Rudy Giuliani thinks President Obama doesn’t love America. That’s not true. Obama surely loves America, though not the actual existing country. He is head-over-heels gaga for a fictional America, a notional America, an enlightened America, America with an asterisk.
This is a great country, potentially, if it ever grows up and learns a few things.
Whenever Obama praises America, especially in foreign lands, he is careful to append caveats that make it clear America should, as he once said in another context, get off its high horse. He doesn’t apologize, exactly, but he makes it clear that his overall image of America is of a morally shrunken, chastened land whose sins render it unfit to exert much authority in the world.
“There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive,” Obama said in France.
We need “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” he said in Egypt, suggesting the US had not previously respected Muslims much, adding that “fear and anger” has “led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals.”
In Prague, he said America has “a moral responsibility to act” on arms control because only the US had “used a nuclear weapon,” as though winning a war that Japan started was shameful.
Obama’s famous view of American exceptionalism — “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” — is curiously qualified: When you ask a mom whether she thinks her baby is cute, you expect to hear, “Of course!” not a reflection on the nature of subjectivity.
Sometimes, though, the automatic response, going with your gut, is the correct one: America really is exceptional. The data prove it. We routinely stand as an outlier in surveys of international attitudes, because we have unique features, and those features make us better than other countries. Somebody has to be the best country on Earth. It happens to be us.
Except it didn’t just happen. We are the oldest democracy, and the succeeding ones — our many imitators around the globe — were far more suspicious of freedom, individual rights and tipping too much of the balance of power to the people rather than an elite class.
America: Heck, yeah.
Place people want to be
One measure by which we know America is exceptional is that Americans say so.
Pace Obama’s blithe assumptions about the UK and Greece, Europeans don’t actually think as highly of their countries as Americans do. A 2013 Gallup survey said 80 percent of Americans think “the US has a unique character that makes it the greatest country.”
A 2006 National Opinion Research survey said Americans were the most patriotic people on Earth. A 2011 Pew survey of Western European attitudes vs. American ones found that the US was the only country among a group including Spain, France, Britain and Germany in which people were more likely than not to say, “Our culture is superior to others’.” Clear majorities disagreed with that view in the other four countries.
America’s vast military spending — more than the next 10 countries combined — also sets us apart, but Americans have fewer qualms about using force than other countries. Or, perhaps, our commander in chief.
If the Obama foreign policy is defined by diffidence and caution and guilt about the history of the US and the West, that isn’t the American attitude. By an 18-point margin, Americans said in an Economist/YouGov poll that it was “inappropriate” for Obama to invoke the Crusades in discussing ISIS. A majority (52 percent) agreed that Islam is more violent than other religions, shunning Obama’s oft-stated view that “no religion is responsible for violence.” Support for military action against ISIS is at 78 percent in a CNN/ORC poll, and even support for ground troops is up to 47 percent.
Is American confidence — some might call it swagger — justified? More people who want to leave their native country want to come here than anywhere else. According to a Gallup estimate in 2013, 138 million citizens of other countries want to move to the US. That makes us No. 1 by a huge margin (more than three to one over the UK).
If word has gotten around that the streets are paved with gold — the US still enjoys the largest per-capita GDP of any major country — you can thank the Capitalism Improvement Co.
Americans are simply far more skeptical than others of the idea that the laws of the marketplace are to be feared. In a 2005-2008 World Values Survey of 14 nations, Americans under 30 were the least likely to agree that governments should make incomes more equal and by far the least likely to agree that taxing the rich to give to the poor was “an essential characteristic of democracy.”
America even came in fifth from the bottom in saying income inequality was “too large” even though America is the place where income inequality is most obvious — because our relative lack of constraints on success means we have the most colossal titans of wealth.
Americans nearly lead the world (second only to Venezuela) in rejecting the idea that success is determined by forces outside your control: 57 percent of us say that isn’t true.
Gotta have faith
Religion is a major marker of American exceptionalism. Though liberals would have us believe that Christianity in the US is on the same doomed trajectory as in Europe (where empty churches are being turned into bars and discos), a Pew survey last year said “there is little sign of a consistent generation gap on these questions.”
What questions? For instance, 73 percent of US adults believe that Jesus was born to a virgin and 74 percent that an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds. Even among adults with postgraduate degrees, 53 percent agree that Jesus was born to a virgin.
