On American Exceptionalism

If you conducted a survey of a random sampling of Americans and asked them what nation would qualify as the greatest on the planet, the majority would quickly respond with the United States. There would be a variety of reasoning for this answer. Some would claim that it’s the ability of the common man to rise to the top that makes us better. Some may cite capitalism and our laissez-faire economic system. Others would point to our perceived moral superiority. The most common answer may simply be “freedom”. While there would doubtlessly be a plethora of responses to justify their support, all of these answers revolve around the idea of American Exceptionalism. An idea that, to most Americans, means we are a cut better than the rest. In reality, American Exceptionalism highlights our differences from other countries and more broadly speaking, supports the idea that we are a liberal democracy.

Many of the observations that can be made to back American Exceptionalism also give support to our nation as a liberal democracy. There are several key concepts that liberal democracies are built around. Liberal democracies have limited government with representation, open elections, an open market, opportunities for participation in the political system, as well as protection of liberty, and support for civil rights. Liberal democracies differ from social democracies in that there is more emphasis on an individual forging their own path. Social democracies focus heavily on guaranteed social and economic equality.

The cornerstone of our democracy, the U.S. Constitution gives credence to the suggestion that the United States is a liberal democracy. Liberal democracies emphasize a division of power, and the first three articles of the Constitution lay out exactly how our three branches of government divide their power. Each branch checks the other two in some form to prevent an abuse of their powers. The members of each branch are either elected directly by the people in open election or are appointed and confirmed by representatives that have been elected by the people.

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The first ten amendments, or the Bill of Rights, explicitly define every citizen’s personal rights and liberties. It also clarifies that any rights not directly given to the national government are delegated to the states. Look at the first amendment. This is possibly the best example of personal freedoms being bestowed upon the people. It guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to assemble and petition the government. All of these points give great opportunity for citizens to exercise their beliefs and opinions freely. The second amendment, while vague and heavily debated today, grants the ability for citizens to defend themselves. The fourth, fifth, and sixth amendments citizens rights to protect them during every step of the criminal justice system.

While there are many points of support to back the United States as a liberal democracy, there are a few criticisms that could be used against it as well. Liberal democracies emphasize personal freedoms and civil rights. For many years, until the passing of the 13th amendment, many black Americans were not only not considered citizens, but were even considered property. Liberal democracies also have open elections. While the US has always had these, those elections have not always guaranteed the right to vote for all. For many years, women and blacks were not allowed to vote. Women did not gain this right until 1920, and due to illegal practices by some southern states, many blacks could not vote until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was passed, even though the 15th amendment guaranteed them this right in 1870.

It is clear the United States’ development as a liberal democracy has not been perfect, and there are many examples in our history that would give our nation a black eye in its image as a liberal democracy. That being said, the founding fathers purposefully designed our government with a balance of power and a representation by individual people that was unheard of during that time in history. Our nation has been fine tuning this idea since its inception, and while social and economic equality plays a greater role now than it did in the past, the people enjoy a greater ability to express opinion, more liberty and more equal civil rights than at any other point in our history.

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