American Exceptionalism

In his column of May 11, Richard Cohen expressed a colossal misreading of the phrase “American Exceptionalism.” He equated it with narcissism, smugness, and arrogance. This no doubt is the same misunderstanding that prompted President Obama to take an “apology tour” early in his term.
Cohen claimed that Republican leaders base their interpretation of American Exceptionalism on religion, describing them as a “cult” that believes that “America, alone among the nations, is beloved of God.” While that may be the belief of some and the prayer of many, it misses the real basis of American Exceptionalism.
What is exceptional among the nations of the world is the idea of America. Its founders, who could easily have modeled our government on one of the monarchies extant at the time, took a different approach altogether. They established a republic in which the people, through their elected representatives, govern themselves. They adopted a constitution in which the federal government was given a relatively small number of enumerated powers. Within the government, power was divided among three separate branches. Freedom to criticize the government was protected. The right of the people peaceably to assemble was guaranteed. The free practice of religion was protected. The people could amend their constitution. Citizens were protected against unlawful searches and seizures. etc.
While we have not perfectly implemented our founders’ plan, we live in a country that is uniquely free. Ask any recent immigrant. The point of our founding was to prevent the nation’s being governed by the whims of individual leaders. I’m sure that Cohen is familiar with the phrase “a nation of laws, not of men.”
While many of our freedoms exist elsewhere, people generally enjoy only some, but not all of them. In many other nations, freedoms like ours are anathema. It’s not our arrogance that underlies the phrase “American Exceptionalism;” it’s the political genius of our founders.

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