The notion that America and Americans are special, among all the peoples of the earth, is sometimes called “American exceptionalism.” Because of our long history of democracy and freedom, or because we have a special mission to spread these values (or at least to remain a shining example of them), or because of our wealth, or because of our military strength, our nuclear arsenal, our wide-open spaces, our pragmatism, our idealism, or just because, the rules don’t apply to us. There are man-made rules like, “You can’t start a war without the permission of the United Nations Security Council.” We’ve gotten away with quite a bit of bending or breaking of that kind of rule. This may have given us the impression that we could ignore the other kind of rules —the ones that are imposed by reality and therefore are self-enforcing. These are rules such as, “You can’t have good ice cream without fat” or “You can’t borrow increasing amounts of money indefinitely and never pay it back, because people will eventually stop lending it to you.” No country is special enough to escape these rules....
This conceit that we’re the greatest country ever may be self-immolating. If people believe it’s true, they won’t do what’s necessary to make it true. The Brits, who suffer no such delusion (and who, in fact, cherish the national myth of being people who smile through adversity), have just accepted cuts in government spending that no American politician — even a tea bagger — would dream of proposing. Maybe these cuts are a mistake or badly timed, but when the British voted for “change,” they really got it.
Every time I strike this note, which I guess I do a lot, I hear from people calling me elitist or unpatriotic. Here is my answer: If you think a friend is talking nonsense or behaving in a way that damages both of your long-term interests, it is not elitist to say so. To the contrary, it is treating him or her like an adult and an equal. As for patriotism, if you think your country is in danger, how is it unpatriotic to say so?
Not to be outdone, Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart railed against the GOP's "lunatic notion" of America's exceptionalism. In particular, Beinart was infuriated by Sen.-elect Marco Rubio's claim that "America is the single greatest nation in all of human history." Doesn't the Florida politician know, Beinart wonders, that China and Brazil are opening opportunities to their citizens too? According to Beinart, Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, is too ideologically blinkered to know that "the American dream of upward mobility is alive and well, just not in America."
What's bizarre about Beinart and Kinsley's rendition of American exceptionalism is that it reflects the premise that the idea of American exceptionalism is an artifact of right-wing jingoism, xenophobia or ignorance. And even Obama flirts with this sort of thing every time he chalks up opposition to his agenda to fear, bigotry or small-mindedness.
Forget that every Fourth of July we celebrate the fact that we fought a Revolutionary War to become an exceptional nation. From their dismissive condescension, you'd think these three educated men didn't know that American exceptionalism has been a well-established notion among scholars for more than a century.
"The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America," "and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one." Ever since, historians have argued that America's lack of a feudal past, its Puritan roots, the realism of its revolutionary ambitions and many other ingredients contributed to America's status as the "first new nation," to borrow a phrase from Seymour Martin Lipset, who spent his life writing about American exceptionalism.