For a term coined by Joseph Stalin in 1929, “American exceptionalism” is surprisingly popular among certain elements of the American Right. The idea has certainly elicited ample agreement and praise from numerous politicians of the Republican Party of late. But the exceptionalist mindset often misses the very point of the attributes it considers exceptional.
The historical success of America has indeed been remarkable, especially by comparison to what came before it in the Western world. The rise in standards of living and individual freedoms – while far from ideal – had been unparalleled in the United States. But the root cause of all the good that has been associated with America is not a particular ethnicity or nationality or other amorphous collective that could be called “the American people”. Indeed, the rejection of homogeneous nationalism has been one of the distinguishing departures of the American society from its historical counterparts in Europe. Rather, to the extent that Americans have prospered, they have done so as a result of universal and universalizable principles and their application. Those principles – including political liberty, the philosophy of individualism, and the preference for a dynamic and constantly improving society over a static and hierarchical one – are in no way inextricably American. They may have found an early expression in many institutions and attitudes within the United States, but they could be articulated and replicated by others with a similar effect.
These exceptional ideas – stemming from the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment – are the political principles of a (relatively) free society and the economic incentives that are made possible by means of such liberty. The Enlightenment was a truly cosmopolitan phenomenon, advanced by thinkers from France, the German states, England, Scotland, the American Colonies, and beyond. It won respectability and political toleration for views that differed from Christianity, while imbuing Western Christianity with a humanism and a humanity that enabled it to largely evolve beyond the barbarous oppressions of the preceding 1400 years. Today, these same principles are gradually working their way through the Middle East, giving rise to more tolerant strains of Islam and to a yearning for liberty among millions of people from North Africa to Iran. The ideas of the Enlightenment present hope for the Middle East to rise above the barbarism and violent turmoil that unfortunately still prevail there. The Arab Spring is a tumultuous development, with many setbacks as well as achievements, but it continues to promise exceptional liberation for a region that has historically been among the least free.
Within the universal political principles of liberty, a variety of cultures can coexist. These principles are generally blind to tolerant religion (or lack thereof), artistic preference, and lifestyle arrangements. Thus, they can be adopted in extremely diverse societies and would indeed enhance the liberty and diversity within those societies. This is consistent with the observation that the "exceptional" qualities found in America remained with the influx of immigrants from all over the world – and, indeed, were fortified as that immigration counteracted the formation of monolithic political and cultural blocks that tried to impose their particular vision of the "good life" on others.
A framework of principles of liberty need not homogenize a society at all; indeed, it would do the opposite by tolerating a diversity of lifestyles and persuasions. Those on the American Right who trumpet “American exceptionalism” frequently forget that tolerance and cosmopolitanism have often set America apart in the past. Of course, members of a free society need to have the freedom to disagree even with the principles of liberty themselves – as long as their disagreement remains peaceful.
Unfortunately, a single individual cannot, on his own initiative alone, achieve the full effect of these principles, no matter how closely he abides by them. For instance, a wise denizen of sub-Saharan Africa or North Korea might genuinely come to appreciate the value of liberty, but if carnage, tribalism, economic restraints, and tyranny surround him, he will probably be out of luck. So another exceptional aspect, by the standards of history, is that, in America, these principles were adopted by enough people for enough time (and in an organized manner, via constitutional structures) to motivate sustained innovation and progress.
Yet just as these Enlightenment ideas are not uniquely American, neither is America guaranteed to maintain them, even if they remain preferred by the wiser and more rational minority among Americans. This indeed requires the eternal vigilance that Thomas Jefferson rightly posited as the price of liberty. The ruling elites of America – the federal political class and the special interests that rely on it – have perpetrated or attempted to promulgate increasingly egregious abuses of liberty, while endeavoring to re-stratify American society through crackdowns on freedom of information and severe de facto policy restraints on economic mobility. From obscene groping at airports to extrajudicial assassinations of American citizens to attempts to censor the Internet via the egregious “Stop Online Piracy Act” – all these are manifestations of the steady retreat of American liberty before a perverse and historically all-too-typical aspiring totalitarianism. This is a way in which America is becoming quite unexceptional by past and present standards.
If the abandonment of liberty follows its present trajectory, the United States may well go the way of other great civilizations of the past, either gradually declining or dramatically collapsing, unable to sustain its "golden age". The Romans, too, thought themselves exceptional for about a millennium. But when the exceptional ideas are abandoned on a systemic, society-wide scale, the people who once espoused them will no longer have any defense against the most dismal atrocities imaginable.