NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. American exceptionalism, once a term reserved for political scholars, is now an item of currency in American electoral politics. Many GOP presidential hopefuls embrace the idea and argue that liberals trample the principles that underlie America's greatness.
President Obama puts it somewhat differently. He says America has a responsibility to be a leader among nations. Responses to the idea depend a lot on how it's defined, but when the Pew Research Center asked our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others, 49 percent of Americans agreed. That's down from 60 percent in 2002, 55 percent five years after that.
Is the United States a nation like any other nation? Our number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, a reality show follows five families in Dearborn, all American Muslim, but first American exceptionalism, and we begin with Charles Blow, a columnist with the New York Times who recently wrote a piece called "The Decline of American Exceptionalism." And he joins us from the studios at the newspaper. Nice to have you with us again.
CHARLES BLOW: Nice to be here.
CONAN: And you wrote that Americans have to stop snuggling up to nostalgia and buckle down to get back to an America that is truly great.
BLOW: Yes, and I mean, as you pointed out, the number of people who say the American culture is superior has dropped dramatically. Now, that could be - what culture means to different countries is - could be a lot of different things. However, if you're just looking at Americans over time, it does drop off.
And if you combine those results with the results of other polls that show that people believe that we are becoming less important as a country, that China may be overtaking us financially in the world, that our military might is not as important to our greatness as it once was, if you look at the cumulative effect of what people are saying about America, you get the sense that people do not see us as singular in the world, not destined to be the leader of the world as we once were.
And what I try to, you know, at least raise in that column is whether or not our greatness was about an anointing from God, or was it about grit. Was it about - you know, what people in America, how our attitudes were about work and invention and striving that made us great, or, you know, can we lean on the idea that something extraterrestrial has anointed the American people and, regardless of what we do, we are destined to be great.
CONAN: We mentioned Ronald Reagan's phrase shining city on a hill. The other one you quoted in your piece was from George W. Bush: Chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world.
BLOW: Right, right.
CONAN: That's where a lot of people start having problems.
BLOW: That's where (unintelligible) start having problem, and here's a problem about a hill. You know, people tend to sit down when they get to the top. When you're not necessarily the greatest - and America has not always - I mean, we have to think about America as a very young country, has not always been the great leader of the world and struggled to get to that point and did it with a lot of grit and a lot of work and a lot of inventiveness.
And that spirit of doing great things as a country, climbing, is what I think we have to make sure that we keep in perspective and keep in front of us. You know, once you settle in to the notion that regardless of what we do, we are destined to be great, that is the moment that the greatness starts to diminish because there are a lot of countries who are doing great things.
There are a lot of - if you compare us to other wealthy countries who are leapfrogging us on very important measures of education, number of people in the population who are poor, the number of people in the population who are in prison is much lower, the number of people who have access to health benefits is much greater than ours, we are now the leader in the number of premature babies.
That sort of thing, it becomes problematic because now it's not just about a feeling, it's not just about what you believe, it's actual data that demonstrates that we are not at the peak. And if we continue just to say that because we once were and because we are supposed to be it is thus, that's problematic because then there is no driver to say we must do better than we're doing.
CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Matthew Franck joins us. He directs the Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute, also a regular contributor to the National Review Online, and joins us from his office in Princeton. Nice to have you back.
MATTHEW FRANCK: Thanks, Neal, how are you?
CONAN: I'm good, thank you. And I wonder: Obviously definitions matter a lot. How would you define American exceptionalism?
FRANCK: Yeah, that's a very interesting question. I'm not sure that the Pew survey got at the question in just the way I would have. You read the statement they asked people to indicate their level of agreement with earlier, and it ran as follows: Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.
That's not, you know, by its terms a question about American exceptionalism. Now, I understand this was a cross-national survey. They were talking to Germans, Spanish, British, French people, as well. And a question about exceptionalism, let alone American exceptionalism, wouldn't really travel very well across all those countries. So they wanted a question they could ask everywhere.
But I was talking to a colleague of mine here earlier today, and I said: You know, I could mischievously turn this question around because Americans have always had a bit of an inferiority complex about their culture, you know, looking to Europe for high culture in particular.
You could turn it around and ask people to agree or disagree with the following statement: Our culture may not be perfect, but our people are superior to others. And I think you might get different results. You might get higher numbers of Americans agreeing with that proposition.
Our culture is famously a mishmash of high and low, of import and domestic varieties, and yet there's something about the American people's belief in themselves, whether again it's, you know, that they're anointed by God or that they have a lot of grit. I think it's both those things.
I think it's the American people's belief in themselves as both blessed and busy that gives rise to the American belief in exceptionalism.
