America’s critics see American exceptionalism as a dangerous form of nationalism that legitimizes bellicosity abroad and swagger at home by suggesting that America has a God-given mission—a manifest destiny—to remake the world in its own image. But this is a perversion—which, unfortunately, President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 foreign policy agenda of spreading democracy by the sword did nothing to dispel.
However, that is not how Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher who first described America as “exceptional” in 1830, saw it. He thought Americans took justified pride in their new nation. Rejecting European feudalism and monarchy, they had consciously crafted a republic based on the ideals of liberty, equality, individualism, and laissez-faire. Its project to keep tyranny at bay and create maximum political space for individual self-determination had, in Tocqueville’s view, produced a different“species” whose success might become an example to the world.
Very often the biggest triumphs of ideals are invisible. They lie not in what they prevail against, but what they prevent from coming into existence. For example, Americans might quarrel about prayers in public schools, but the separation of church and state is so thoroughly embedded in the American consciousness that neither an established church nor mandatory secularism (à la France’s burqa ban) are conceivable in this country. Nor could one ever imagine Americans worshiping the symbols and trappings of state power, as the British do with their king and queen.
But what is truly exceptional about America—especially to non-natives like me—is the remarkable absence of class consciousness. This expresses itself culturally in a thousand ways: in the downplaying of differences of wealth and status in American attire; in the avoidance of honorifics to denote station or seniority; in the informality of manners that makes using the wrong dinner fork a correctable faux pas, not a sign of an immutable lack of breeding.
This innate egalitarianism of Americans has major consequences for liberty. While there are occasional outbreaks of class warfare, to be sure, there are no political parties seeking to use state power to protect class privilege—as the Tory Party historically did for the aristocracy in England and socialist parties do for the working classes everywhere.