American Exceptionalism and the Common Man
Dr. Kevin Shrum
America is an exceptional nation. One would be hard pressed to find another nation in history that has been as productive, creative, progressive, wealthy, benevolent, equitable, and, yes, blessed as these United States of America. While we have had our fair share of ‘black eyes,’ our founding documents and socio/political processes have provided a way for self-correction so that eventually we usually get things right.
American exceptionalism is now in question, however. Some would suggest that America has seen her last, best days. Others argue that we no longer deserve to be considered exceptional, especially in this new era of globalism. Still others have morphed our ‘black eyes’ into arguments that suggest America doesn’t deserve to be considered exceptional – it must now apologize and pay for her past failures; we do not deserve to be considered a super power, or as exceptional, or as being in a class by ourself; America has been arrogant long enough and it’s time for her to be brought to her knees. I, for one, beg to differ. Though we wobble at the moment, if we can recover the nature and scope of what has made us exceptional the future looks bright and hopeful.
Where do we begin to trace the exceptional nature of America? Nations, by definition, are philosophical and political constructs – a nation is an idea expressed through her people. Though our constitutional construction is part and parcel of why America is exceptional, it must be remembered that nations are actually constituted by people. In essence, American exceptionalism is rooted in the exceptional nature of her people. What makes the American people exceptional in particular and, in turn, America exceptional as a whole?
First, American exceptionalism is grounded in a certain set of core values. These core values are faith in God – specifically the Judeo-Christian worldview, though not all are Christians or are required to be – belief in the sanctity of life, the free pursuit of liberty and happiness, family, work, personal responsibility, industrious work, free markets, and freedom. It has been to these core values that Americans have ‘tethered their souls’ for the better. And though there have been times where we have strayed from these values, it always seems that we have had sense enough to return to these values at pivotal and critical times in our history.
Second, Americans have an exceptional degree of common sense. In other words, Americans are not elitists who hold to ideas that are purely theoretical, hypothetical, cute, fanciful, and that may not work in reality. Americans have been characterized by a basic sense of right and wrong that has given us a stability and strength that is rather uncommon, i.e. boys marry girls and vice versa, hard work makes a difference and deserves to be rewarded, there is a right and wrong, etc. To the chagrin of many of our European friends, Americans are not philosopher-kings, but are common people with an exceptional, uncommon sense of right and wrong, good and bad, truth and untruth.
Third, American exceptionalism is rooted in the belief that the family is the basic building block of a civilized culture. Families – two parent and single parent homes – provide a place of stability, love, nurture, and moral education. Threats to the family such as infidelity, divorce, abuse, confiscatory taxation, and same-sex marriage produce civil instability. America has been exceptional because her laws and societal structures have favored family success. The degree to which we honor and support the basic family unit is the degree to which we will maintain our exceptionalism.
Fourth, American exceptionalism is characterized by personal industry and hard work. By in large, Americans are hard working people. We get up early and stay late. We find ways to work smarter, faster, and more productive. Many of the great inventions we have come to enjoy did not come out of a sterile laboratory but in the field of labor as necessity proved to be the mother of invention. Americans makes things work because Americans work. Though we have always had a portion of our culture that has lived off the whole, by in large, Americans work hard, we even play hard. As such, hard work should be rewarded, honored, and encouraged. The laborer should be allowed to not only earn his/here wage, but should enjoy the rewards of his/her labor. Penalizing work and its rewards has never worked in America. It kills incentive, creativity, and productivity. Hard work has made us exceptional.
Fifth, Americans have developed an exceptional understanding of fairness. It is a fairness that is not rooted in pluralism, multi-culturalism, or any kind of ‘ism’, i.e. racism, ageism, etc. The American sense of fairness does not come from legislative mandate but from personal choice to be a good neighbor. Most Americans are fair because it’s simply the right thing to do. Americans can be bigoted, racist, and narrow-minded. Yet, by in large, most Americans are fair because they themselves want to be fairly treated – the good neighbor principle of doing good to others as you would have them do to you.
Sixth, American exceptionalism was planted and rooted in freedom. Americans have come to know an unusual degree of freedom, unlike many of the nations of the world. The ‘American experiment’, an experiment in freedom, has been unbelievably successful. American styled freedom has been an experiment in the belief that the common man can be trusted with the free exercise of liberty and that freedom is not a right granted by the state, but a gift granted by God to be used wisely and prudently.
Because we are free we have been allowed to pursue our own self-interests that usually produce benefits for the whole of society. There are times that we have abused our freedoms because we have detached freedom from responsibility. However, Americans, to a large degree, seemed to have figured out that freedom used responsibly produces amazing results. To arbitrarily limit the freedoms Americans so enjoy is to fly in the face of the declaration that announced the launch of this free nation: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
Seventh, American exceptionalism is grounded in the concept of self-regulation. That is, rightly thinking, common sense, free Americans do best when they practice self-regulation – in essence, they practice self-imposed limitations on their own behavior and freedom. It is called personal responsibility, prudent behavior, moral comportment. Yes, we are a nation of laws for those who are law-breakers. Yet, Americans function best when they regulate and guard their own behavior rather than waiting for the state to decide what is right and wrong and, as a result, impose laws that may squelch the free exercise of personal responsibility and individual accountability. Laws are necessary. But self-regulation is best.
Finally, American exceptionalism has been characterized by a unique concept of community. There is something unique about what it means to be an American. Call it the ‘melting pot,’ America has a way of absorbing people from all cultures, assimilating them into the great American experience of freedom and liberty. And while it has never been frowned upon to respect one’s heritage, America has known greatness because people from all parts of the world have come to her shores seeking freedom and opportunity, willing to buy into the unique and exceptional nature of a free republic where common sense and decency, faith in God, and a willingness to work hard has produced the greatest nation in the history of the world. We deny and demote American exceptionalism to our own peril. Let America be true to herself, let the common man be responsibly free, and let the rest of the world follow!