WASHINGTON – A few years ago, when asked about the meaning of “American Exceptionalism” during a trip abroad, President Obama, who knows why, dodged the question with a silly answer. “Well, America is exceptional in its own way, but so is Greece and so is Britain, blah, blah, blah…”. It is sad when the American President cannot explain to a foreign audience what makes America unique, perhaps for fear of appearing presumptuous and therefore not likable. Obama could have explained. But he preferred not to. I have no idea why.
American Exceptionalism is about a unique history
In truth, “American Exceptionalism” has nothing to do with a feeling of national superiority, or with an ideology that justifies American world hegemony. It has to do with the historic uniqueness of the American experience.
Unlike other nations, America is not founded on race, religion, a shared language or a long history of a people living on a specific piece of land.
The state protects individual freedoms
America was conceived as democratic republic founded on and legitimized by a few basic concepts deemed by the Founders to have universal value.
The most important and indeed revolutionary concept is popular sovereignty. This means that governments are established in order to serve the people. The most important government function is to protect individual freedoms. And these include freedom of expression, (in whatever form), and economic freedoms. Indeed, as long as he/she respects the laws, anybody can try to do anything in America, without fear of government interference or retribution.
Citizenship open to all who believe in the basic principles
Furthermore, citizenship is open to all. As long as an individual, regardless of origin and status, understands and subscribes to these basic concepts (and a few others) he/she can join in.
Therefore, becoming an American is not about renouncing one’s identity, religion, culture or language. It is about embracing, in good faith, (“….and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion….”), these basic principles.
In other words, if you do understand and freely subscribe to America’s basic principles as enshrined in the US Constitutions, you can become an American, no matter where you come from.
Freedom also means access to opportunity. And this translates into giving ordinary people chances that would have been unthinkable in European societies characterized by rigid class structures that implicitly or explicitly denied equal opportunity.
Of course, you may argue that nowadays most of these principles have been adopted by the Constitutions of many other countries.
So, what’s so exceptional –today–about America?
Well, call it the privilege of having been the first one. Yes, other countries followed over time and adopted similar principles. But not entirely. In Japan, for instance, immigrants are not particularly welcome. In Britain there is an institutional Church. In other countries, until recently, citizenship was a matter of recognizable blood lines, not about conscious choices.
Yes, America is a young country. But it is the very first Modern Republic. The US Constitution was drafted in 1787, and it was ratified in 1789. The US Constitution established long ago the protection of individual freedoms as its core principle.
Exceptional, until we believe it is so
For millions of immigrants this constitutionally granted freedom meant unprecedented access to opportunity. Opportunity yielded new enterprise. And enterprise translated into economic progress and higher growth.
This was Exceptional.
To the extent that we, as a Nation, continue to nurture the very basic principles this Republic was established upon long ago, America will continue to be Exceptional.