Much has been made of late about America’s past sins, and people across the political spectrum – from the intersectional left to President Trump himself – have pushed a narrative that America is unexceptional, at best simply another player on the world stage, at worst a particularly noxious one. This conversation has many flavors, foreign and domestic, but each permutation has overlooked or understated an important component not just of what American is, but what America can be.
That isn’t to say that America is without fault. The enduring legacy of chattel slavery, the original sin of our country, is a daily reality for millions of Americans. Even as we discuss potential reparations, we’re reminded of crimes against Native Americans and the unjust, xenophobic treatment faced by waves of immigrants coming to our shores.
But American exceptionalism doesn’t mean American perfectionalism, and it isn’t even grounded in tallying up the score of the good versus harm done by America (although the case for good is a strong one).
The point of American exceptionalism is that we have the capacity for change. That we are the first national experiment in human history where a country was founded not on birth, not on identity, but on a shared set of ideals and morals. Yes, these are aspirational, and unfinished today as they were unfinished a decade ago, and a century before that. But we are the first – and remain the only – country that has broken completely and deliberately with the feudalistic mentality of the nation state.
It can be easy to forget, in the day to day realities of life, how transformative and unique this is. There are 191 countries on this earth that have been founded based largely on identity: immutable, stubborn identity. There is one founded on a set of values that supersede any identity.
These values have led us to alter world events for the better. They have led to unprecedented peace and prosperity, with innovative new medicines and technologies that extend and enhance life the world over.
But we must also be clear eyed about our national faults. Too often, it can be easy to overlook them, either because of a fixation with the good, or a simple unwillingness to wrestle with the bad. Particularly among conservatives – it’s right there in the name – a romanticized past seen through rosy glasses can be common. We must reject this, and failing to do so – failing to see evil and sin for what they are – undermines both our politics and our understanding of the world.
As we collectively embark on difficult conversations about potential reparations for slavery along with other sensitive issues of race, we must keep this history in mind. Doing so doesn’t require a wholesale rejection of our nation’s founding premise, imperfect as its execution has always been.
There is no finer defense of American exceptionalism than Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for his brother Bobby, after he was assassinated in 1968.
In a decade, the United States lost a president, our greatest civil rights icon, and a potential president. These were dark days, not only for our national discourse and certainly for race relations, but for the very ideals that America purports to champion.
In a spirit that all-too-many modern pundits seemed to have dispensed with, Kennedy the younger reminds us of what sets America apart: that it is the work of our own hands, matched to reason and dignity, that will decide our fate. There is enormous power in that, and even in our modern era, only one country where this truism is written into our DNA.
And in that DNA is also written a capacity to evolve, adapt, and improve upon our failings. Exactly because we are a nation founded on values – not on legacy, or kingdom, or fiefdom, or tribe – we are equipped better than any nation on earth to learn and grow from our mistakes.
Many of us, myself included, are blessed to have been born Americans. But the true blessing is that the opportunity to be an American is not circumscribed just to those who were born here. Even as we debate the modern implications of previous injustice, we shouldn’t lose sight of this, or sell short our communal capacity for change.
Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C. and a former Republican congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives.