For insights into American exceptionalism, it’s good to talk to an immigrant. I happen to be one. I didn’t choose the U.S. at random as the place I wanted to live and work: I’m here because I think America is not just different but better. If you ask this would-be U.S. citizen, the country’s virtues vastly outweigh its failings, large though some of those failings may be.
I understand why many people are sick of the subject. On one level, the claim that the U.S. is different is trivial. Every country is different. And the claim of exceptional status shades easily into arrogance and chauvinism. But the U.S., I think, does stand apart – and some of the things that make it not just different but exceptional deserve to be valued and preserved.
In an essay last week for the National Journal, Peter Beinart announced “The End of American Exceptionalism.” It isn’t quite over yet, he argued, but it’s on the way out. He looks at three distinguishing characteristics – religion, patriotism and economic opportunity – and finds that the U.S. is becoming more ordinary. He says there’s every reason to expect this trend to continue.
It’s an excellent article and I think correct on many points. In a rejoinder, Peter Berkowitz rightly takes Beinart to task for blaming the Republican Party for this convergence to the norm – a dubious claim, but inessential to Beinart’s main thesis. The changes Beinart describes are real. The U.S. is gradually becoming a more secular country. Its ability and desire to project power around the globe (not the same thing as patriotism, but let that pass) are diminishing. As for economic mobility, it isn’t so much that America’s advantage is declining as that the country wasn’t exceptional to begin with.
Actually, it would be easy to bolster Beinart’s case. I’d add that the country’s sense of itself as exceptional rests partly on sheer economic might. Without that, the question of what to do with its overwhelming military power wouldn’t arise. Convergence is in train here, too. In the coming decades, the U.S. will most likely retain its lead in per capita incomes, but it can’t expect to remain the world’s biggest economy or preeminent military power.
Judged by any of these metrics, America is fated to be less exceptional with time. The question is how much these metrics matter. Despite mostly agreeing with Beinart about the trends he examines, and even thinking he understates the case in some respects, I don’t see the wellspring of American exceptionalism failing in the foreseeable future.
The abiding source of American exceptionalism, I’d submit, is the American character. This is a difficult thing to quantify, hence easily dismissed, but not everything that matters can be measured.
Anybody who’s lived and worked in other countries can’t fail to be struck by it: Americans are, above all, striving. Sloth is as antithetical to the national character as irony. Americans work incredibly hard, and they take play so seriously it’s comical. They’re acquisitive and competitive, but they’re also friendly, as well as amazingly open to interaction with other people and to joint endeavors in business and with neighbors. With strangers, they’re both welcoming and demanding (which the British find especially odd). They detest incompetence and won’t settle for mediocrity. They’re pragmatic – they believe in what works – yet they’re reluctant to compromise. They venerate innovators and risk-takers. They see failure as a temporary setback. They expect to rely on themselves and ask the same of others. They don’t think the world owes them a living.
Live somewhere else for a while, then tell me you think those traits are universal.
All this goes a long way to explain America’s extraordinary economic success. The same goes for the country’s political institutions – themselves a result of the underlying culture. I’m not the first to notice that American culture is communitarian and individualist at the same time. There’s a kind of reverence for popular sovereignty and the institutions that express it, including the Constitution and the flag, but this is combined with suspicion of government. On the one hand, “We the people.” On the other, “Don’t tread on me.” The result, by the standards of other advanced economies, is a bound on the size and scope of the state.
All these are things I admire. Admittedly, I was predisposed to admire the U.S., and it’s true I’ve accentuated the positive. The same character traits produce other equally distinctive results: needlessly vituperative politics; a zeal for incarceration; legalism carried to the point of insanity – I could go on. But I’m here because I admire this country and its people, and I admire them because they’re different – very different. The cultural roots, I’m certain, go deep. I'll be surprised if America doesn’t stay very different for a long, long time.
Clive Crook is a member of Bloomberg View’s editorial board.