September 19, 2014
To the admiration and annoyance of much of the world, Americans tend to believe they live in one of the greatest countries in the world — maybe even the greatest of all.
For good reason.
Our Declaration of Independence, adopted 238 years ago on this Fourth of July, and our Constitution with its precious Bill of Rights, established an enlightened way forward not only for the United States, but for oppressed peoples around the world yearning for self-government, tolerance of differences and freedom. Our nation has not always lived up to its lofty ideals, the institution of slavery being our most shameful hypocrisy. But the demanding written words of our Founding Fathers challenge us to greatness, one generation to the next, sometimes in spite of ourselves.
We are a nation that thinks well of itself, having been an undeniable beacon of human progress in a troubled world for more than two centuries now, and so of course we get down on ourselves when we fall short.
This notion came to mind recently — that we sure set a high standard for ourselves — when we read the results of a new Pew Research Center survey that says Americans are somewhat less inclined today, compared to three years ago, to think of the United States as the one “exceptional” nation, standing above all other countries.
But of course, we thought. The United States continues to climb out of the most difficult economic times since the Great Depression, and we have struggled as well to end two misguided wars. Of course our self-regard has taken a hit, as it has before. But only a temporary hit, also as before. We don’t know if some survey group was asking quite the same questions in the past, but we suspect they would have discovered dips in the national confidence during, say, the Red Scare years, and on the day we lost JFK, and during the height of the Vietnam War.
But surely, at other times, the American people confessed to great leaps in pride, maybe boastfully so. What would the survey folks have found on the day Charles Lindberg crossed the Atlantic, in the years FDR created the New Deal safety net for all Americans, in the years LBJ extended that safety net, and on the day we landed a man on the moon?
We expect much of ourselves because we have done much.
Are we as divided today as it often seems? Consider this: We may deeply disagree in 2014 on the performance of President Barack Obama, but when he first was elected in 2008 most of us were pretty sure — those who voted for him and those who did not — that this was a remarkable moment, the achievement of an exceptional nation.
If we squabble today, railing on the soapboxes of cable TV and radio, it is because we can. This is what we taught the world — enumerate your freedoms, spell them out and live by them — the freedom of assembly, the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom to sass the fellow in the White House.
Our uncomplicated thought on this Independence Day is that the United States was built on extreme compromise, not extreme convictions, and the sooner we find our way back to that spirit of compromise, the sooner we’ll find our way back to our best selves as a nation. The Founding Fathers wrote the wisdom of compromise into every paragraph of the Constitution. Even back then, we were a diverse and independent-minded people, and we all had to give to get.
Yes, we are a great nation, perhaps the one exceptional nation. Not for nothing do the world’s tired and poor, now as much as ever, flock to our shores. They’ve been around and know a good thing.
But American exceptionalism is not an inheritance. It must be earned by every generation, built on common ground, knowing that beyond our differences we are one proud American people.