In a politically correct age dominated by cultural relativism, American exceptionalism — the notion that the United States has reached its superpower status because of the values it represents — can seem at best a hubristic expression of patriotism, or perhaps at worst, a myopic justification of imperialism. The thought of American colonists somehow tapping into the ideal form of governance in the wilderness of the New World just doesn’t jibe with postmodernist denial of absolute truth, right and wrong. Though such an Americentric worldview may not appeal to the delicate sensibilities of academics, the unique American experience and the values behind it have become the building blocks shaping an increasingly democratic and integrated world.
The dour Puritans and mythic founding fathers viewed the American project as a radical attempt at governance and freedom away from Europe’s intolerance, social stratification, war, mercantilism and tyranny. And indeed, this single experiment in liberty, individualism, laissez-faire economics and egalitarianism has shaped the trajectory of world history more than any other. Marx’s communism and broken promises of working-class liberation fizzled out a decade ago. Europe’s socialism verges on implosion as birth rates decline and cumbersome state welfare systems approach bankruptcy. Political Islam’s establishment of theocracies in Iran and Afghanistan has damaged the credibility of so-called Muslim reformers who, holding a Quran in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other, proffer a return to the 7th-century Caliphate as a panacea for the ills of the modern Islamic world.
Meanwhile, liberal democracy, in its varying forms, has flourished. Woodrow Wilson’s 20th-century legacy of making the world “safe for democracy” transformed an exclusive club of Western democracies into a diverse community including nations recently wrested free from the fetters of imperialism. During the Cold War, it was the American values of liberty, individualism and capitalist opportunity (along with a healthy nuclear arsenal) that triumphed over Stalinist absolutism and collectivism. When given the option, the choice between the two was easy. Today, according to Freedom House, a nonpartisan organization that monitors the global spread of democracy, 119 of the world’s 192 nations are electoral democracies, 89 of which it considers “free.”
Globalization, with both its banes and blessings, is breaking down tariff walls and connecting nations into an integrated, global free-trade economy. Even in Pyongyang, Tehran, Damascus — capitals of the self-professed enemies of “the Great Satan” — there is roaring demand for our sordid, sex-laden, violence-filled entertainment, our tight blue jeans, our burgers, fries and Coke. Millions of aspiring Americans, desiring to come to the land everyone loves to hate, apply for visas and U.S. citizenship each year. For many world citizens, behind the veil of anti-Americanism and hatred for U.S. policy, is a profound respect for the values of opportunity, tolerance, diversity and freedom which the United States embodies.
If the meteoric rise of the United States to superpower status is not reason enough to vindicate the exceptionalism of American values, then surely the world’s ratification and acceptance of America’s most treasured principles — along with its most embarrassing cultural icons — is.
Yale itself is an institution rooted in John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” exceptionalism. Yale’s founders, in Elihu Yale’s words, sought “to plant and under ye Divine blessing to propagate in this Wilderness, the blessed Reformed, Protestant Religion, in ye purity of its Order and Worship.” Three centuries later, the era of the Andover-educated, J. Press-blazer-and-khaki-sporting, blue-blood “Yale man” is long over. Foreign students now comprise 9 percent of the undergraduate student body. Notions of individual and cultural equality make for a tolerant and pluralistic campus. And yet the belief in the uniqueness of the American experience persists — and for good reason. Tolerance and exceptionalism aren’t incompatible.
Whether sixth-generation Yale legacies with Mayflower lineage, first-generation immigrants or non-citizens who nonetheless identify with American culture, we all struggle with American identity. Some, embittered by current U.S. politics, have promised to depart to Canadian communes and forsake the United States altogether. But for most of us, though we too realize that America is imperfect and its history is replete with undignified moments, we recognize that there is something truly remarkable about our country and its values — values of freedom, choice, individualism and equality, which transcend their cultural context and Western origin. The growth of liberal democracy in the 20th century and the indelible images of the Afghani and Iraqi elections bear witness to the fact that individuals around the world can embrace the values that America first put into practice.
In his thought-provoking column “Created in our image and soon to surpass it” (2/15/05), Nick Robinson ponders the consequences of the Bush administration’s exportation of democracy and free market capitalism. Bush’s Wilsonian idealism, he believes, will ultimately cause the “decline of America’s own superpower pre-eminence” as powers with greater populations (China) and more robust economies (the European Union) surpass the United States.
Fortunately for Americans and world citizens wary of ceding world hegemony to an authoritarian China or to a continental Europe without a moral compass, Robinson is wrong. U.S. hegemony is closely linked with exceptionalism. America rose to power guided by the trustworthy constellation of its unique ideals and values. And it will stay in power because of these convictions. The flames of oppression, poverty and hopelessness that generate terrorist groups and enemies can only be extinguished by the values Americans founded our society upon four centuries ago.
Given the opportunity to adopt democratic and individualist ideals, a nation always will. It’s not that cunning Washington neo-cons are remaking the world in our image; the world is remaking itself in our image on its own.
Keith Urbahn is a junior in Saybrook College. “Unchained Reactionary” appears on alternate Wednesdays.