U.S. exceptionalism became a lost cause when we chose government over greatness. Our vision of an exceptional America was already in a death spiral when Obama made his infamous anti-private sector slur:
If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.1
There are plenty of small business owners who would dispute these words, some in thriving companies and others who gave it their all, lost their fortunes, and rebuilt their lives. That is what U.S. exceptionalism is about: unbounded opportunity and potential that make risk-taking worthwhile because the rewards, like the failures, can be tremendous for individuals, America, and the globe.
Government exceptionalism? There is no such thing.
Businesses are not the only thing that our government started believing it was responsible for. In his “you didn’t build that” speech Obama also talked about how we do things better together, offering up this stunner:
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. 2
Comparing people to infrastructure is one thing. Believing that social class is a government creation is the farthest thing from U.S. exceptionalism imaginable. Nevertheless, shortly after he made these comments Americans elected Barack Obama to a second term. We chose to kill greatness with government.
Big government kills exceptionalism
We were founded on the idea of limited government. Limited government allows individual initiative to flourish and the free market to do the things it does best. The U.S. has always been a place where anyone could hope to succeed and prosper beyond their wildest dreams of avarice without interference or condemnation, especially from big government. That promise of wealth and opportunity turned America into a powerhouse of industry and innovation with leaders the world respected because of the limitless potential the idea of America represented and the jaw-dropping proof of what that potential could do.
When we started to give up on limited government and decided that initiative and opportunity are values better regulated by government, we made U.S. exceptionalism impossible. Individual initiative became less important than government-sanctioned opportunity because many were led to believe that this is the only kind of equitable opportunity that exists in the U.S. Justice and equality, so the story goes, is only available to the lucky few who already have too much.
Liberal accountability makes U.S. exceptionalism impossible
We hear a lot about accountability these days. Accountability can mean punishing corporations and financial institutions, symbols of exceptional U.S. wealth. Most important, accountability in Obamaland means ridding America of what makes it exceptional and leveling the field so more can share equally in whatever the government decides it wants to provide.
The president boasted of his latest budget proposal:
It helps families afford childcare, health care, college, paid leave at work, homeownership, and saving for retirement, and it could put thousands of dollars back into the pockets of a working family each year.3
Exceptionalism doesn’t mean that working hard guarantees you will do well. The necessities of life are not something the government can or should guarantee to deliver. Because of its very nature big government aspires to mediocrity while limited government pushes the individual to succeed because the child care, health care, free college, and other props simply aren’t there unless we punish individual exceptionalism to provide them.
We just heard an exceptional speech by a man who declared that his country, a treasured ally, would stand alone to battle the threat of extinction from a hostile neighbor. The once-exceptional U.S. increasingly depends on the support of the world before it will act not out of weakness, but out of fear of being judged harshly. Why? Because America was judged by our commander-in-chief and found wanting (see: Can Torture Make America’s Values Stronger?). Under Obama, U.S. exceptionalism on the world stage is subordinated to the ideological zeal to hold our country accountable for perceived wrongs of the past even if it means endangering our security. The same thing has happened on the domestic front. U.S. exceptionalism is paying the price.
In our country exceptionalism is about the power of the individual, not the individual’s government. When government steps in, regulates potential for the many and holds us accountable for acting in our own best interests, American exceptionalism as we know it dies. Why? Because of a falsehood, the lie that unrestrained self-interest is not what made this country great.