The Magazine

What’s So Great About America

Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Marco Rubio will have to write a new speech sooner or later, but he shouldn’t hurry up on our account. We still enjoy the one he’s been giving all year. He delivered it again to a national television audience on Election Night, after walloping not one but two formidable opponents in his campaign for a vacant Florida Senate seat. Along with his gift for wooing voters, the speech has made Rubio, according to a chorus of news accounts, a “rising star”—even, said one Vanity Fair writer who should know, a “matinee idol.” Republicans might want to ponder why.

What’s So Great About America

The theme of the speech, and the source of its power, is American exceptionalism. “It’s sometimes easy to forget how special America really is,” Rubio says. “But I was raised by exiles .  .  . by people who clearly understand how different America is from the rest of the world.” Rubio’s parents, who fled Castro’s tyranny, taught him this difference by their words and by their example. Rubio makes his case for American exceptionalism with both an appeal to authority—the word of his parents​—and an appeal to experience: The good life America offered them is itself proof that his country, in its political, social, and economic arrangements, is unlike any other in history.

Rubio’s speech dares to cast our political differences in the grandest terms. Politics becomes a matter of history and ideas rather than motive-mongering and pie-slicing. It has been heartening to see other Republican politicians pick up his theme of exceptionalism, and we commend it to those who haven’t. During the campaign Sarah Palin and her hand-crafted candidates repeated the “E” word as though it had magical powers. And maybe it does. Lt. Col. Allen West, like Rubio a Floridian and one of two African Americans to win congressional seats for the Republicans last week, tucked every one of his policy positions, from modernizing the military to cutting the federal budget, under the rubric “Restoring American Exceptionalism.”

Not every candidate needs to go so far as West. Some political issues, after all, do not necessarily touch on first principles. Republicans must take care that “exceptionalism” doesn’t collapse through thoughtless repetition into a mere slogan, another bit of political cant like “Take Our Country Back” or “Move America Forward,” losing all meaning even as it wows the focus groups. For the line of argument that Rubio pursues, his way of framing the choice that voters face in the Obama era, is uncommonly—you might say, exceptionally—useful, for three reasons.

First, the idea of American exceptionalism has the benefit of being true. The United States is fundamentally and demonstrably different from other countries. It is bound together by a founding proposition, and properly applied the proposition has brought freedom and prosperity to more people, and more kinds of people, than any other. Second, a large majority of Americans believe American exceptionalism to be true. And third, it drives Democrats right around the bend.

It’s not clear why. Maybe liberal polemicists don’t quite understand what the phrase means, and so they pummel it into a caricature. In Politico last week, under the oddly truncated headline “U.S. Is Not Greatest Country Ever,” the columnist Michael Kinsley wrote that exceptionalism is “the theory that Americans are better than everybody else.” The next day, on a well-trafficked liberal website, another columnist said much the same thing—they tend to run in packs, these guys. Other countries, this columnist wrote, are “investing in infrastructure,” unlike the United States, which apparently just spent $780 billion in stimulus on chopped liver. At the same time, he went on, “the Republicans have taken refuge in an antigovernment ideology premised on the lunatic notion that America is the only truly free and successful country in the world.”

Assuming they were offered in good faith, these characterizations are hopelessly confused, conflating exceptionalism with jingoism or xenophobia or mere self-aggrandizement. (He got the antigovernment part right, though.) But even if they do understand what the term means, we can’t be sure that professional Democrats really believe it. Liberalism in its present degenerate form is reactionary—a gesture of irritation at the backward quality of ordinary American life, at its culture, its food and dress and amusements and politics, and especially at the mindless and sentimental patriotism that unsophisticated Americans are so quick to embrace. 

President Obama—who in other venues, such as his Nobel speech, has given eloquent testimony to America’s uniqueness—last year made a now notorious remark that nicely summarized the off-the-shelf liberal view. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” The logic is straightforward. Since every people believes it’s exceptional, none is. And thus our belief in American exceptionalism merely shows how much we’re like everybody else; the assertion disproves itself. We all of us here on Spaceship Earth indulge in a kind of touching childish delusion, akin to a toddler’s belief that he’s the center of the universe. We really should grow up. 

For many sophisticated Democrats the belief is not merely childish but dangerous. It distracts us from the urgent matters at hand. “This conceit that we’re the greatest country ever may be self-immolating,” Kinsley wrote. “If people believe it’s true, they won’t do what’s necessary to make it true.” 

This strikes us—and will strike most Americans, we’ll wager—as the precise opposite of the truth. Americans through time have already done “what’s necessary to make” the country unique in all the world; that’s why Glenn Beck and all those Tea Partiers prattle endlessly on about the Founders. Thanks to the ingenuity, persistence, and sacrifice of earlier generations, our obligation now is to conserve the arrangements that make us exceptional, reaffirm them, and prepare to pass them on, with an abiding faith in personal liberty. And this much should be obvious: If Americans don’t believe “we’re the greatest country ever,” we won’t be for much longer. 

Sounds like a campaign theme.

—Andrew Ferguson

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers