America Really Was That Great

… But that doesn’t mean we are now.


Is America still exceptional? The question has become a contentious issue in American politics over the last few years. But the answer has implications that go well beyond the political fortunes of Republicans and Democrats in the United States. It affects the stability and prosperity of the entire world.

President Barack Obama’s Republican critics now routinely accuse him of denying America’s history as an "exceptional" country because, when asked about the concept in 2009, he replied, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." (He then went on to list some of the features that, in his view, make America exceptional.) In Mitt Romney’s recent retelling, this is akin to saying that "there is nothing unique about the United States."

But the idea of American exceptionalism does have real intellectual grounding. As used by scholars, it refers to the ways the United States has differed historically from the older countries of Europe: the fact that it was founded on a set of ideas; that it lacked a hierarchical social order with a hereditary aristocracy at the top; that the Europeans who settled North America did so in a huge, sparsely populated territory; and that it attracted immigrants from all over the world. In American politics, the term has come to have a celebratory as well as an analytical meaning. It refers to what makes America special: its wealth, its power, the economic opportunity it has provided for its citizens, and the expansive role it has played in the world, including the example of liberty and prosperity that it has set.

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