American Exceptionalism: Point/Counter-Point (Article/Video)


Greg Smith and Grace DeKoker

Is America truly exceptional? That is the question we seek to answer in this issue’s installation of Point-Counter point. The LION’s Managing Editor Greg Smith faces off against LION’s Editor-in-Chief Grace DeKoker on how great America really is. You can also watch a video version of this debate located below. Or, you can watch the video in a new tab on LTTV’s Youtube account.

The best country on Earth

by Greg Smith

America is, and always has been, the best country on the face of the earth. No country is as free and as rich as America is, and no other country has done more to propagate its blessings throughout the world. Although it’s not perfect, it is by far, as Abraham Lincoln once said, the “last best hope of earth.”

It’s important to recognize what America does and has done for the rest of the world. Not that its influence on the world has been perfect, but no other country’s influence on the world around it has been better. Here’s why.

The last century saw bloodshed beyond the scope that the world had ever seen before. More people died at the hands of evil people than had died in all the world’s history before 1900. It was the military intervention of America that decisively won both world wars and stopped the Holocaust. America stopped the Soviet Union from spreading its communist, totalitarian, and murderous evils throughout the world. America is the most powerful force fighting terror and has been for the last two decades. No other country could have done what America did in the past, and no one can provide the kind of world leadership America provides today. Our geopolitical enemies such as Russia, China, and Iran would love to see us sit in the backseat because we are all that stands between them and immense power and influence to form their geographical spheres of influence and the world, for that matter, according to their wills.

When America makes a foreign policy mistake, it is because it does not take a stand for what is right. In 2015, America (i.e. President Obama, without approval of any treaty by the U.S. Senate) entered into a deal with Iran. The deal gave Iran about $150 billion, only in exchange for slowing its nuclear program by a decade at most. The Iranian is an open terror sponsor whose explicit goal is to eradicate Israel, which is the most democratic country in the Middle East. This agreement, which is strangely similar to the agreement Neville Chamberlin entered into with Nazi Germany in 1938, could have resulted in disaster in the region and world. Thankfully, America recently withdrew from the agreement, taking a stand for democracy, human rights, and global stability and security. A nuclear Iran is something that no one else, and scary few in America, would be willing to prevent.

America was exceptional from its founding. No other country had ever before been founded upon the notion that people had certain freedoms that were given by God before the state had even existed. The people did not exist to serve the state, but the state existed to serve the people and protect their individual rights. Beyond that role, the state had little reason for existing, so although bad individuals will always try to usurp the power of the state for their own ends, the system America’s founders put in place has always foiled those bad actors and kept the structure intact for posterity.

The simple idea that reordered the importance of the state and the individual eventually allowed for limitless economic, social, and ideological potential to be realized because without governments encroaching on productive and meaningful individual activities, a society becomes an environment for the best of humanity to emerge.

What makes America great is also the classical liberalism it embraces. Classical liberalism is not something that is natural. It is not based on preference towards or against any particular gender or racial group. It’s the idea that all people are capable of virtue, but also evil, regardless of their background and should be evaluated as individuals.

The biggest problem with America today is that people have lost gratitude and appreciation for these values. People are all too often complacent and ignorant. Their complacency comes from ignorance of how much worse off they and the world could be without America. They think they see a problem and an easy fix, but all too often that fix involves tearing town the system or parts of it that protect individual freedoms.

An example of this is the unofficial reorganization of the powers of government between the branches. The executive and the judiciary gain more and more power to make sweeping decisions that actually impact Americans’ day-to-day lives. Many do not object to this development, where the least democratic branches become most powerful, because they like the decisions being made. But before we ever decide to change something about our society, we should first ask why things were this way before, and at what cost and for what gain are we taking action.

The structure to our public life and discourse also contribute to America’s greatness. We enjoy freedom in our private and public lives because the basis of the American miracle is the realization that total ideological homogeneity and coercion into action determined by an authority is not necessary to create a virtuous society with a somewhat common culture.

