Making America Exceptional Again

On September 11, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Russian President Vladimir Putin headlined "A Plea for Caution From Russia." The op-ed commented on President Obama's speech the night before. There's not much to take issue with in Putin's piece, except for how it ends, which has irritated some:

I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States' policy is "what makes America different. It's what makes us exceptional." It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

What raised hackles is the reference to "American exceptionalism." Putin quoted from the next-to-last paragraph of Obama's primetime speech the night before:

America is not the world's policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

Putin got the better of Obama. But the Russian needs a refresher course in English, because Obama didn't say that it is "United States' policy" that makes us exceptional. And Obama didn't say that America's willingness to intervene in Syria to save children is what makes us exceptional. What Obama actually said is that "what makes America different" and "exceptional," is that "I believe we should act."

Yes, language sticklers can be tedious. But for far too long, President Obama has been given a pass on his sloppy utterances. I'm wondering if this is another case of Obama editing or overriding his prepared remarks, perhaps ad-libbing. But maybe he meant what he said: that America is exceptional because of what Obama believes.

And another thing, how exceptional can America be if acting only involves "modest effort and risk"? Even if one wants to (yet again) cut Obama some slack on his tortured statements, U.S. policy is not what makes us exceptional; our current policy is incoherent. One "essential truth," however, is this: It is "extremely dangerous to encourage" false understandings of what exceptionalism truly is.

If America is indeed exceptional, she became so long before Mr. Obama came on the scene and started to "believe we should act." If America is still exceptional, it is because of her Founding. But in a "post-constitutional America," we're losing our uniqueness.

Of all history's great powers, the United States of America stands out as the closest to ever having been a "liberal democracy." History's other great nations, whether imperial, monarchic, socialist, or totalitarian, have all had strong-government systems, wherein the state is all-powerful. Not so in America, where the Constitution puts limits on the power of government, especially the federal one. Our system of limited government and individual rights is what made America exceptional.

But for the last century, America's federal government has grabbed more and more power. This power grab began in earnest with the rise of progressivism. Historian Ronald J. Pestritto in the Wall Street Journal writes:

The progressive movement did indeed repudiate the principles of individual liberty and limited government that were the basis of the American republic. America's original progressives were convinced that the country faced a set of social and economic problems demanding a sharp increase in federal power. They also said that there was too much emphasis placed on protecting the liberty of individuals at the expense of broader social justice.

Since the advent of progressivism, America has been wading deeper and deeper into "social democracy"; call it "Big Government." So nowadays when we look across the pond at sclerotic Old Europe, we're looking in the mirror. Europe is beset with unsustainable entitlements and public debt, and so is America. And just as in Europe, we seem paralyzed in making the necessary changes. America's not so exceptional anymore. Nor, for that matter, are her citizens.

The American people have not become unexceptional because they are unwilling to sacrifice yet more blood and treasure in faraway hellholes like Syria. Nor have they become unexceptional because they are unwilling to put their trust in a callow leader whom they no longer trust. No, my fair cousin, we are losing our exceptionality because we are willing to put up with more and more crap from our government --- and because we're moving away from the Constitution. If America wants to put back on the mantle of being "exceptional," then we need to get back to our Founding.

(On September 19, I was very happy to read John McCain's essay "Russians deserve better than Putin" in, of all places, Pravda. Read it in English or in Russian. You'll see that the good Senator has a much better grasp of what makes America exceptional than does Mr. Obama. {But what will happen to the poor editor at Pravda?})

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City

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