American exceptionalism is, among other things, the result of a difficult rigor: the use of individual initiative as the engine of development within a society that strives to ensure individual freedom through the rule of law. Over time a society like this will become great. This is how—despite all our flagrant shortcomings and self-betrayals—America evolved into an exceptional nation.Steele's link between this "difficult rigor," essentially the American character, and our own exceptional standing as a global leader is aptly made and far too often not discussed or even considered by many. Our own commitments to hard-work, sacrifice, innovativeness and ingenuity, individuality, and, amongst other attributes, the rule of law, have played an enormous role in developing the United States as a singularly powerful and desirable (in the terms of other people and nations wanting to be like us or join us) nation. However, many in America, particularly on the left, do not agree with these values and especially our exceptionalism. Steele outlines how America's imperfect history has become, for some, a cloak of repulsiveness over America's current successes and the values that helped us achieve them.
At home the values that made us exceptional have been smeared with derision. Individual initiative and individual responsibility—the very engines of our exceptionalism—now carry a stigma of hypocrisy. For centuries America made sure that no amount of initiative would lift minorities and women. So in liberal quarters today—where historical shames are made to define the present—these values are seen as little more than the cynical remnants of a bygone era.
So we Americans cannot help but feel some ambivalence toward our singularity in the world—with its draining entanglements abroad, the selfless demands it makes on both our military and our taxpayers, and all the false charges of imperial hubris it incurs. Therefore it is not surprising that America developed a liberalism—a political left—that took issue with our exceptionalism. It is a left that has no more fervent mission than to recast our greatness as the product of racism, imperialism and unbridled capitalism.This self-loathing is bad enough as is. It is never practically or emotionally commendable to look in the mirror and hate what you see - this is why psychologists make quite nice salaries helping individuals understand that their flaws or historical missteps do not obscure their true value. But as so often occurs in individuals, Steele correctly argues that this systematic recasting of American values and exceptionalism as morally defunct has lead to the undermining of the very greatness of the American way.
Since the '60s we have enfeebled our public education system even as our wealth has expanded. Moral and cultural relativism now obscure individual responsibility. We are uninspired in the wars we fight, calculating our withdrawal even before we begin—and then we fight with a self-conscious, almost bureaucratic minimalism that makes the wars interminable.
America seems to be facing a pivotal moment: Do we move ahead by advancing or by receding—by reaffirming the values that made us exceptional or by letting go of those values, so that a creeping mediocrity begins to spare us the burdens of greatness?In Steele's analysis, this is not just a historical force of the left, but a very real problem of the current administration, who's leaders were raised in the heyday of this sort of political thinking. Now, as leaders of the very institution they were raised to detest, they are torn between pursuing their responsibility of advancing America's position and being true to the elixir of principles they imbibed as youth.
Mr. Obama came of age in a bubble of post-'60s liberalism that conditioned him to be an adversary of American exceptionalism. In this liberalism America's exceptional status in the world follows from a bargain with the devil—an indulgence in militarism, racism, sexism, corporate greed, and environmental disregard as the means to a broad economic, military, and even cultural supremacy in the world. And therefore America's greatness is as much the fruit of evil as of a devotion to freedom.
As a president, Barack Obama has been a force for mediocrity. He has banked more on the hopeless interventions of government than on the exceptionalism of the people. His greatest weakness as a president is a limp confidence in his countrymen. He is afraid to ask difficult things of them.All-in-all, this leaves America and the left in a very precarious position. How do we trust a leadership that wants to "take the country down a notch" or wants to "lead from behind"? How can the people be comfortable with representatives that were raised on an opposition ideology, who have fixated on what is wrong, not what is right with our system? But most importantly how can those who ascribe to such beliefs reconcile the fact that their ideology is in many ways at odds with the responsibility of ruling?