This sort of “live and let live mentality” put into practice works if a few conditions are met. The first is that when given choices between good and evil, people will generally choose what is good if those surrounding them do the same. In the Declaration of Independence, the phrase “pursuit of happiness” does not mean whatever is expedient and whatever makes us feel good now. Thomas Jefferson, a student of history’s great minds, knew happiness as Aristotle knew it, which is the pursuit of what is good and meaningful. Psychologist Jordan Peterson points out that what is meaningful is usually, if not always, the opposite of what is expedient, so expedience is the opposite of happiness.

America’s freedoms are designed to let people pursue what is good freely, as God created us to do, except the government adds the stipulation that pursuing what is bad, should one choose to do so, will be punished if it harms others. And beyond that, all that the American system needs is to stay in place.

We can debate and disagree without destroying our system. That destruction happens by losing sight of what is important and what unites us. But unfortunately, the public discourse now centers on, from the left and from the right, why this system does not work. Populism (again, on both sides of the aisle) has its appeal because it deflects the blame for people’s problems onto society and institutions. People become ungrateful for what they have, and the next thing they know, it’s all gone.

Not quite there

by Grace DeKoker

I am grateful to live in America. Not many other countries would grant me the opportunities that America does, like being able to vote on the leaders of the country, nor would I be able to pursue my dreams like I can here, like getting an education so I can become anything I want to be. It is a nation preaching freedom, which includes freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly. You can’t be punished for criticizing the government—it is encouraged to voice one’s political views, to make your voice heard for the sake of making our country better. That is why I have to make my voice heard; I love America, yes, but I love it so much that I simply cannot be happy with where we are at as a nation.

America doesn’t rank very well on the world stage. We are seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, and 16th in corruption. We are within the top 10 most racist countries, top 20 for gun-violence per capita, and one of the only countries that does not offer paid maternity leave. We lead the world in at least two categories though, number of incarcerated citizens per capita, and defense spending. Thirty four percent of all billionaires are American, yet the U.S. poverty level is the highest in the developed world.

What is happening? What is to blame for these frightening statistics?

Bipartisanship. At least partially- the division of the United States into two wildly different political parties leaves our nation divided on nearly every major issue, and unless the three branches of government all have a majority of the same party, it is unlikely much change can happen. George Washington’s Farewell Address advised against a party system, for fear that it would divide the country. His prediction was unfortunately correct, as people are compelled to declare themselves Democrat or Republican, even if they only agree on a few main goals of the party. Politicians can end up falling into the party that would advance their own agenda, versus what may be best for the country or for a majority of citizens. Voters will end up circling a party on their ballots, not a candidate, because in the end, they want the people in power to help them individually, not the country as a whole. Such a fact makes me truly sad, and it hurts to see my country become so divisive.

Politicians have become so self-serving to their agenda that they often look past basic morality for the sake of getting what they want. The most recent example is the Brett Kavanaugh hearings; Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward, told her story not for attention, but because she felt it was important enough to risk the ridicule and mockery she would receive. Despite her testimony, the Senate voted 50-48 to appoint him to a life-long position on the Supreme Court. He could be affecting decisions made on abortion, gun control, and presidential control of agencies.

America was founded on strong principles: freedom, democracy, equality. The founding fathers’ ideas of such principles were certainly skewed for the era; I’m not saying they were flawless people. But when such ideals are put into a modern lens, the results are still disappointing. Yes, children have the opportunity to get an education- but without gun laws, they risk being shot and killed sitting at their desk. Yes, laws prevent workplace discrimination, but the wage gap between men and women is still twenty two cents. Yes, we live in one of the wealthiest countries, but over 40 percent of college graduates have not paid their loans off by the time they are 35. Yes, America is land of the free, but not for the immigrant children locked in cages, not for the sexual assault victims’ whose stories fall on deaf ears, not for the women and minorities who still are treated inequitably.

I think America can be exceptional. I think if we sort out corruption in our government, listen to the complaints from our citizens, and focus on upholding the same values our country was founded on, real progress can and will be made. The U.S. is surviving, we’re doing alright- but why settle for mediocrity? Why not strive for exceptionalism? With the right people in power, and a strong backing of American citizens, we have made strides before. We can do it again.