Georgene Rice of KPDQ-FM interviews Dr. Matthew: Spaling with The Heritage Foundation discusses concept of “American Exceptionalism,” what it means, what it doesn’t mean and why it matters.
Georgene: Let’s talk about what is “American Exceptionalism”? Does it require that we are genetically predisposed to be a better people than the rest of the world or does it point rather to the principles that outline this great republic?
Matthew: The argument of the claim of America, and this goes back to its founding, the founders speak in these terms, is that at the time of it’s founding in 1776, it was understood that it was different, we were doing something unique, we were finding a new nation based on certain principles, all men are created equal, as a result, it had a different meaning in the world, the nation was fundamentally grounded in principles. Historically, that is very different from the previous nations…there is something particular about this nation, how it was founded, how it was organized, how it’s constitution operates, the principles to which it is dedicated….The question then, behind this debate over American Exceptionalism, it’s used rhetorically as a campaign issue, behind there is a very serious question, which is at the core of everything going on right now, “What does America mean?” When we say it’s “Exceptional”, it’s not because we’re claiming it we have something that no one else has or somehow we’re better than everyone else, but it’s really directed toward ourselves, “What do we believe that we mean?”
Georgene: Would you agree that we don’t really have a clear understanding of the principles that this “Exceptionalism” would refer to?
Matthew: That’s right, but generally, these are really values. Americans have values, well so do Greeks, the Germans and French. And we think our values are better, but that’s merely our opinion….If that’s the way your taught, then you’re not really being taught the historical understanding at the heart of the American founding….The founding fathers believed that it was true: the claim of human equality, consent of the governed, constitutional government. They believe that was true, this is not merely a claim they’re making. That’s the thing that’s being debated right now….This debate over Exceptionalism, although it doesn’t come out in speeches and what not, everyone is always talking about great America is, and at the root is a much more serious question: Are the claims made by America, that it is somehow rooted in principles, unlike other nations, and we believe those are true. That’s what at issue.
Georgene: Why does this understanding of American Exceptionalism matter?
Matthew: It is our own identity, which is to say that what unites us as a people, is not merely our geography, really it’s these common principles. The things that for which we are constituted. Really, it the key to what America means to us as a country. Also, it those principles that create the framework of our laws and all of our prosperity, protect our religious freedom. All of these great things we have achieved, really lead back to these concepts. If those principles don’t matter anymore, then we’ve got a real question, where are we going? What are we doing? Should become like a European country? Or do these principles still matter? And they do, how do we somehow recover them in principle and guide our nation by them, given were we are today….It’s really a historic question about education and principles.
Georgene: The Heritage Foundation, has a new e-book that explores how the United States’ commitment to these universal truths of human equality, the right to self government, how they should be understood. The book is “Understanding America: Why is America Exceptional?” This is the first I understand of a series of e-book that will cover these questions.
Matthew: That’s right. There’s another that just came out, “What is America’s role in the world?” At The Heritage Foundation, we have a whole iniatitive called, “First Principles”, in which we want to talk about what are the core principles of America and what does that mean for all the questions we face….It affects everything, how we understand our liberties, what rights do we have, where do our rights come from, does governement come out of our consent, constitutionalism, property rights. We really need to have these kinds of conversations about serious policy questions, we need to have a framework…we are centered around recovering these core principles, as a nation and as a people.
Georgene: Are you optimistic of the grassroots of America are beginning to more seriously and soberly consider these questions?
Matthew: I believe we have entered a large moment in our politics, because here for years we have lamented for years the decline of American education, how we don’t take principles seriously, people have forgotten these things, but lo and behold, it turns out that a lot people still believe these things, they might be confused, they might not be exactly what they mean, but as it turns out, they still believe America is exceptional…what we’re seeing is a lot people who have not been engaged in politics, are coming to a realization that we seem to becoming a different country and they don’t want to become Europe, they want to stay America….What does that mean? And that’s a great conversation to have.
Georgene: The Heritage Foundation is helping move that conversation along. How can our listeners acquire the e-books you mentioned?
Matthew: The website is: heritage.org. You can go there and there’s a link to click on. The series will be there. “Why is America Exceptional?” is on the website. The second one is up, we have one coming out on “Why do we Protect Religious Liberty?”….All of those things are at heritage.org.
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