On this day, the anniversary of our nation’s independence, invariably there arises a debate over the concept of American exceptionalism. About thirty percent of Americans believe that the United States stands alone as the greatest country in the world; decisive majorities declare that we are one among several of the greatest nations.
But many of my friends and acquaintances, typically those who are well-educated and identify with the political left, reject the idea that America is an exceptional nation. They note that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ranking above El Salvador, Cuba, and China. They regard slavery as a mortal moral failing that disqualifies us from the pantheon of great nations. Our maternal death rate is the highest in the developed world; the rate of those with health insurance, among the lowest. Our K-12 education system fails too many children. According to the World Happiness Report, which surveys people in countries around the world to measure “the state of global happiness,” the U.S. ranks eighteenth, while Canada, Australia, and several Western European nations occupy the top ten.
Though there is some room for argument here, particularly over subjective measures like those of human happiness, many of these claims are indisputable. It is true that on many objective measures, America underperforms the rest of the world; and it is beyond argument that our history contains many shameful events, including slavery, Japanese internment, and misguided interventionism abroad.
Deniers of American exceptionalism, however, do not recognize that their measures of national exceptionalism are incomplete. Though quantitative benchmarks of national progress are certainly worthy of consideration, those who believe that America is not an exceptional nation lean upon such measures to the exclusion of almost everything else. And more often than not, they are quite transparent about this. Shaun King, one of the most well-known boosters of the Black Lives Matter movement, argued last Fourth of July that
We are not the greatest country in the world. This is not my opinion. These are the facts. What makes a country great is measurable. And in every demonstrable category, our country is coming up very, very short.
The mistake, of course, is that data cannot and does not capture everything. Indeed, it is often quite misleading, failing to provide much insight at all into the extent of our nation’s greatness.
For example, take measures of popular sentiment, like those of well-being, happiness, and public optimism. For one thing, these often bear little relationship to reality, changing for arbitrary or plainly nonsensical reasons. Immediately after Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, polls found that perceptions of economic progress had changed dramatically within each political party. In the days before the election, more than four-fifths of Republicans felt that the economy was getting worse, while more than three-fifths of Democrats were optimistic about the economy. Another poll, taken a week after the election, found that these numbers had inverted completely: Democratic optimism vanished, while nearly half of Republicans told pollsters that the economy was now improving. More specific questions, such as whether real incomes were falling or rising nationally, found a similar partisan gap. “Obviously there wasn’t a significant change in incomes that affected only one party,” explained the Washington Post’s Philip Bump. “Only the perceptions changed.”
Global subjective measures are also too relative to be compared across countries in a meaningful way, absent other, more qualitative considerations. Eighty-five percent of people in China, for example, believe that children there will be better off than their parents, while only 30 percent of Americans feel the same about their own children. Notwithstanding this fact, I imagine that most Americans, given the choice, would decline to raise their children in China, where absolute standards of living are lower and where an oppressive authoritarian government denies the people the political and individual freedoms we most cherish. Neither Shawn King nor other deniers of American exceptionalism would prefer to live in such a place; notwithstanding this fact, he and others continue to employ these evidently flawed measures to buttress their argument.
What, then, makes America exceptional despite its problems and the blots upon her history? Part of the answer is freedom, but not in the sense that Americans have freedom. Citizens of many different countries enjoy civil liberties similar to those which our Constitution guarantees; indeed, most countries in the world today have functioning democratic governments of some form or another. What makes us exceptional is not that we have freedom here at home, but that we transformed and expanded freedom in a way that is unprecedented in the history of human civilization.
When the United States came into being in the eighteenth century, virtually all governments in the entire world were despotisms. France, Spain, and Sweden labored under the yoke of absolute monarchs; powerful, well-organized standing armies maintained an authoritarian government in Prussia; Russia suffered under the Tsars; the Qing dynasty held China together. The continental republics—Denmark and the Netherlands—either had failed or were facing serious political crises. Only in the British Empire did there exist a semblance of political freedom, but even this existed more in form than in fact. Rampant vote-buying, the dramatically unrepresentative apportionment of the House of Commons, and the British Crown’s successful manipulation of Parliament through lucrative ministerial offices and other forms of patronage, convinced many Englishmen that “[o]ur dear-bought liberty stands upon the brink of destruction.”¹ Even the British perceived America as the last best hope for liberty, the place where this great formless ideal could become for the first time an enduring reality.
The men who drew up the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were imperfect. Most egregiously, many of them owned slaves. But by imprinting the fundamentality of liberty, equality, and justice for all into the American consciousness, these documents laid the foundation for centuries of historic progress in America, in the West, and eventually in the world. There is no other instance in recorded history of a repudiation of slavery on the scale we witnessed in the world after America declared her independence. The notions that “all Men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” constituted the fundament of abolitionism in the West, just as they would undergird the movements for gender equality and for civil rights in the United States and the rest of the world during the twentieth century. Nowhere are these notions more clearly expressed than in our nation’s founding documents, and nowhere have they endured more than they have here.
Our nation is exceptional for another reason, too: We found and secured our freedom in a way that no other people has. Our Constitution was the product of neither violent revolution nor the machinations of a political aristocracy. It was a careful plan of government developed and discussed over the course of a sweltering Philadelphia summer, then placed before the people for their consideration. Even Americans of the time recognized that this was a great and novel undertaking. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the opening essay of the Federalist,
It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may, with propriety, be regarded as the period when that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act, may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
In the shadow of a despotic world, America daringly struck a match and lighted a new flame of liberty, one which soon would sweep the globe with its dazzling light. Our founding set an example for self-government that has transformed human affairs more utterly than perhaps any other occurrence in history.
So what makes America exceptional? In short, she is the first and only empire of liberty. She is not perfect, but only liberty permits the pursuit of perfection. And fortunately for the world, liberty is her greatest export.
The opinions in this article reflect the author’s only, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent’s editorial board.