America is Exceptional, even if Americans Are Not
Our history isn’t all happy. Our country’s best traits aren’t all intentional. But the end result is special.
American Exceptionalism is the idea that the U.S.A. is special in the world. We’ve changed the world with our liberty, equality before the law, individual responsibility, republicanism, and laissez-faire economics. I’ll argue that’s mostly true, but not because we’re heros and saints. God didn’t create a special breed of `Mericans. All the pivotal people and moments were helped by historical accident.
It means we can recognize America’s greatness without blinding ourselves to its failings. And it means anybody, from anywhere can help make America great.
I’ve argued elsewhere that modern America-the-continent started with an apocalypse. The indigenous empires and tribes collapsed under wave after wave of disease. Hellish work camps were built in its wake, in the most fertile zones, powered by the surviving natives and masses of kidnapped Africans. Dan Carlin’s recent Hardcore History episode about this era paints a clear and sobering picture. The European overlords recognized this horror, but were making too much money to stop. Their (super racist, Medieval) attitude was pity for the savages and pity for themselves having to live among savages.
It was in this context that the 13 future-U.S. colonies were founded. The southern British colonies’ geography and climate allowed the same model based on Europeans exploiting Native Americans and/or Africans found throughout most of America. But the land and sparse pre-existing population in the northern British colonies could not support this exploitative model. Instead, a European settler society was born – obsessed with freedom and racial purity, seemingly in response to the bondage and racial mixing happening in the rest of America.
Today, we still celebrate the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, etc. that helped motivate the American and French revolutions and that underpin the greatness of America today. Unfortunately, the same authors writing about liberty were also developing pseudo-scientific race-based justifications for why those ideals could not apply to everybody. Democracy was for a “civilized” in-group, not for the “un-civilized” out-group.
Already at its founding, the U.S. understood itself to be a diverse nation of immigrants. But the diversity of early (free) immigrants was limited to a few countries in Northern and Western Europe. Eventually, Southern and Eastern Europeans were accepted, but that was it. For the 350 years of colonial and U.S. history until 1965, immigration from Asia and Africa, 80 percent of the world population, was mostly forbidden. Only European immigrants were welcomed.
However, two sources of non-European diversity were always baked into the United States. Indigenous tribes obvously lived on U.S. territory before Europeans arrived, and many inhabitants of Mexico were (and are) fully or partly indigenous. Regulating immigration between the U.S. and Mexico has never been fully possible. In addition, African slaves and their descendants have always made up 10 to 20 percent of the U.S. population.
The society of Enlightenment ideals established in the U.S. was – and is – a great system for the people it includes.1 People were in charge of the government, not vice versa. Power was spread out, so nobody could become a king or dictator. People could try their luck at whatever and worship as they wanted. The place thrived, creating art, science, technology, culture, business, and more. Unfortunately, as we’ve said, that freedom’s coverage was pretty narrow at first: land-owning men descended from Europeans.
Fortunately, our government and its power to control Americans’ lives is weak by design. This makes it harder for elite groups to hold on to power. A constant feature of U.S. history since its start has been a continual loss of elites’ grip on power. With each loss of power, American freedom has been extended to a larger group. Poorer White men with no land were allowed to vote. Enslaving people was outlawed. The definition of White was expanded to include “lesser” Europeans like the Italians and Irish. Women gained full citizenship rights.
Finally, in the 1960s, government support for maintaining a monoracial White America collapsed. Race-based discrimination was made illegal and immigration from Asia and Africa was allowed. The results have been dramatic.
African Americans began taking their rightful place in mainstream society. All-White-by-design towns and neighborhoods in the Northern U.S. integrated. Unprecedented migration (legal and illegal) from Mexico and the rest of Latin America started in the 1990s, growing our population enormously. Immigration from Asia and Africa has built slowly from a tiny base, since most visas are awarded to family members. But since the mid-2000s, Asians account for over a third of new immigrant arrivals. Immigration from Africa is growing quickly too, further blurring the link between dark skin and culture as James Baldwin predicted in 1965. Since 2012, less than half of American-born babies are White.
In some ways, this change in the face of America since 1965 is unprecedented. Many White Americans feel a bewildering loss of control, and there is backlash. But in other ways, it’s a continuation of America’s modus operandi. Once more, the group that was in control, lost it. British immigrants gave way to Germans, who gave way to Italians, who gave way to Irish. Each new group was treated with suspicion and blamed for stealing jobs. Southern slave holders lost control. Men’s wives gained the vote and got a job and gained the ability to control their own fertility. Each time, social norms are massaged, and a new coalition forms to wield power.
Perhaps most importantly, America’s new power centers cannot alter what makes America special, and they wouldn’t want to. America’s secret sauce is decentralization of power and constitutional limits on government power. New Americans benefit from these traits as much as everybody else, and don’t have the power to change them either. As proof, government spending and average tax rates have barely changed since 1950.
The United States is far from perfect, and always will be. But at the end of the day, it still attracts over a million new immigrants per year, while only a few thousand people renounce U.S. citizenship. Something is going right.
Open in new tab. Billy Joel - We Didn’t Start the Fire
If there was ever a special breed of ‘Mericans, it was the Founding Fathers. The smoothness with which the U.S. won a war for independence and slid straight into being a republic is nothing short of miraculous. Love them or hate them, what they built has stood the test of time. ↩