American exceptionalism is the notion that the United States occupies a unique position in the world, offering opportunity and hope to others by its unique balance of public and private interests and constitutional ideals of personal and economic freedom.
The phrase, often attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 Democracy in America, offers Romney an opening wide enough for a truck: If America is exceptional, why must we fundamentally transform it as Obama promises? Instead, we need a steady-hand Mitt to restore America’s greatness.
Romney can easily demonstrate that Europhile Obama wishes to turn the United States into a European-style welfare state that refuses to defend itself from external enemies. If this were not true, why does he push so hard for government health care, a larger state, and income redistribution? Why is Obama’s electoral platform the same as Europe’s leftist parties? Obama cannot admit outright he wishes America to become Europe. Instead, his subliminal message is Europe is doing just fine; it truly protects those in need; and there are no real differences anyway, so the debate is phony.
My checklist of American exceptionalism demonstrates that the differences between Europe and the US are real, that America is truly exceptional, in a positive sense, and the better the American people understand and value American exceptionalism, the more they will support an American-exceptionalist candidate like Romney.
My discussion does not cover U.S. military might and its role on the world stage. That is the subject for a separate essay.
Americans are prouder and more patriotic than Europeans
Americans are three times more likely to answer that they are proud of their country’s democracy, political influence, economic, scientific, literary, and military achievements, history, and fair and equal treatment of others than are French or German respondents. Americans remain patriots, while the French and Germans are conditioned to be proud of Europe, not of their own countries. The deluge of criticism by America’s detractors, both at home and abroad, have not dulled American patriotism. Remarkable!
Americans believe in limited government
While Europeans take for granted a powerful, intrusive state, the U. S. Constitution protects citizens and their property from an over reaching state. The focus of the U.S. Constitution is the individual and the inherent rights the state cannot take away (what Obama calls “negative liberties”). Americans agree with this constitutional principle. Polls show 62 percent agree that they should be “”free to pursue life’s goals without state interference,” versus 33% of Germans and French. Note that this figure leaves 38 percent who favor state interference.
Americans believe in self reliance
The settling of the U.S. by adventurous immigrants and the westward expansion into the vast American frontier created an American culture of self reliance, which persists to the present. French and Germans are twice as likely as Americans to agree that the “state should guarantee that no one is in need.” Also 60 percent of French and Germans, but only 36 percent of Americans, believe that “success in life is determined by factors outside our control.” Self reliance remains the American way, despite persistent messages that Americans need a strong helping hand from the state due to discrimination and life’s other disadvantages.
Americans give more to charity than other countries by a wide margin
Americans give more to private charity than any other nation. In 2005, U.S. citizens gave almost two percent of GDP to private charities. Germans and French gave a miserly one third and one half of one percent. With German and French GDP at about one fifth the United States’, the private philanthropy of U.S. citizens is overwhelming. Most Americans still believe more in private philanthropy than in a government that distributes entitlements from tax dollars. “Helping people to help themselves” has been a hallmark of US history. For Europeans, the state is there to help those in need.
Americans fear big government but trust public officials more
A larger percentage of Americans (31 percent) than Germans (10%) and French (22 %) believe “that we can trust people in government to do what is right.” The French and Germans accept a greater role for government but paradoxically have little trust in the public officials who carry out state policy. Separate polls show that Americans trust government closest to them, and reserve their fear for “big government” – namely Washington D.C. A remarkable two thirds of Americans believe that “big government is the greatest threat to America.”
Americans have restrained the size of government (so far)
American support for limited government is expressed in public choices on the size of government as measured by the share of output spent by government. The United States limited the share of government spending to one third of the economy in the period 2000-2009, while the French and German shares averaged half of GDP or more. The United States remains the largest affluent country that has opted against the pervasive European-style welfare state.
Americans have a major political party that favors limited government
In “old” Europe, the major contending left-of-center and right-of-center parties have accepted the European welfare state as a given. No major party campaigns on a platform of reversing the welfare state, only trimming it around the edges. As Chancellor Merkel declared famously: All of us accept the “social state” (Sozialstaat). In the United States, the right-of-center Republican Party campaigns against the establishment of a European-style welfare state. (When presented with actual hard choices, it retreats on occasion for political expediency, much to the chagrin of hard-core supporters).
Paul R. Gregory is a Research Fellow, Hoover Institution Cullen Professor of Economics, University of Houston. Gregory has a regular blog http://blogs.forbes.com/paulroderickgregory/at Forbes.com. He also serves on the GRIH Board of Scholars.