Is America an exceptional nation?
Absolutely, Heritage Foundation vice president Kim Holmes said this week in a lecture to the Federalist Society’s Rhode Island chapters.
What sets America apart from the rest of the world–what makes her exceptional–is her dedication to three things, according to Holmes: classic liberal tradition, political democracy, and economic freedom.
America, he said, is a “city on a hill” and has “a special role to play in safeguarding freedom in the world.”
America’s classic liberal tradition holds liberty and the protection of individual rights as foundational. “Classic American liberalism rests on the idea that the ultimate end of government is to protect the rights of citizens, even when the federal government is strong and unified,” Holmes argued.
America’s political democracy is unique among other democracies, he continued. Alexis De Tocqueville realized this exceptionalism in 1831 when there were few democracies anywhere. The American democratic ideal is that every individual is equal in the sight of the law regardless of his status in society.
“The idea was not merely the process of democracy, but that equality was essentially political,” Holmes explained.
With such a combination of liberty and democracy, America became a trusted world power in the 20th century. Even after military victories, America used her power to spread democracy to other nations, not exploit them.
These values, Holmes said, “inspired and restrained our behavior and allowed friends, allies, and even neutrals to trust us with power more than they would most other countries.”
But at the turn of the 20th century, the progressive movement brought a new challenge to these ideals by pitting democracy against limited government. Instead of a political democracy, progressives proclaimed a social democracy. And in order to obtain social democracy, the government would step in to “rectify perceived social and economic inequality.”
Conservatives reject this progressive philosophy, however, and play a crucial role in preserving this element of American exceptionalism.
The third mark of American exceptionalism is economic freedom – the right of individuals to own, gain, and dispose of property as they see fit. While eight other countries rank higher in The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, America still retains greater economic freedom than the European social democracies.
In fact, Holmes maintained, America’s economic model “is not only continuing the strain of what makes America different, but is also accounting for a better performance than Europe in income mobility, unemployment, and productivity.”
Today’s challenge is really a disagreement between conservatives and progressives about whether the European model or the American model is best, he said. President Obama’s health care bill was a large step in the direction of the European model. But despite continued questions about the growing role of our government, the American model is far from lost–if only we continue to uphold the principles that made our nation great.
Ultimately this is a battle over what America is. Will America remain exceptional? Or will she reject the ideas and values that have propelled her to this exceptionalism?