Following the State of the Union (SOTU), there was a discussion on CNN about American Exceptionalism, what it is, and whether President Obama adhered to the idea. Aside from thinking that it's use (referred to in both Republican responses) was some sort of sinister conservative code-speak, the commentators reflected that Obama surely believed in American exceptionalism because he is our president. Hardly an in-depth or compelling analysis.
American exceptionalism has several aspects, one of which is heard in the comments of both Obama and Newt Gingrich (who couldn't be ideologically more different) who find it's seed in the words of the Declaration of Independence which states:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Obama also pointed out during the SOTU that in no place on earth but America could his story have been completed as it was and that no one in the hall would trade their position with that of any other nation of the world. Both true statements but they only grasp one part of American exceptionalism, the fruit of it if you will.
The idea has been alluded to by both Thomas Paine and Alexis de Toqueville. The American Founding undeniably forged a nation quite different in both perspective and governance from it's European counterparts. What it is that has allowed America to accomplish what it has and to invoke the above attitudes among it's people? The answer is found in what lies between the endowment of rights from our Creator and the maintenance of those rights in our unique form of self-government.
America is the first nation on earth to form a government based on the premise that rights are endowed from God, the belief that sovereignty belongs to the people (not to some hereditary ruling class), and which is able to protect those rights in the presence of the flawed human natures of which it [the government] is itself constructed. Never before (or since) has this three prong task been undertaken so successfully. It is this effort and America's understanding of it that sets her apart. This is American Exceptionalism.
Consider that various groups and individuals from all over the globe who often war against each other in their native areas come to America and live in peace on the same block without the caste system or a police state to enforce order as in many other parts of the world. Applaud the upward mobility that President Obama spoke about the allows any one of us to enjoy success based on our hard work and accomplishment independent of our birth circumstances or heritage. Consider the serious problems stemming from the lack of immigrant assimilation which are seen all over Europe and in many parts of the world but which America has largely avoided. Consider that even following Sept 11, there were remarkably few incidents of violence against Islamic-Americans. These results point to the two precepts that underscore American exceptionalism - that of equality under the law and checks and balances on government power.
Laws that are clearly written and understood by all parties, that are not reinterpreted to shift political power (either for or against), and are respected by all. Frederic Bastiat said (in 1850) that law is to be the protection against plunder, not it's legal instrument. Checks and balances exist between the three branches of government and between the federal and state jurisdictions in order to resist concentrations of power.
Consider the attached chart. On the left is shown pictorially what American Exceptionalism consists of and how it was constructed. Each level is dependent upon the successful attainment of those levels below it. It is the role of the rule of law to guard the items below it and encourage the items above it. When this principle (and Bastiat's guidance) are set aside the model on the right is adopted. Many of the modern progressive left prefer it out of a misguided and erroneous view of what public philanthropy can accomplish. Their goal is equality of outcomes more than equality of opportunity. Such advocates fail to grasp that without equal treatment under the law, the lofty goals of protecting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (property rights) cannot be achieved. Thus the identical claims of Newt Gingrich and President Obama toward these goals are different in that the the former advocates policies that support their attainment while the latter does not.
Consider a Jan 19, 2011 speech by Van Jones, a former "green jobs" czar within the White House (and perhaps current advisor) when he stated that social justice is achieved only when you can randomly exchange lives with anyone else and still have the same good life. He implied outright that such equal outcomes are necessary for a just society. Such a blatant embrace of obvious Communist values begs the question of why was this man and his world-view a close advisor to and held in high regard by the Obama administration? Who else in the administration agrees with Jones? Does the President?
In a speech on America on Oct 20, 2010 the President omitted (for the second time in a month) the mention of a Creator when he said, "[W]hat makes this place [America] special is not something physical. It has to do with this idea that was started by 13 colonies that decided to throw off the yoke of an empire, and said, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that each of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' "
Thus while President Obama clearly understands the political value of claiming adherence to American exceptionalism at least to domestic audiences (though apparently still unwilling to make a similar statement to foreign listeners), his grasp of the concept based on his own words, his policies, and choice of advisors seems short of the mark. Of even greater danger is that too many other Americans likewise fail to understand the important concept of American Exceptionalism. Without a rebirth of such an understanding we will cease to be exceptional.