Last week the Pew Research Center released a survey of American and European attitudes on a host of issues. Conservative commentators homed in on two findings: first, fewer Americans believe that our culture is superior to others (49% now, compared with 60% a decade ago); second, a rising share of young Americans support activist government. Such findings have been used to build a narrative that under President Obama, we’re becoming less American and more like those relativist, collectivist, socialist Europeans across the pond.
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The only problem with that interpretation is that the Pew study also found a deep and persistent “values gap” between the U.S. and Europe. Americans are far less likely than Europeans to believe that success is the result of circumstances beyond our control. And though young Americans believe more than their elders that government should help the needy, Americans overall believe that much less than Europeans do. We are still far more religious than Europeans, and far more likely to support military intervention and doubt the value of multilateralism and the U.N.
In other words, the U.S. in its attitudes generally remains an outlier nation, ruggedly committed to rugged individualism (even when it costs us). As for the finding that less than half of Americans believe in our cultural superiority — well, there exists an explanation somewhat more plausible than a vast Eurobama conspiracy. That explanation is learned humility.
The last benchmark for the Pew survey was 2002. Can you think of anything that’s happened since then to make Americans a little less confident? Perhaps a costly war in Iraq initiated on false premises. A housing bubble and then a financial crash. The emergence of China as competitor and creditor.
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Events of this past decade have taken some of the shine off American exceptionalism. The phrase itself has become utterly overloaded: the right uses it to justify its agenda, the left uses it to attack the right’s hubris, the right uses it to attack the left’s defeatism and on and on.
What’s unfortunate is that there is something real, worthy and salvageable in the idea of American exceptionalism. It has little to do with being dogmatically individualistic or having a much lower government-spending-to-GDP ratio than Europe has. It has to do with our openness to new people and ideas, and the diversity of cultures that immigrants carry in our country. For all its troubles, the U.S. remains the only country that Europeans, Asians, Africans, Latin Americans and Australians want to move to in great numbers. As they all become Americans, the U.S. becomes just a little more like all of them, creating hybrid attitudes and styles that will shape the planet’s future.
If we’re a touch less jingoistic today, and if the rising generation seems a bit more European (or Asian or Latin) in its comfort with collective action, it’s not a sign of national decline. It’s evidence of the U.S. doing what it does best: synthesizing. Adapting to a changing world. The U.S. is always going to be the land of liberty. But as we mature, we can cherish liberty and responsibility, the individual and community. And we can wear our unparalleled appeal with confidence, not cockiness. That’s an exceptionalism to aspire to.