Will American exceptionalism survive in 2012?
December 21, 2011
I am not looking forward to 2012. I believe it will be a year in which difficult decisions will have to be made, and I believe that I will not agree with many of them. Most of my discomfort comes from the negation by others of my belief in American exceptionalism.
Like most, I was raised to believe that America was something different, something that made it unique among nations. I believed that the United States had a government that was the model for others to emulate. I believed that the United States economy rewarded hard work and individual enterprise. I believed that the United States gave its citizens a degree of freedom that was the envy of the world. Everyone who was not an American citizen wanted to be an American.
This is why waves of immigrants came to our shores. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We were the “arsenal of democracy” when dictators and would-be world conquerors wanted to spread their empires by force. America was “The New Colossus,” not for power’s sake, but as the “shining city upon a hill.”
With that heritage, why would we want to be like other countries? Why apologize for being American? Why would we want to go out of our way to demonstrate we are just like everyone else?
In 2012, the administration and Congress will be called upon to make many difficult decisions that will define America going forward.
Internationally, the United States will be called upon to make decisions related to international finance, trade, and alliances. The international banking system is teetering, as is the European Union and the Euro zone. We face challenges from Russia, with which we supposedly “reset” relations; China, which is the largest holder of United States debt and is beginning to spread its wings militarily; a nuclear Iran; militant Islam; and an Arab Spring, which may not go the way we hoped. These challenges, among others, might cause a realignment of the international power structure.
Domestically, there is the trend, following the desire, to be more like Western Europe, although being like Europe was the last thing the Founders wanted for America. We are going down the path of increased regulation; increased government involvement in the economy and our private lives; and income redistribution, which reduces self-reliance and discipline. All of this has increased the size and expense of government as well as the national debt.
This was the road taken by the Soviet Union and its vassal states and by Western Europe. We know the fate of the Soviet Union and its satellites. We know what is happening in the EU because of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain. Why do we persist in going down the same road?
The modern nanny state starts from the premise that the masses are ignorant and that enlightened bureaucrats therefore are required to tell the masses what to do, even if it means imprisoning or fining violators to make the point to the populace.
The founders of this country and the framers of the Constitution never could have conceived of a government as intrusive as the one we now have.
Maybe it is a generational thing, in combination with what I was taught by my parents and in school. I want America to be the exceptional country in which I was born and have lived my life. I want that as an inheritance for my children and grandchildren. I am concerned that 2012 will be the year that will determine whether that birthright will exist for the next generation.
Some of the most stirring words describing the American ideal were spoken by David Lilienthal at his 1947 nomination hearing to become the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. He came under fire due in part to his Jewish heritage and in part because of his liberal politics (he was accused of being a communist sympathizer).
His brilliant extemporaneous response to the criticism eloquently sums up my feelings about what America is and should be. He stated:
“Traditionally, democracy has been an affirmative doctrine rather than merely a negative one.
“I believe — and I conceive the Constitution of the United States to rest upon, as does religion — the fundamental proposition of the integrity of the individual and that all government and all private institutions must be designed to promote and protect and defend the integrity and the dignity of the individual. That is the essential meaning of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as it is essentially the meaning of religion.
“Any form of government, therefore, and any other institutions which make men means rather than ends, which exalt the state or any other institutions above the importance of men, which place arbitrary power over men as a fundamental tenet of government, are contrary to that conception, and, therefore, I am deeply opposed to them.”
The Lilienthal Credo should be required reading in every civics class. He concluded by saying, “This I deeply believe.” So do I. I hope Lilienthal’s vision survives 2012.