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What Makes Us Exceptional

| August 31, 2012

The St. Louis Arch, one of many symbols of American exceptionalism. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

The St. Louis Arch, one of many symbols of American exceptionalism. Click on the image for larger view.
(© FlaglerLive)

By Dan Gelber

I’ve been listening to speakers at the Republican National Convention who seek to reclaim our nation and protect “American Exceptionalism.” I am not sure whom they are reclaiming or protecting America from, but I think they want to reclaim it from me or those like me.

I am the grandson of immigrants who came here to avoid war-torn Europe and seek the promise of freedom and better days for their children.

My parents grew up in the Great Depression – bed sheets hanging throughout the apartment so that the borders in their small quarters had some semblance of privacy.

My dad spent five years in WWII – his barracks taught him that no man is better or worse than another. He became a prosecutor – defending the rule of law. My mother became a public school teacher who believed unleashing the potential of a child was the greatest gift of all.

They raised children who became prosecutors and teachers and embraced their example of public service as a calling.

But somehow we have become the enemy to members of a loud and angry mob who hold rallies purporting to reclaim our nation and maintain “American Exceptionalism” is imperiled. Who scream at the top of their hill that we worry too much about those that have fallen behind. Who disguise their small-mindedness with grandiose political theories and doctored statistics.

Theirs is a flawed political theology tragically hijacked by a powerful and elite political establishment intent on obtaining or preserving their political power and money.

They are only now worried about America’s finances, blaming and demonizing a president who inherited policies that they created, supported and embraced. So many in their great hall – including the elite of Florida’s political establishment – supported and used the stimulus dollars they now deride to balance our state budgets and keep teachers and firefighters on the job.

They don’t want people to have a free ride, but despise a health care reform that requires everyone to insure their own health so that others won’t have to pay.

They want free markets and no regulation, but seem to forget the excesses that exploited the lack of regulation to create our economic maladies.

They abhor taxes, but refuse to consider that it is tax money from everyone that funds special-interest giveaways for a select few.

And worst of all, their political philosophy has become a self-serving rationalization for their own self-advancement. Give the “job-producers” more money and they will create more jobs. Like its forbearer – trickle down economics – it is a failed, tired old excuse, more a public relations gimmick than an economic theory.

It is not that American Exceptionalism is being lost, it’s that they have lost sight of what has made America exceptional.


It has not been our wealth that makes us exceptional – rather it has been our charity and our commitment to raising all the boats in the harbor and building a middle-class.

It has not been our intellectual capacity that elevates us among nations. Rather, it has been that so much of that innovation has ushered in improvements of the human condition.

It has not been our military – the most powerful in the history of the world — that sets us apart, but that we have used that force to protect freedom and fight tyranny.

Capitalism alone isn’t what makes America special – rather it is the freedom that is intrinsic to a capitalistic system that is exceptional.

Our nation is special not because God made us special, but because we exercised the free will he gave us to become a moral beacon in the community of nations.

Once we relinquish that mantle we lose our “exceptionalism.” We lose what has made us the greatest nation in the history of the world.

The truth is so much of the noise coming from the RNC is no more than the clamoring of partisans, seeking to exploit true challenges for political gain.

What has made America exceptional, however, is that whenever that does happen, Americans ultimately see through it and track a course consistent with the greatness and higher purpose that has defined our nation.

Here’s hoping we stay exceptional.

Dan Gelber was a State Senator and former House Democratic Leader from Miami. Read his previous column, “A Few Florida Facts,” here.

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10 Responses for “What Makes Us Exceptional”

  1. question says:

    Yet another, on its own, a very fine word that has been hijacked by the ‘base instinct’ right as one of their key, dog whistle rally cries. Now it makes me cringe when I hear it used in such a parrot-like manner.

    It also, in part made that quadrant of the population blind to the world around us … wrapped themselves in it like a kryptonite. Like ‘our way or the highway’ because we are the exceptional ones and everyone worldwide better hold us and all our beliefs equally as sacred as we do. As the world grew smaller & smaller, when we should have been at least learning about our global neighbors, we didn’t bother. We were king of the hill, top of the heap…and don’t you forget it. WE are the exceptional ones. The definition of ‘myopic’. It did not and does not serve us well…the way the right is using it.

    • Clint says:

      Unlike some of the leftist,liberal trash that leave anti-American comments, I will STAND TALL for America and its Exceptional ability to WIN against cowardly enemies. From the time we KICKED the butt of the british, to the day we brought the german nazi’s to trial for their genocide. From the War between the States, to the Jungles of Vietnam. From the border of North Korea, to the deserts of Iraq. America has always been Exceptional because our people are EXCEPTIONAL…..We will continue to be EXCEPTIONAL as long as Americans believe in their country and themselves.

  2. Jim R says:

    That’s one Norman Rockwell type view of our exceptionalism, Howard Zinn has another that should be considered.
    Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull and Chief Seattle, along with Iraqi”s, Afghans, and numerous other countries we currently invade would see our exceptionalisim as murderous , exploitative and cruel.

    • Edwin says:

      The word has been highjacked and maligned by Propagandists that have followed the “man is an animal” cue from men like Edward Bernays. Propagandists, agitators and other “do-gooders” demoralize people by taking words that describe the better attributes and hopes of man, expressed in the definitions of words, and then depict such as evil or opportunistic. In reality, anti-socials hate high morale and so utilize progressive newspeak to undermine what they, in reality, despise in good people. We all want our lives, our families, our business and our nation to be exceptional – per the very definition in a dictionary. Exceptionalism can be and does not have to exclude anyone else obtaining that in their lives.

  3. Gia says:

    America is not exceptional any more. This became a nation a fat & lazy. Creation is gone. In another word, this is the 3rd world nation.

  4. sam8131 says:

    I would like to exercise my free will and chose whether I want to buy health care or not. P.S. I have health care and I want to keep it, leave it alone. i would like to exercise my free will and spend my money how I see fit on what I see fit. I would like to exercise my right to vote and I would like to see noncitizens not be allowed to vote.

    The rule of law includes entering this country according to it’s laws and remaining here according to it’s laws, whuch I am sure your grand parents did.

    Moral beacon? Too who? the Muslims?

    We are exceptional because of all the things you say we are not exceptional for. We are exceptional because we can even have political conventions. We are exceptional because of the freedoms the government must respect, you know the ones in the US Constitution! We are exceptional because WE control the governemnt, not the otherway around.

  5. Whew Looey says:

    More slash and bash trash from the left……FREEDOM!!!!!!!!

  6. Magnolia says:

    Dan, you get mad at one party and then do the same. I think each of us needs to start with us.

    “Theirs is a flawed political theology tragically hijacked by a powerful and elite political establishment intent on obtaining or preserving their political power and money. ”

    This is what we have all become. Instead of being able to express opinions, we fire shots. We need to allow ourselves the opportunity to disagree without personally attacking everyone in sight.

    And we must begin with ourselves. Are we going to all agree? No. But we are cheating ourselves out of the opportunity for honest dialog. Remember those days?

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