Debate over American exceptionalism is over

Debate over American exceptionalism is over
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American nationalism was indicted as a cover for xenophobia and racism in the midterm elections. Yet, absent U.S. nationalism’s strongly positive side, the related concept of American exceptionalism fails.

Opponents deride American exceptionalism as braggadocio or narcissism. They point to original national failings of slavery and Jim Crow, of the late acceptance of women’s rights and equality. Proponents sometimes fail to make their case and reflexively wave the flag instead.

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The case for U.S. exceptionalism — why President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonContest offers 'Broadway play and chardonnay' with Clinton Jared Kushner: The White House’s results-driven tactician California dreamin’ in the 2020 presidential race MORE’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was correct to call this country “the indispensable nation” — is overwhelming, however.

Exhibit A: The survival and spread of Western-style liberal democracy, of human freedom.

Three times in the 20th century it was U.S. intervention and leadership that tipped the balance toward the West in global conflicts. In World War I, the enemy was German militarism; in World War II, Japanese imperialism and, especially, fascism in its Nazi epitome. No sooner were the Nazis crushed by an alliance of necessity that joined Moscow with Washington and London than America led the West in an ultimately successful 40-year Cold War struggle against Soviet imperialism. 

In any one of those conflicts, but for American arms, money and troops, the enemies of liberal capitalist societies might well have triumphed. George Orwell’s fear that the future would be “a boot stamping down on a human face, forever” might have been realized.

Today a would-be-successor tyranny, Islamism, finds itself confronted by American-led forces. Opportunistic Russia, expansionist China and aggressive police states in theocratic Iran or in Kim-dynastic North Korea each must reckon primarily with the United States. 

Exhibit B: The magnetic pull of the American way of life.

For most of the 21st century, roughly 1 million immigrants, legal and illegal, have entered the United States annually. No other country has exhibited such a draw on foreigners, and done so for the majority of its 243-year existence. 

“The United States has been the top international destination for international migrants since at least 1960,” according to the Migration Policy Institute. One-fifth of the world’s migrants were living in America in 2017, the institute reported.

In 1850, 2.2 million people — nearly 10 percent of the country’s population — were immigrants. In 2016, 43.7 million people, or 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population of 323.1 million, were immigrants. The Pew Research Center estimates that approximately one-fourth of them, 11 million, entered illegally.

Immigrants and their American-born children amounted to 86.4 million, or 27 percent, of the total population in 2016. India, China and Hong Kong, and Mexico top the current list of countries abandoned by migrants for America. Why do they come?

The answer lies in Exhibit C: The developments that made exhibits A and B possible.

Historian Niall Ferguson, in “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” argues that “six killer apps” — competition, science, property, modern medicine, the work ethic and consumerism — sparked the rise and 500-year dominance of the West. Nowhere did these six coalesce earlier and more lastingly than in “Old England” and “New England,” Great Britain and the United States.

They did so in the long, often halting development — from the Magna Carta in 1215 through, in America, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — of the recognition that the state exists to serve the people, not the other way around. Immigrants flock to the United States to share in a freer, more prosperous, safer and more stable society than those they leave. Diverse in their origins, they move from a multitude of cultures to a particular one promising opportunity.

They so often find it in the United States. That happens because this country grows from the Declaration’s truly revolutionary assertion “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.”

Virtually no other nation has had such a starting point, so no other has been able to serve as such an international beacon, influence and leader. Exceptional.

Eric Rozenman is communications consultant for the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based Jewish Policy Center, which provides timely perspectives and analysis of foreign and domestic policies, and supports U.S.-Israel security cooperation. The opinions expressed above are his own.