Like nearly every iconic national symbol these days, the phrase “American Exceptionalism” has become a political pawn in the endless and distracting bickering between Democrats and Republicans. For much of Barack Obama’s tenure in office, conservatives have groused that the 44th American president didn’t understand the famous phrase, and was insufficiently proud of the United States. In foreign countries, this critique tended to leave people scratching their heads. Of course America is exceptional, they said, and the ascension to the presidency of a child born to a white mother from Kansas and a black exchange student from Kenya is itself evidence of that truism.
Is there any validity to the conservatives’ broader complaint that modern American progressives are too quick to blame the United States for the world’s problems and too focused on what is wrong with the country? Perhaps, but pointing out America’s shortcomings is not unpatriotic—in fact, it’s quite the opposite, if it leads to improving our country.
Yes, America is exceptional. Since our founding in 1776, we have built our country on the unique principles of equality, self-government, and social mobility. While those principles might not strike a twenty-first century American as noteworthy, they certainly were 250 years ago.
They are the basis for the American Idea—that unique set of principles that drove our founding as a nation. Until this country came along, the idea that you could change your station in life was barely a consideration. If you were born the son of a farmer, you became a farmer. If you were lucky enough to be born into a family with wealth and power, you inherited that wealth and power. In general, we have strived as a nation to build on these ideals. While it hasn’t always been a straight line, over the last two-and-half centuries, we’ve made progress in improving the lives of Americans by staying true to our principles. Like the unfinished pyramid on our dollar bill, America, as a nation, is constantly striving to improve herself, evolving to meet each new challenge as it arises. And America has been a force for good in the world.
“No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy,” Winston Churchill wrote after World War II ended.1 U.S. history is filled with examples of our nation and its people rising to meet great challenges. Whether facing off against global fascism and mass genocide during World War II, rebuilding Europe with the Marshall Plan, standing up to the expansion of Communism and the suppression of almost two billion people during the Cold War, or brokering the peace accord between Egypt and Israel, when the alarm bells rang, Americans answered the call. We were revered in the world. Americans could go almost anywhere and be welcomed—a tacit admission of the status our country held around the globe.
Today, however, we stand at an inflection point in our history. The course we choose will determine whether the twenty-first century is another era of American leadership or if our preeminence comes to an end, as it has for other dominant world powers throughout history, leaving our descendants the depressing task of writing the epitaph of a once great nation.
Our political dysfunction is not only affecting our status in the world, but it is also hindering our ability to live up to our national ideals. One hundred and eighty-five years after Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about America’s “great experiment” in democracy, our system of self-government is being compromised by a campaign finance system that allows special interests to buy politicians and elections. The parties have become a duopoly and are behaving like one—dramatically limiting competition and, by extension, limiting accountability. Social mobility, once a source of national pride, is in jeopardy as a result of these troubling changes.
My stump speech on the 2014 campaign trail echoed this theme. It started with a simple message:
We all know our system of government is broken. We are sending the worst of both parties to Washington—bitter partisans who care more about pleasing the extremists and special interests in their own party than they do moving our country forward.
As our elected leaders draw childish lines in the sand and refuse to cooperate, inaction has replaced leadership in solving our most pressing issues. Neglect is the result. Without political courage and meaningful action, our problems have grown to almost unmanageable proportions. . . . The sum of our public debt and entitlement deficit is now almost half a million dollars for every American family. And while we’re spending more and more money as a country, it’s harder than ever for the average American to get ahead.
I’m concerned if we don’t start addressing these issues, our standard of living, our status in the world, and the very existence of the middle class in America is at risk.
The cynicism surrounding politics makes it easy to dismiss any candidate’s stump speech. But the facts supporting those assertions are bracing.
Most voters are aware that our public debt is a huge problem. As a percentage of our nation’s gross national product it’s approaching the levels we faced during the height of World War II.
Think about that: During World War II, the United States mobilized over sixteen million soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. We were fighting in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. Twenty-four million more Americans marched into defense plants to power the war effort. Three million cars were manufactured in this country in 1941. For the entire duration of the war only 139 private automobiles were made. Instead, Americans built hundreds of thousands of the tanks, planes, ships, rifles, and artillery pieces that won the war. By the time of Japan’s 1945 surrender, half the world’s industrial production was taking place in the United States.
The result of that massive investment in victory was a national debt exceeding annual gross domestic product. Nonetheless, over the next twenty-five years we dramatically reduced that ratio while simultaneously providing medical care to 600,000 wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, and enacting a GI Bill that sent millions of veterans to college and vocational schools or put them in their own homes. We did all this while rebuilding Europe, constructing an interstate highway system, and sending a manned spacecraft to the moon.
In contrast, since the turn of century we’ve engaged in a war of choice in Iraq—a war that neither established stability for Iraqis nor has yet been paid for by Americans. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have now lasted longer than the Vietnam War or the American Revolution, have overwhelmed the Veterans Administration’s healthcare system and led to the rise of ISIS. We have ignored our impending retirement and health-care crises while social mobility in America has come to a grinding halt. In America today, if you’re born in the bottom 20 percent of the economy, the overwhelming likelihood is that you’ll die there, too.