BOGUE: A lone exception

America’s limited government makes it an exceptionally great nation

Is America exceptional? Never has the answer to this question been more relevant. With China gaining power and foreign policy theorists foretelling the end of global hegemony and the emergence of multiple poles of power, it seems as though the United States no longer has any grounds upon which to claim that we are in any way exceptional when compared to our peer nations. Indeed, we are told that cosmopolitan, sophisticated people would never subscribe to the jingoistic view that America is “the best.” That’s the jargon of the blind patriot.

You rarely hear an intelligent case for American exceptionalism. But that doesn’t mean an argument for exceptionalism doesn’t exist. The U.S. remains the most extraordinary nation in the world. Take our economy, which still dwarfs China’s; our military, which has been responsible for the end of two world wars and continues to act as the most powerful tool of deterrence in the arsenal of peace-seeking nations; our institutions of higher education; our research output; and the list goes on. But these are ephemeral and contingent qualities. Our economy will not always be the largest, and at times our military commits travesties. On what, then, do we base our claim for exceptionalism?

It’s our government: the skeleton, the undergirding of our nation. Now, we should be quick to reject the common form of this argument, which essentially spouts out words like “liberty” and “democracy” and stops there. The U.S. is certainly not the only democratic nation in the world — according to The Economist, almost half the world’s population lives in a democratic nation. But we do ourselves a disservice if we categorize our nation as merely democratic; our Founders fought expressly to curb the dangers of democratic rule, especially the tyrannical will of the majority. We were the first nation in the world to implement a constitution based upon a commitment to natural rights, making the will of the people subservient to the individual’s fundamental liberties. Our government is perpetually constrained by the limits established at the birth of our nation. A range of human expression in speech, religion, and political association is safeguarded from government intrusion. Such ironclad protections are unique to the U.S.

The commitment of our nation to the highest ideals of human liberty is realized in the institution of the Supreme Court. Many nations have high courts, and a select few of these high courts enjoy powers similar to our Supreme Court. However, no other court in the world enjoys the influence of the U.S. Supreme Court. As the third co-equal branch of our government, it functions as the firmest check on tyrannical rule that human ingenuity has ever conceived. Even in our era — marked as it is by cynicism, deep pragmatism, and a disdain for idealism — the Supreme Court couches its decisions in the language of fundamental rights and liberties. And even in an era of bitter partisanship, it remains the most nonpartisan branch of government. Plenty of private organizations and non-profits exist around the world to safeguard and advocate for greater civil liberties; few governments do so on behalf of their people. This quality about our country is exceptional.

But even the exquisite nature of our federal government would not merit the strong claim of “exceptionalism.” For that, we must turn to the diffusion of power among the states: federalism. Our government is set up with a deep respect for the benefits of a decentralization of power. The power of local and state governments does not merely make our nation more responsive to the needs of its diverse citizenry. It also fosters innovation. The 50 states are 50 laboratories of innovation, 50 opportunities for various policies to prove their merits. In a time of federal gridlock, this quality of our nation has proven especially valuable: states are coming up with creative ways to solve problems traditionally left to the federal government. Take, for example, Chicago’s infrastructure bank, which partners private funds with public money to create the capital necessary to repair ailing roads and bridges.

Where our constitutional ideals erect stiff walls against breaches of federal power, our decentralized structure fosters a culture of constant re-invention. The power of government is truly in the hands of the people. We can decry money in politics, powerful lobbies and the party system all day, but we cannot deny that the American voter holds in his hands the capability to overthrow the present government and institute a new one. Our country has survived periods of tumultuous social change, multiple wars, and debilitating economic crises — and our resilience can be attributed to our ability to change and adapt to new circumstances. This can only occur in a nation whose government is responsive enough to shape itself to the will of the people, yet limited enough to know when problems are best solved extra-governmentally.

The case for American exceptionalism is not dead. We do not need to pretend the U.S. is perfect to believe it is exceptional amongst its peers. Our history is littered with our sins: slavery, racism, sexism, imperialism. We should not conflate believing in American exceptionalism with believing that America can bully other nations, spend outside its means, destroy the environment or justify any intervention abroad. Indeed, believing we are exceptional requires keeping a critical eye on the ways in which we fall short of this ideal. However, at the end of the day, if you believe America is not exceptional, you have it within your power to make it so. Our nation is a product of the efforts of its citizens. What are you doing to make it better?

Russell Bogue is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

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