Is America exceptional? Yes we are, but not for the reasons most people believe.
We are not exceptional because of our strength in the 1950’s and 1960’s. We did accomplish great things, but we developed our commanding economic lead because the rest of the developed world had bombed itself into ruins in World War II, killing tens of millions of people who otherwise could have been creative, hardworking machinists, scientists, laborers, professors and innovators. Then large swaths of the developed world locked itself into socialism and communism, economic and political systems that slowed development and innovation. It is unfair, and potentially disingenuous, to focus on our greatness from the end of World War II through the 1960’s – and maybe even later – and compare it to today. Of course we were the greatest nation. Nearly the entire developed world had to rebuild itself while we focused on expanding our scientific and industrial achievements. Such comparisons may be politically expediant but do nothing to move us closer to the thoughtful policies we need to move our nation forward.
What makes other nations exceptional is that they overcame all these deficiencies – years or decades of rebuilding – to challenge us economically. Remember when Germany was the next big thing to challenge America? Remember when Japan was? Every night, the evening news was full of stories of our economic decline (which probably should have focused more on their economic recovery). We have a penchant for hand-wringing, which is an enormous competitive strength for America. While the rest of the world caught up to us – perhaps by building on the great advances we made – we have repeatedly overcome these challenges. That is the truly exceptional thing about America. We will argue and fight and disagree, but in the final analysis, we can, and always have, risen to the challenges when external forces threaten us militarily or economically.
Everyone is concerned about the rise of China. We probably should be concerned about this, but even if we shouldn’t, the worry will help sharpen and improve us, and hopefully motivate us into higher levels of greatness. Sputnik did this. The economic rise of Japan and Germany did as well. We are great because we persist and never give up; we can constantly make ourselves uncomfortable enough to rise to challenges, no matter how comfortable we as a nation should feel given our wealth, stability and infrastructure. That is our greatness, our pioneer spirit re-born. We are great not because of what we have done, but because we persist and never give up, which allows us to continue to do great things.