American exceptionalism has never gone completely unexpressed. Exceptionalism is present in many forms. The jingoistic saber-rattlers clamoring for war at various instances in our history kicked an extant philosophical movement into overdrive. To them, the United States is uniquely qualified to lead ceaseless military or diplomatic action and emerge victorious, the most powerful and influential, with nary a scratch to show for it. Most of this belief is bluster, the sort of important-sounding but meaningless rhetoric advanced by blowhards and gasbags.
Even at our most placid times, we’ve still been told that our national is special and different. For a long time, we proudly recited that we were a nation of immigrants. We even memorialized this ideal with the building of the Statue of Liberty. Terms like “melting pot” once were used to illustrate this greater point.
The United States has the largest population of immigrants in the world—over 38.5 million people living in the United States are first-generation immigrants, although on a percentage basis the immigrant population ranks 48th in the world. On an annual basis, the United States naturalizes approximately 898,000 immigrants as new citizens, first in the world in absolute terms, and 8th in the world in per capita terms. From 1960 to 2005, the United States was ranked first in the world for every five year period but one for the total number of immigrants admitted—overall, since 1995, the United States has admitted over 1 million immigrants per year.
Of the top ten countries accepting resettled refugees in 2006, the United States accepted more than twice as many as the next nine countries combined, approximately 50,000 refugees; in addition, on average, over 100,000 refugees per year were resettled annually between 1990 and 2000; further, over 85,000 asylum seekers annually come to the United States in search of sanctuary, of which approximately 45% are successful in obtaining.
These statistics call into question one especially prevalent and popular argument. Immigration has been generally allowed in the United States, provided, of course, it never deprived the so-called natural born citizen of his or her fully privileged status. The definition of that status or that deficiency has varied dramatically over time. Immigration has been restricted severely multiple times in our history, often for the sake of political expediency.
The qualifying factors for naturalization have changed considerably, too. Whether immigrants were allowed to settle here depends whether they were viewed by the powers that be as necessary for continued American growth or as impediments to a feared loss of economic gains.
We’ve informed the world for years and years that our unique experiment in Democracy is the original and best. We’ve culturally sold the idea alongside our consumer goods and knack for advertising. The hardest sell of all has been especially prominent during election year rhetoric. Being proud to be an American is one thing. Blind devotion is very different. This desire to let politicians speak in place of hard facts reduces debate to trifling cliches and fisticuffs.
Even observant liberals can make mistakes around this idea. The United States, over the decades, has built a solid mythology around itself, which is the envy of any border fence ever devised by human hands. Nor is this an uncommon compulsion. New nations often spell out policy in order to legitimize their gains, goals, and basic identity. However, pride in country rarely stops with pride in self.
For 236 years, it is true in our dealings with more established countries we’ve sometimes come across like arrogant upstarts. But it’s also factual that the ultimate success of our Democratic system, even though the brand has grown damaged, has nonetheless persisted. We have had no revolutions, no coups, and no dictatorial control. Our earliest leaders were afraid that the radical phase of the French Revolution would assert itself on these shores, yet it did not. Cynical progressives often today hint darkly of the final days of the United States of America. Such things must happen, but the end is not yet.
In the meantime, we continue to disagree about how exceptional we are, and what that exceptionalism even means. Americans have been already called to war by one President to make the world safe for Democracy. Three hundred years prior to that, a Puritan leader named John Winthrop wrote that we were God’s country. To him, and to others who followed Winthrop, our nation is still a shining city on a hill.
It is understandable, even enviable that the landed, educated, elite men who set forth a new nation thought so much of their new creation. To this day, anyone with the skills and drive to build something out of nothing would surely rate the importance of their own work about as highly. Forming any new nation is a Frankenstein's monster of a sort. What these men established reflects highly upon them.
And yet, it has been said numerous times of Thomas Jefferson that he loved the common man, but at a distance. Leaders like Jefferson held a snobbish viewpoint, believing that the common person lacked the skills necessary to run any government in their new creation, on any level.
This supposedly egalitarian society was never as fair or equitable as it was said to be. That it has grown corrupt and unwieldy now in the 21st Century surprises few. Faction and competition grew to two competing parties, the same two that exist today. The names may be a little different, but the basic disagreements persist. Oversimplying the heart of the debate reveals one party who trusts government more than capital and the other who trusts capital more than government.
This hearty argument grows explosive quickly and needs no additional flint or tinder. Detonation doesn’t help us. Being proud Americans and refusing to adopt conceit in place of justified pride may stave off future conflagrations or bad Presidents. We can be proud of our country without having to adopt a braggart’s pose. And, for better or for worse, we can see push past the spin to the truth. Nothing says responsible citizen like keeping one’s mind open.