As a nation, the United States of America was established upon a set of principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence—namely, the equality of human beings and their possession of certain “inalienable rights.” At its founding, these principles were unique to the United States. More than anything else, it was they that separated its government from those of its contemporaries.
Far from hindering the United States, ideals like the universal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and, more importantly, American citizens’ belief in the remarkable nature of those ideals—have been major drivers of the nation’s success.
Not everyone shares this view. In a recent opinion published by The Student Life (TSL), an on-campus publication at the Claremont Colleges, a student put forth the idea that American exceptionalism “has dangerous and pernicious political implications.” He argues that belief in American exceptionalism is “the root cause” of issues like climate change denial, a relatively weak democratic process, and the failure of American social programs.
To be sure, an overabundance of national pride can be a recipe for disaster, as the author of the TSL piece points out. But however critical one may be of America’s tendency to “go it alone” on the world stage—an attitude which is admittedly a symptom of American exceptionalism—one must recognize the potential of genuine patriotism to motivate citizens to take positive action. Martin Luther King, Jr. found inspiration for his fight for civil rights in the “amazing universalism” of what he calls the “great dream” of the Declaration of Independence.
The sentiment remains prevalent even in more recent times. In 2014, Barack Obama cited American exceptionalism as the major reason for America to abide by international law and “lead by example” in combating climate change.
Now, to be clear, I am not arguing that America is exceptional in every respect. As the author points out, the United States ranks relatively low on the Freedom House’s measurement of Global Freedom Status, earning only 86 points out of a potential 100 compared to Canada’s 98. The country has a history of failing to cooperate with other countries, from its refusal to join the League of Nations to its more recent (and disastrous) withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords.
But people who rightly criticize the United States for its failings should recognize the many positive qualities which have made its citizens so devoted to their nation’s success. America is one of the only nations in the world without a ministry of culture, yet American film, television, and music exports dominate the global market. Technological innovations from the internet to radiocarbon dating have their origins in American labs. America ranked behind only Switzerland and Sweden on the WIPO’s Global Innovation Index. Its early policy failures aside, America has administered more COVID-19 vaccines than any other country in the world, with more than 171,476,655 doses provided as of April 8. Despite the country’s failures, past and present, these and other statistics at least partially justify whatever pride American citizens may feel for their country today.
More to the point, if a belief in American exceptionalism can contribute to national arrogance, it can also spur the kind of self-confidence a country and its citizens need to take effective action on any pressing issue. It was American self-assurance that prompted President John F. Kennedy to say that “the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first” in the speech that launched the mission that first put a man on the Moon. Today, that same self-assurance, supported by meaningful reforms, can be leveraged to project American leadership, empower the average citizen, and restore trust in democratic institutions.
The point is this: the TSL author’s view, shared by many others at the Claremont Colleges, is that American exceptionalism is the root cause of the problems facing the United States today. The truth, however, is much more complicated.
On the one hand, we as Americans must not ignore the problems endemic to our nation. If we sit complacent in the belief that America has already cemented its status as “the greatest country in the world,” we allow those problems to fester and worsen. But, on the other hand, for Americans to abandon their national self-respect would do our country far more harm than good.
Without a strong conviction that the nation we’re fighting for is worth the struggle, the TSL author’s belief that “[i]mproving the United States is perhaps the best patriotism that we can do” falls flat. He suggests that Americans should learn from other countries’ examples, but unless we are convinced of America’s worth, it seems easier to simply pack up and move to one of those model nations than to work for improvements at home. We can and should take after those countries who excel us in some fields, but in our zeal to do so we should ever strive to improve upon their systems and use them better than they do. America should not simply toss aside its self-conception as a global leader. It should endeavor to prove itself worthy of that title.
Image Credit: The Cavalier Daily
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