but instead a set of values. We do not refer to an idea that restricts freedom or opportunity as being “un-Russian.” Instead we stake our own identity on these values and leave the door open for anyone to participate in them to the full extent of their capacity. America will remain exceptional among all nations, both past and present, as long as it continues to identify itself with the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of freedom. Even if our light fades and our power shrinks we will remain unique. Human history was rewritten in 1776, when a nation was born not of a people, but of an idea.
We are unique – our society is founded on an idea, that all men are created.
Yes, I do believe that the United States remains truly exceptional among the nations of the world.Exception(al) is a correlate of opportunity and America affords greater opportunity to achieve that to which we aspire than does any other nation of the world – “present and past”!I make that assessment based on my own life experience. As I scan the years of my life I am driven to acknowledge that, in part, my successes or failures are largely consequent upon my desires, decisions, application, and limitations.In America, opportunity knocks but we must open the door.
Michas (Mike) Ohnstad
North Branch, MN
The years 2005-2008 have been tough. Politicians forced companies to generate bad home loans. The expanding bubble made homes shockingly expensive. Now the deflated bubble makes it unwise to sell homes even to move where jobs are. And, as we’ve often heard: the United States, which has only 4 percent of world population, lives on 6 percent of the land and uses 26 percent of commercial energy. Yet, the U.S.A. is still exceptional. Our citizens’ contributions to world production are diverse and significant: For example, we’re responsible for 7 percent of all beef, 7 percent of all pigs, 36 percent of all turkeys, 40 percent of all corn, 28 percent of all geothermal energy, and the list goes on. No other country has ever provided such a breadth and depth of resources and knowledge to the world.
This country remains exceptional among the nations of the world as evidenced not only by the desire of millions of people to immigrate here, but also by the simultaneous way governing bodies and media from every major capital in the world are bent on scrutinizing America’s every move. What other nation in the world has so many who desire to live on its soil? What other nation also is the object of such in-depth international analysis and even contempt? It is only through the admiring (or contemptuous) eyes of those outside this country that enables us to objectively confirm our unique standing on this planet. God Bless America.
Scott F. Peterson
The presence of our constitutional principles alone jus
tifies a belief that the United States remains truly exceptional. By most objective measures, these principles continue to offer America’s citizens unparalleled opportunities to pursue lives in a society notable for its commitment to personal liberty, equal opportunity, and justice. Does that mean, however, that We the People are making the most of this exceptional system, bequeathed by forebears who toiled – and suffered – in ways unimaginable to most contemporary Americans? That remains an open question. Whatever the outcome, we should humbly offer our thanks in 2008 for the opportunities we’ve been given.
What remains truly exceptional about the United States are the documents that established it, which remain in place to this day, over 230 years later. U.S. strength, power, and advancement are a testament to the freedoms our country offers, which have released human ingenuity and capability as no other governing system has. Sadly, today’s controlling elite do not honor our Constitution, unless it is strategically advantageous, slowly eroding the mighty ship of state as each violation acts like drilling a hole below the water line. It still floats, although slower and listing slightly, but remaining exceptional, not to be sustained without immediate corrective action.
St. Cloud, MN
Of course the United States is truly exceptional. The key to America’s success has always been that no matter your circumstance, you can become whatever you want. Barack Obama’s story is played out across America every day in multiple fields. Yes, we’ve needed to embrace changes for people who didn’t have that opportunity as much as others (e.g., civil rights, women’s rights, now gay rights issues). But we still do as well or better than other countries on these issues. The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and all the other key writings from our formation are what set us apart. I believe we will be exceptional well into the future.
Affirmative. For one thing we have just elected a black man to the highest office in the land. Freedom of speech is alive and well although often severely challenged. Despite its flaws, democracy as our forefathers ordained it has prevailed. We are looked to for aid throughout the world, and we continue to be a haven for the disadvantaged from other countries. Our optimism is often put to the test, but when the chips are down, we’re ready to defend our country.
The America I know and love is truly exceptional. Founded on the two important democratic principles of freedom and individual rights, America has been reinventing itself for 232 years. Our great learning experience with democratic capitalism has demonstrated that all people can succeed. At its core, America is a nation not of government and laws, but one of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. We today remain a nation still discovering ourselves through our own cocksure follies and fateful accidents, but also through our heroic acts and ingenuities. We will adapt, respond and continue to be the most successful of civilizations.
Charles A. Slocum
America remains the most exceptional country in the world because the vast majority of its citizens, regardless of political affiliation, seek to give more than they take, endeavor to help others at home and abroad in matters of health, education and security, and continue to cherish the natural rights identified by our nation’s Founders so many generations ago. America will survive, and thrive, long after the current storm because “We the People” will rise to all challenges to ensure that our posterity has the opportunity to enjoy the blessings of liberty for which countless others have lived and sacrificed all.
Susan Shogren Smith
Brooklyn Center, MN
Throughout its history the United States has ensured a home for individual sovereignty, the rule of law, and sanctity of private property. Today, stirred by circumstance, principle is shaken: We are free individuals, but are we a just society? We respect the Law, but are our laws respectable? We produce to acquire, but ought we compel to share? That we ask these questions is, not call for change, but that which makes America exceptional: Only the free can be just; only the free can judge respectable laws; only the free can create wealth enough to voluntarily share. Let America remain exceptional.
The United States remains a beacon of salt and light in an otherwise lost world. People still flock to our shores in search of opportunity. “Exceptionally tough days” are merely a judgment being waged from one’s own personal perspective. We still have vast opportunity to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in this great country. As long as people continue to fear God and work hard for an honest living, there is not a nation on earth that even comes close to rivaling the United States. Freedom continues to shine brightly 232 years and counting.
Last month I traveled to Uganda with four other Minnesotans to work with the International Justice Mission, an American human rights agency that secures justice for victims of violent oppression around the world. Our plane was filled with Americans wearing matching “Salvation Army” t-shirts. In our hotel, we met another group of Americans who were working for illegally detained juveniles. Yes, America is exceptional, because it was founded on humanitarian principles and Americans continue to act on those principles, with no agenda other than securing all peoples’ right to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Nathaniel J. Zylstra