clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

American exceptionalism is earned

What makes America great is not what we have, but what we do

A woman wears a mask while walking past an American flag painted on a wall during the coronavirus outbreak in San Francisco, Monday, Nov. 16, 2020.
Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

By many measures, pride in this nation is at a record low. A general lack of enthusiasm about the nation’s past and present is palpable. But what polls cannot predict and pundits cannot express is the possibility of a brighter future — one that America surely can produce, but one that requires work to create.

A view of “entitled America” — the belief that the U.S. is inherently better than other countries — may not be as helpful in moving forward as a belief in an “earned America.” What makes America great is not what we have, but what we do. The ability to create a better America for future generations is born of individual responsibility and collective opportunity.

This comes on the heels of concerning data. The number of Americans who view the United States as “exceptional” is declining. A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute confirms this: For the first time since 2011, when the institute began its surveys, a majority of Americans disagreed with the statement “God has granted America a special role in human history.”

This country is not perfect. The events of the past several months have made that clear. In the midst of a pandemic that has claimed nearly 250,000 U.S. lives, some Americans would rather score political points and criticize opponents than unite around solutions that can save lives. Social unrest has awoken many to injustices in the country’s historical practices and modern systems. Political divides have been exacerbated by the election cycle, and divisive rhetoric has seemed to do nothing but spread in the two weeks following election night.

The America we long to be — a shining city on a hill, a model for the world — is not only defined by the rights given to individuals, but the way individuals use those rights. It requires trust in institutions and processes. It demands respect for others — even when they might be opponents. And it expects to put the country over self, even in the face of individual defeat.

Evidence of that American spirit has cropped up in recent weeks. In the race for Utah’s next governor, Chris Peterson and Spencer Cox released a pair of PSA videos that showed civility and respect for each other. Their message to Utah voters was that they chose to disagree and debate without hating each other.

In Utah’s race for the 4th Congressional District seat, Burgess Owens defeated incumbent Ben McAdams in a tight race that took nearly two weeks to call. Throughout the campaign, operatives on both sides used negative campaigning and honed in on the candidates’ differences. But when the outcome became clear, McAdams chose to help Owens’ team through the transition.

“I love the fact that both the great-grandson of a slave and the son of a single mother elementary school teacher can run for office and serve,” McAdams said in a statement Monday night, respectfully conceding the race to Owens.

And a new report shows America is exceptional in that it consistently ranks as the top nation in charitable giving. Utah was ranked by Wallethub as the top state in that regard. Utahns choose to volunteer more, donate more of their income and donate more time than other Americans per capita.

What’s clear is American exceptionalism springs from the decision of millions of people to choose principle over pride. As the country continues to fight a deadly virus and feel the repercussions of a combative election, each American needs to contemplate those decisions. Each of us can be exceptional, but it will take some sacrifice of conveniences or personal gain to do so.

That’s the American way. That’s what makes this country exceptional.