It is the line that might have sunk a presidential campaign. “[Barack Obama] knows exactly what he’s doing,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said at Saturday’s debate (again and again and again). “[He] is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.” Rubio’s sin is said to be stylistic. He repeated the phrasing almost robotically. But what about the substance of what he said?
The charge that President Obama is attempting to change America fundamentally is a staple of right-wing talk shows. As Paul Waldman points out, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others routinely assert that Obama’s policies are intentionally designed to transform the United States and dull its distinctive edge. Rubio warns that this might be our last chance. Were Obama’s policies to be continued, he suggests, America would become just another country.
This rhetoric does raise an important question. What makes the United States exceptional? All American politicians — including Obama — use that word. Most genuflect before it. But few actually define it.
Today, American exceptionalism is often seen as economic. Many conservatives say that Obamacare, energy policy and the Dodd-Frank financial regulations have violated a core difference between the United States and the rest of the world by expanding the role of the state in the economy.
But how limited is American government? The conservative Heritage Foundation publishes an annual “index of economic freedom” that ranks countries based on their degree of economic freedom (from government). America comes in 11th, behind Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Chile, Switzerland and Singapore. That doesn’t seem very exceptional.
In fact, the American welfare state is quite large but has been enacted in complex ways — partly to hide that reality. Once you add in “tax expenditures” — such as the exemption for employer-based health care — the size of the federal government rises by a full 4 percent of gross domestic product, according to one estimate. And once you add in “private social spending,” a term scholars use to include spending such as that on health, some of which is mandated and regulated by law, the size of America’s social expenditures jumps up to No. 2 among all rich countries in the world, exceeded only by that of France, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports.
Most important, the size of the United States’ government cannot be what has made America exceptional. In the 19th century, European governments also had limited “night-watchman” states — in fact, many even smaller than America’s. The United States, after all, pioneered state-funded secondary education for all. But from the beginning, America was exceptional. So it was obviously about something other than tax policy.
What about freedom? Certainly liberty was important, but the French Revolution was fueled by a similar idea — though never implemented successfully. And America’s ideas about liberty were always seen as a work in progress, since the country denied that liberty to a substantial section of the population. Remember that in 1860, the United States was unusual, if not exceptional, among Western nations in the widespread prevalence of slavery.
What, then, made America truly exceptional, from the start? It was a country founded not on race, ethnicity or religion but on ideas. And, crucially, those ideas were open to all. This openness to people, ideas, cultures and religions resulted in the creation of a new person — the American. The great historian Gordon Wood explains his view of American exceptionalism: “In an important sense, we have never been a nation in any traditional meaning of the term. . . . We Americans do not have a nationality the way other peoples do . . . which of course is why we can absorb immigrants more easily than they can.”
Other countries have small states and low taxes, and there are many liberal democracies, even republics. But no other country from the outset believed in the idea of openness and the mixture of people. The United States is a nation founded on diversity — of race, religion, national origin.
There are efforts to change America. There are plans to introduce religious and ethnic tests to bar immigrants and even visitors, or to track immigrants and visitors once they arrive. There have been calls to deport people, even American citizens. There are proposals to monitor houses of worship.
These ideas would fundamentally change America, tearing at its founding DNA. It would make it much more like the rest of the world, becoming one more nation in which certain ethnic groups and religions were privileged and others were outsiders, a country in which diversity was a threat to national character and unity rather than a strength.
And who is it proposing these changes? The last time I checked, it was not Barack Obama.