George Will’s ill-defined American exceptionalism
Surely George F. Will must have more to justify the theory of American exceptionalism than the observations of a French tourist (Alexis de Tocqueville) that America is unique because it was “ born free— free of a feudal past, free from an entrenched aristocracy and established religion” [“Congress’s repair job,” op-ed, Jan. 16]. How does Mr. Will justify this in light of the fact that America was born with millions in slavery, with only white men with property allowed to vote or hold office, and with the aristocracy of electors and state legislators electing the president and the Senate, respectively?
Our birth does not make us exceptional. Our aspirations do— aspirations that we can continue to improve the present society through future progress, something the Founders surely envisaged, since they were demonstrably aware of America’s failings, including slavery. What is exceptional is that we survived the Civil War, that we freed the slaves and 100 years later gave that freedom meaning through civil rights laws; that 150 years after the Revolution we finally gave women the vote. What is exceptional is not defending the status quo but constantly challenging it— something the American exceptionalists abhor.
Progressives among us who, as Mr. Will rightly says, find American exceptionalism obnoxious do so because we see it used as an excuse to defend every American action from invading Iraq to building a wall around the borders as “right” because we are Americans. To me, exceptionalism is invoked to mean that America, just because it is America, is not subject to the forces that make nations rise and fall. This is folly.