Since 2005, I've been publishing WatchingAmerica.com, a website that translates news and views about the USA and American policy from all over the world. There may be no better site in the world to see the global impact of American policies, the true state of anti-Americanism and even how foreign citizens would vote in American elections if they had the chance.
During the Bush years, when the USA was regarded by people everywhere as more alien than it had ever been, most non-American media regarded the idea of American exceptionalism as extremely arrogant and indicative of a complete lack of self-awareness.
Nevertheless, there is something fundamentally pro-American about much of the apparently anti-American content published in foreign newspapers. Many polemics against U.S. policy do no more than hold the U.S. to standards that they admit, sometimes implicitly, are American. In this way, criticisms of America appeal to, and approve of, American ideals.
Nevertheless, most foreign articles that broach the topics of freedom and the USA mistakenly assume that American freedom is qualitatively the same thing as freedom elsewhere. They assume that whereas the USA may be more explicit about ideas of freedom, and may to some even symbolize individual liberty, American liberty is not philosophically different from liberty anywhere else. How many meanings can "liberty" have, after all? This is a reasonable assumption for at least two reasons. 1) Our previous experience and knowledge invariably determine what we can perceive, and 2) American behavior on the world stage has for a long time spectacularly failed to manifest the American ideal of liberty. Often, indeed, it has seemed to be decidedly at odds with it.
But the American concept of liberty is qualitatively different from non-American conceptions. The difference rests on an idea of government that is almost entirely absent in political discourse elsewhere. Americans realize that government is an ontologically different entity from any other. They realize that government is inherently dangerous because it is the only social or cultural entity that has a monopoly of force. It is so obvious to Americans that it is not often said. Sometimes Americans do not even know that they know it.
To the rest of the world, government only has the potential to become dangerous by virtue of what it does, but it is not dangerous by virtue simply of what it is. In other words, outside the U.S., government may earn the people's trust or distrust, but it is not inherently untrustworthy. Related to this difference is the fact that outside the U.S., freedom is regarded as a social good that may be protected by government and "balanced" with other social goods, whereas as in the U.S., by contrast, individual freedoms must be protected from government, precisely because of that monopoly of force. America's Constitution was written accordingly.
The American conception of liberty as preceding politics (and government) rather than being an issue or social good within the domain of politics, is then, exceptionally American. This conception, and its Constitutional protection, are the true basis of American exceptionalism. Many foreigners, knowing no better, assume American exceptionalism to be some arrogant assumption of inherent moral superiority, and they are wrong.
In talking about what makes America exceptional, we are talking about its very identity: after all, when a person describes himself, he refers to the things that set him apart from others. And what is true for people is true for nations.
America has a window, possibly brief relative to the grand arc of its history, in which it must make a choice between remembering its identity and carrying on passively as elites with vested interests dilute its birthright and pull it into an overcrowded world of socially democratic kleptocracies. Once they have finally succeeded, the Constitution will be a historical curiosity -- and the rights that it used to protect will be worth less than the paper it's written on.
Many outside these shores look down at us ignorant Americans -- with our easy blundering into war and our naivete about the problems we shall both cause and encounter in so doing; with our primitive religiosity and fearful prudishness that signify a lack of cultural sophistication, with an education system that turns out graduates that cannot use apostrophes, and with an obesity epidemic so huge that only a nation of greedy, lazy or stupid people could suffer it (to name but a few examples).
And who can blame them for thinking these things? We have let them all happen.
But America can do better because America is better.
It is in this land that a people who feel that something is not quite right are educating themselves about some truly fundamental things -- Austrian economics, central banking, sound money, the relationship between the state and the financial sector, philosophy of government, individual sovereignty, the gap between laws passed today and the highest law passed in 1776, the military-industrial complex, the incompatibility between supranational institutions and democracy, and so on.
In other words, unknowledgeable though many of us are, American politics is about what matters -- philosophical questions of power and liberty that most profoundly and generally affect our lives. We don't just ask how government should do something: we ask whether government should be permitted to do something at all. And we should keep it up and we should give ourselves credit for that.
Elsewhere, people march to make their governments force other people to give them money or benefits, and politicians argue over whether some social metric should be increased a bit or reduced a bit, whether program x should get a few percent more money or a few percent less -- not whether the program should exist or they even should be manipulating the metric at all.
Of course, it is true that the USA is "just a country" -- as is every other.
But then we get to choose.
We can say, "Therefore, we are not exceptional," and if we believe that, we will demand nothing of ourselves or our politicians that could prove us wrong. And the America that was meant to be will cease to be.
But that would not be truth: it would just be a choice, because we could choose differently: we could say, "We are indeed just a nation -- and we've gone badly off the rails. But America had something unique to offer its citizens and the world, and it is exceptional, so we are going to fight to get it back."
Follow Robin Koerner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rkoerner