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Krystal Ball on The True Meaning of American Exceptionalism

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This morning, former 1st CD Democratic candidate Krystal Ball has posted a superb new article at the Huffington Post on an important, but often misunderstood, subject — “American Exceptionalism.” Most frequently, we tend to hear this phrase employed by politicians bloviating and/or using it to justify whatever cause or issue they’re trying to promote that particular day. In recent years, we’ve also seen the phrase used by Republicans and their Tea Party pals to bash President Obama, to claim he’s not “really” American (actually, one could argue that Obama’s quintessentially American) and to argue that he’s supposedly (note: none of this is in the least bit true) on some sort of “apology tour” for America around the world. It’s utter trash, of course, but this is what passes for political discourse in America these days.

In addition, as Krystal Ball points out, writers like Richard Cohen are correct “that many leaders on the far right have adopted the phrase American exceptionalism and use it in a jingoistic way to convince their base of the divine righteousness of their cause.” To the contrary, Ball correctly argues, “the roots of our exceptionalism lie in our foundational principles of humanity and specifically in the way that we treat our enemies and the extent to which our government’s power is restrained in its deployment against both American citizens and against enemies of our republic.” That’s inarguably true, yet conservatives don’t seem to understand the concept which, truly, is the core of what it means to be an American: we are “exceptional” not because we are “chosen” (e.g., by God) or inherently “better” than any other people in the world, but because of our values and what we stand for (e.g., as John McCain so eloquently articulated yesterday, that we do NOT torture people – ever!).  

In reality, of course, America is made up of an incredibly diverse group of people from all over the world — our grandparents and great grandparents and great great grandparents who emigrated here for a better life (or in a slave ship, or as indentured servants, or whatever) from Europe, Russia, China, Japan, India, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, etc. Given that fact, what makes America “exceptional” could not possibly be some sort of innate or genetic superiority. Instead, what it is and what it MUST be is exactly what Krystal Ball talks about in her article – “foundational principles of humanity.” In addition, I’d add the concept of a “melting pot” (as opposed to a racially or ethnically based version of nationhood, as is seen in much of the world), plus the all-important belief in two things: 1) the rule of law; and 2) government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  Combine all these, and you’re getting close to the core of what makes America “exceptional.”

By the way, for anyone who has taken civics, history, or read a book or two about America, this shouldn’t be a difficult concept to understand. Yet, sadly, large numbers of Republican presidential candidates and politicians in general seem unable, unwilling, or both, to grasp the true meaning of this absolutely crucial, fundamental concept. Which is why Krystal Ball’s Huffington Post article is so refreshing. Here’s an excerpt, but I strongly recommend that you read the entire piece. Nice work Krystal!

When bin Laden was killed, his body was washed, prayers were said over him, and he was buried according to Islam within 24 hours. His acts on this Earth certainly did not earn him that level of care and respect. The way we treat our enemies has nothing to do with who they are and everything to do with who we are. It is part of what makes us exceptional. American exceptionalism is not a way of justifying morally bankrupt actions in the world and dysfunction at home. On the contrary, it should serve as a moral compass by reminding us that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard. The standard that our founders set for restraint of government power is one of their most precious legacies to us. The last thing that we should do is give up on this exceptionalism. In these times our commitment to being an exceptional nation is needed more than ever. It is up to us however to reclaim the phrase and to remind those who have forgotten, that while American exceptionalism was gifted to us by our Founding Fathers, its maintenance requires constant care, scrutiny, and corrective action.

  • Paradox13VA

    What a thoughtful and forthright piece.

    This Virginian should be representing us at some level of the Federal government, ASAP.

  • normanva

    I think Krystal Ball has some great ideas here.  As I tell my conservative friends, our response to 9/11 was our chance to show the world how a superior system operates.  Unfortunately bush-cheney failed miserably with illegally wiretapping, illegally detaining, and illegally torturing folks and refusing to give anyone, even an American citizen their day in court.

    Second, I start squirming with all this talk about us being exceptional.  I am no history expert but from what I read countries that start bragging about being exceptional are actually peaking and on their way down (think of Israel in the old Testament, Nazi Germany).  In the 50’s I would say we really were exceptional.  I don’t remember anyone bragging about it.