America suffered massive casualties in the 9/11 attacks 10 years ago: Thousands perished, families were splintered, and hearts were shattered. But was American exceptionalism—the notion that America’s commitment to liberty gives it a unique resistance to the forces of statism—among the casualties?
Although the vast expansion of the security state makes it seem like it was, the answer remains “No.”
America’s critics see American exceptionalism as a dangerous form of nationalism that legitimizes bellicosity abroad and swagger at home by suggesting that America has a God-given mission—a manifest destiny—to remake the world in its own image. But this is a perversion—which, unfortunately, President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 foreign policy agenda of spreading democracy by the sword did nothing to dispel.
However, that is not how Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher who first described America as “exceptional” in 1830, saw it. He thought Americans took justified pride in their new nation. Rejecting European feudalism and monarchy, they had consciously crafted a republic based on the ideals of liberty, equality, individualism, and laissez-faire. Its project to keep tyranny at bay and create maximum political space for individual self-determination had, in Tocqueville’s view, produced a different “species” whose success might become an example to the world.
Not everyone, of course, buys the idea that America succeeded in creating a new species immune to the wonders of Big Government.
After all, right from America’s inception, whites used the state’s muscle to perpetuate slavery. Nor did the much-ballyhooed self- reliance of Americans withstand the test of the Great Depression, when FDR erected the architecture for government planning, regulation, and the welfare state. Over time, Americans have become every bit as fond of entitlement programs as Europeans. Even more ironically, the denizens of the Sweet Land of Liberty seem even less favorably disposed to free trade and open immigration than folks in less free countries. More to the point, Americans were perturbingly unperturbed by the massive abrogations of civil liberties following 9/11. Only 34 percent believe that the Patriot Act, which gives the government sweeping powers to snoop and spy in order to fight terrorism, goes too far.
All this seems more than enough reason to banish forever talk about American exceptionalism. That, however, would be neither right nor fair.
Very often the biggest triumphs of ideals are invisible. They lie not in what they prevail against, but what they prevent from coming into existence. For example, Americans might quarrel about prayers in public schools, but the separation of church and state is so thoroughly embedded in the American consciousness that neither an established church nor mandatory secularism (à la France’s burqa ban) are conceivable in this country. Nor could one ever imagine Americans worshiping the symbols and trappings of state power, as the British do with their king and queen.
But what is truly exceptional about America—especially to non-natives like me—is the remarkable absence of class consciousness. This expresses itself culturally in a thousand ways: in the downplaying of differences of wealth and status in American attire; in the avoidance of honorifics to denote station or seniority; in the informality of manners that makes using the wrong dinner fork a correctable faux pas, not a sign of an immutable lack of breeding.
This innate egalitarianism of Americans has major consequences for liberty. While there are occasional outbreaks of class warfare, to be sure, there are no political parties seeking to use state power to protect class privilege—as the Tory Party historically did for the aristocracy in England and socialist parties do for the working classes everywhere.
Indeed, when the pendulum swings too far toward statism, America’s commitment to freedom automatically generates pushback. The courts repudiated much of FDR’s grand experiments in economic intervention, such as the National Recovery Administration. Likewise, the Tea Party, whose express mission is to fight economic statism, has gained major traction in recent years. Meanwhile, Ron Paul, a non-mainstream candidate whose pro-civil liberties, anti-war message constitutes an open rebellion against security statism, has gained a powerful cross-political following. And a whole slew of nonprofits across the political spectrum, such as the ACLU on the left and libertarian think tanks on the right, have sprung into action, often joining hands, to stand up to the advancing government juggernaut.
All of them have two uniquely American weapons to advance their cause: First, a rich, homegrown vocabulary of freedom—phrases such as “Those who give up liberty for security deserve neither” and “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”—that give them instant moral high ground against statist arguments.
Second, Americans widely regard individual liberty as an end in itself. Hence it is possible to make a principled rather than a prudential case for it without getting laughed out of court, something that is virtually impossible in other countries that lack an ideology of liberty and therefore regard liberty as just one among many values. Indeed, when liberty lovers have to prove the practical utility of, say, protecting due process rights or the right of citizens to bear arms when an allegedly mortal terrorist threat looms, they have not a fighting chance of winning.
That they do here in America is great testimony to the strength of American exceptionalism, even when liberty does not ultimately prevail. The 9/11 hijackers wounded this great American tradition—but not fatally. Signs of a strong recovery are everywhere.
Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia is a columnist at The Daily, where this column originally appeared.