The human tendency is to place their faith in something; your atheist friends may scoff at the Bible, but observe them long enough and you’ll probably see them with their nose in a horoscope or a feng shui guide or mystical mumbo jumbo like the self-help book “The Secret.” (A 2009 survey showed Democrats were roughly twice as likely as Republicans to believe in ghosts and fortune tellers. About a third of Democrats consider yoga to be a spiritual thing.)
The rich American tradition of credulity is an endless source of hilarity to our more worldly friends in Europe (except in Iceland, where they believe in elves) but religiosity yields benefits. For instance, with religion comes morality — Americans are at or near the top of the charts, for instance, when it comes to charitable giving and saying infidelity is wrong. (Some 84 percent of Americans agree with the latter statement, by far the highest level of any rich country, though surpassed by several highly religious nations such as Turkey and the Philippines).
And, according to the 2014 World Giving Index, the US is the only country in the top 10 in each of three categories measuring charitable giving and tied for the title of “most giving country” on Earth. (The tie is with Myanmar, where there is a strong tradition of giving to Buddhist monks).
So: America is devout and capitalist at the same time. It’s individualist, but also giving. This is an exceptional combination of traits.
Free and defiant
Even more of an outlier is our attachment to guns. To a degree completely unheard of in the rest of the world, Americans keep firearms. Per-capita gun ownership is double that of any other country (Yemen is No. 2).
The gun tradition in America has nothing to do with a right to hunt; it’s rooted in the same skepticism about the efficacy of our ruling class that yields much lower levels of government spending than in Europe. The Second Amendment is derived from the idea that you, the citizen, ultimately have the right to fight back against your government, which cannot take the first step in extinguishing your rights by disarming you.
Nor can government silence you. In virtually any other country on Earth, words can put you in jail, and no, we’re not talking about state secrets or yelling fire in a crowded theater.
I don’t just mean China or Cuba or Myanmar here. Australia, Britain, France, Canada, you name it: If what you say is deemed by the government to be “offensive,” you’re in big trouble.
In Australia, “sedition” is a criminal offense. In 2011 in France, nearly 300 people were convicted of the crime of “insulting” others, and that number will be far higher this year, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
In 2006 in Austria, quack historian David Irving spent a year in prison in Austria for denying the Holocaust. Three years ago in Wales, a 21-year-old college student who drunk-tweeted offensive remarks about a soccer player spent a month in prison.
Two years ago, a Christian activist arriving in Canada who was expected to deliver a speech offensive to gays was instead stopped at the airport for three hours so his luggage could be searched to determine whether he violated “hate propaganda” laws. Then he was arrested for distributing anti-gay pamphlets on a campus where he was hit with a charge of “mischief.”
“We are a welcoming campus,” the university president proclaimed as the activist, Peter LaBarbera, was being welcomed into a pair of handcuffs, then welcomed into a police car which transported him to a welcoming jail cell.
America is exceptional: We’re pretty much alone in thinking that “I’m offended” doesn’t mean “So you go to jail.”
What makes us unique
American exceptionalism is, then, tied up with unfettered speech that might offend. It’s linked to free-market economics. It’s blase about income inequality. It clings to guns and religion.
Could there be a reason why Obama has seemed equivocal about the concept?
By a margin of 46 to 11, more right-wing conservatives than left-wing liberals agree that the US is the best country, according to last year’s Pew survey. In another survey, when Americans were asked to guess whether American exceptionalism was a belief of Presidents Clinton, Reagan, George W. Bush and Obama, the latter came in last, by a large margin.
Even when Obama claims to support American exceptionalism, he can’t do so without a “but.”
At West Point last year he said, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”
That’s a strangely twisted definition: We’re only special if we stop acting as if we think we’re special?
Americans are, of course, far more skeptical of the idea that our actions must receive the blessing of international bodies. In a 2011 Pew Survey, only 45 percent of Americans said we should get UN approval before using military force. In France, Britain, Germany and Spain that number was 66 percent to 76 percent.
The reality of American exceptionalism is that it tells a story of a country very much at odds with the fantasy version preferred by Obama and other liberals, a sort of continental campus where “hate speech” is carefully controlled, everyone thinks income inequality is a big deal, government is respected or even beloved, the churches are empty and no one owns a gun.
Much to Obama’s chagrin, Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea that we’re all enrolled at the United States of Oberlin. They love America as it is.