Many people talk about American exceptionalism. Let me try to figure out what this perception really means. To begin with, each country is unique to a certain extent. What makes a nation exceptional has something to do with its history, people, geography and political system. The requirement must be exceptionally great or inspiring, not exceptionally evil or mean spirited. I also want to compare America with other countries to further illustrate my points.
The idea of American exceptionalism originates from Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian in the 1800’s who wrote about this newly-independent nation. There exist at least two parallel perceptions — Sinocentrism regarding China, and Whig history about Great Britain. Both have now faded into the history books. I can imagine many people believe that the ancient empires of Rome and Egypt were exceptional, too.
When people sing “from sea to shining sea”, they remind me of two other countries — Canada and Australia of similar geography and political system, but with a much smaller economy and military power. When people talk about liberty and democracy, they also remind me of a host of other countries where individual and human rights are protected by the national constitution.
Then what makes America exceptional? We must look at American actions because they are much more important than talks. To be exceptional, a nation must have done great things for her people and the world, thereby leaving an enduring beneficial legacy. The following are what I consider four great American achievements besides her superpower status:
1. America traditionally welcomes a large number of immigrants from all over the world, true to the ideal of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. The consequence is a continuous flow of labor and talents from a diversity of cultures that enrich the society, expand the domestic market, and provide a constant renewal. This “melting pot” serves to break down the barriers of various traditions, and render Americans more open to new ideas and practices. As immigrants starting a new life, Americans believe in a second chance, and accept failures as positive lessons to learn. If given a choice, most people will immigrate to America because it’s the land of opportunity and freedom despite her long agony of overcoming slavery and racial discrimination.
2. Within the context of laissez-faire capitalism, America signed into law in 1935 the Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance Program (known as Social Security). It was later amended to include several social welfare and social insurance programs. This for the first time provides a safety net for the aged, the weak and the unfortunate. After the Second World War, more than 5 million veterans were eligible for the benefits of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act passed in 1944 (so-called G.I. Bill) that includes tuition and expense subsidies, low mortgage, and low interest for starting a business. In 2014, the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) went into effect after passage in 2010. It has reduced the number of medically uninsured from 56 million to 36 million, but was in the process of being repealed by the Republican Congress starting early 2017. Despite their imperfections and constant opposition from conservative groups, the above Federal programs have benefited millions upon millions of low-income citizens who need help that cannot possibly come from the for-profit private sector.
3. After WWII when Europe and Japan lay in ruins, America became a superpower with the possession of nuclear weapons and a domestic economy largely intact. While the Soviet Union, the other superpower, occupied Eastern Europe to establish a sphere of influence, America tried to promote world stability by creating new institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the Marshall Plan for European economic recovery. During the occupation years, America single-handedly remolded militarist Japan into a peaceful modern democracy. Although the post-War order serves American interests well, it also benefits the rest of the world by creating a stable and secured framework for recovery and growth. It is the result of American leadership and responsibility that has prevented a third world war from erupting since 1945.
4. Unlike the former European powers such as Great Britain, Spain and France, America is exceptional because she harbors little territorial ambition to colonize foreign countries. By leveraging her power, America takes the responsibility to lead and mold the world for peace, stability and growth, thereby also benefiting herself. During the process, failures were committed such as Vietnam and Iraq, resulting in a lot of ruined lives and wasted resources. These are the costs and valuable lessons that go with world leadership. America is exceptional because she can afford to bear the costs, and more importantly, Americans are generous enough to support their government for undertaking such responsibilities.
In 2016, the election of Donald Trump showed that things took an ugly turn. America seems tired of her world leadership and responsibility. Due to her middle class being squeezed for over two decades now, a large segment of the population feel that they have been left behind. Trump was quick to mobilize these angry voters to defeat all his rivals. He used foreigners as scapegoats for America’s domestic woes such as job losses due to technological change, health care inflation due to corruption, huge national debt, illegal immigration, decaying infrastructure, terrorist threat, and crimes in inner cities due to continuous neglect. All of the above are summarily blamed on “foreigners eating our lunch”, thus the policy of “America first”. These slogans are dangerous because they cannot fix the domestic problems but unsettle the rest of the world. Trump is blind to the fact that modern technology can enlarge the pie by creating new industries so that every country will benefit instead of going back to play the zero-sum game and beggar thy neighbors.
The world now sees America turning inward, with the tendency to become an international bully. America once called the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire” without realizing that she is becoming the empire of mean spirit, and may slide further to become an evil one. The only hope to rely on is the basic goodness of the American people who have the collective power to reverse this dangerous trend. Otherwise, American exceptionalism will fade and become a thing of the past.