Many Americans have historically claimed that America is exceptional — not just different but also better than other nations, countries or civilizations.  

The conservative “Heartland Institute” offers this more precise explanation: “American Exceptionalism is the idea that the United States of America is unique among the nations of the world in that it was founded on the principles of individual liberty, private property rights, and equal justice for all. Because it is unique, the United States has a special role in the world and in human history.”

This view, that the United States was exceptional (even unique) because it was founded on ideas of freedom and liberty, was one I learned in grade school. It was not presented arrogantly, but only as a fact. Other nations, especially in Europe, were founded on principles of hierarchy and authority given by God, instead of on the ideas of equality and democracy. We were, as my college Western Civilization text proclaimed, part of the “age of democratic revolutions” that began to occur in western Europe at the time of our revolution.

It was implied, if not always stated, that the United States, and especially our Constitution and Bill of Rights, were the products of founding Fathers who were wiser and more intelligent than the kings and rulers of the “Old World.” The settlers of this country as well, from the Puritans and Pilgrims, to the adventurous immigrants from Europe in the nineteenth century, had just a bit more going for them than those they left at home. They came to be free, and passed that desire to their descendants.

Much later, as a student of history, I learned about the others drivers of American exceptionalism:

• First, Americans were exceptional in finding abundant natural resources including free or cheap land, rich in clean air, water and good soil, filled with numerous trees to build houses and fossil fuels under the soil.

• Second, this land was exceptional in its relative isolation, separated from potential enemies by two large oceans, populated by natives whom European settlers easily conquered by disease or more powerful weapons.

• Third, Americans were exceptional in finding free or cheap labor, either in the form of involuntary migrants (slaves) or voluntary immigrants fleeing poverty or oppression in the Old World.

Therefore, America came to be a prosperous country, not because we were smarter, had better civil or religious values, a creative Constitution, a quotable Declaration of Independence, or an inborn and superior love of freedom. We became the world’s strongest, most prosperous nation because we were very, very lucky.

While it is normal for humans to be proud of their homeland and culture (normal patriotism is love of country), it is not normal to exalt individualism and personal freedom and wealth to the point that it is destructive of community and what used to be praised as “the common good.”

But that seems to be what is happening in these early decades of the 21st century.

We are turning our historic good luck into a weapon to scare other nations and, ironically enough, are rejecting the benefits of immigration and renouncing many of the ideas of freedom and equality that help make us different from other nations in the first place.

And this isn’t just due to Donald Trump, although he is the poster boy for anger at allied countries and attacks on internal “enemies,” calling those who disagree with him traitors. Both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, have soured on “overseas adventures” during the past decade — even if for slightly different reasons, some sensible, some selfish.  

Most political leaders today regard the welfare of the economy and the strength of the stock market as more important than the welfare of the people they were elected to serve. Not too long ago, a local conservative took exception when a liberal friend of mine used the phrase “common good,” suggesting that this was a Democratic code word for giving money to the undeserving poor.

Selfishness and greed, domination of others through economic and military power are not exceptional in world history. It would be exceptional, however, if Americans acknowledged the real reasons for our successes and were thankful for the good fortune of our abundant land and geographic position, as well as the wisdom of early leaders.

Kermit the Frog says, “It isn’t easy being green,” and the same is true of being exceptional. Both require honesty and humility, two virtues that themselves seem exceptional in the United States today.

Ken Wolf is a Murray Democrat and an occasional guest columnist for the Murray Ledger & Times. He may be reached at wolken43@gmail.com.

Recommended for you