CONAN: And yet others would argue America is stained by the original sin of slavery, genocide carried out against the Native Americans. Obviously America's done many great things, but, well, it's got a lot of problems, too.
FRANCK: Absolutely, and there's no - there's nothing to be gained in papering over the sins of our past or our present. You know, for many of us on the right, the scourge of abortion is a great stain on the American character today, as slavery once was.
So, you know, these - this recognition of America's faults is something that has to be undertaken. Americans are actually, I think, historically pretty good at recognizing their faults. But from the founding to the present, you know, our sense of ourselves, often encouraged by statesmen from, you know, from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams at the founding, through Lincoln and then to great 20th-century leaders like FDR and Reagan, they've encouraged this sense of American exceptionalism, and by and large, you know, the American people have applauded that.
You know, the politics of many other countries is, you know, Charles Blow rightly said we're a young country. But we're young in a peculiar way. We're an immigrant country. We're a new country, a frontier country, and we're a country that does not find its identity in throne and altar, blood and soil but in a set of ideas, ideas that began famously with that great statement in the Declaration of Independence that we hold these truths to be self-evident, the first of which was a great ringing declaration of a principle that undermined American slavery.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. There's where I think Americans get their sense of themselves, as a creedal nation, organized around a set of ideas to which anyone can subscribe and anyone is welcome to join in on the great blessing of American exceptionalism.
CONAN: Charles Blow, I wonder what you think of Matthew Franck's mischievous idea: reverse that, our culture may not be perfect, but our people are superior to others.
BLOW: I mean, you - it's an interesting idea, like you said, and I'd be interested in how people would answer that question. The problem you run up against though is that because of the digital age, the last 20 years of world history has made the world a very small and very transparent place.
The separation that afforded us a level of - and I don't want to misconstrue this word - but a level of kind of blissful ignorance, to be able to claim a superiority on any metric, no longer exists. And you can now look across countries and see where you stand, and 24-hour news gives you a bit of that, but the Internet does a lot of that.
And there's no longer anywhere to hide. So now you have a lot of data that's stacking up that demonstrates that on a long list of measures, we are not in the position that we once were and that we like to believe that we are.
You know, there was this great study a few years ago where kids were asked how they felt they were as math students. American kids rated themselves highest, but their scores were among the lowest. And that concept that we can somehow hide in the idea that we are great because we should be or that we've always been told that we were quickly starts to diminish as data become more available and as the world becomes smaller because of the Internet.
CONAN: We're talking with Charles Blow, the New York Times columnist who wrote a piece in the November 18th edition of the newspaper titled "The Decline of American Exceptionalism." Also with us Matthew Franck of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.
Is America a nation like other nations, or is America exceptional? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. President Abraham Lincoln called the United States the last best hope of Earth. Thomas Jefferson referenced an empire of liberty. More recently, President Ronald Reagan described us as a shining city on a hill.
That sense of American exceptionalism, at least by one definition, is no longer shared by a majority of Americans. Several recent surveys show a growing feeling of long-term decline. We'd like hear from you. Is the United States a nation like any other nation? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can join our conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Charles Blow, the New York Times columnist, and Matthew Franck, a regular contributor to the National Review Online. And let's go to Jeff(ph), and Jeff's calling us from Little Rock.
JEFF: Hi, yeah, I wanted to talk about how America's exceptionalism is basically based on our civil liberties and how they're slowly being taken away from us through the recent SOPA Act and the Detainee Act, I think, that was just passed yesterday in the Senate. So, I don't know, I think that we're slowly just declining in liberty, and that's what decreasing our exceptionalism.
CONAN: It's interesting - and Matthew Franck, you can hear people on both the left and the right very concerned about erosion of their individual liberties.
FRANCK: Sure, I understand, you know, the war on terror of the last decade worries people on the left about the fate of civil liberties. Obamacare, likewise, worries people on the right about the state of American freedom. These are perennial American concerns. We fight them out not only in the courts but in the court of public opinion and in elections and legislatures.
And this, too, I think is it's fundamentally a sign of health that we Americans resort to these pole stars of freedom, of civil liberties and try to talk about how to live up to a legacy that our forefathers bequeathed us. You know, the glory of American political life is the Constitution, and everyone has an opinion of how best to live up to its principles. So yeah.
CONAN: I was just going to ask Charles Blow: Clearly you can pick whatever measure you want - you mentioned poverty, child welfare, that sort of thing - and Jeff is making the point about the erosion of civil liberties. But any one measure does not make the whole list.
BLOW: Right, and I think you have to look at it a bit larger than that. I mean, I think any one of those areas you could do a whole show on and focus on how we need to deal with that issue. But I think when you look at civilizations over hundreds of years or thousands of years, and you see the arc of a civilization, that's where America and any country should get worried when you see yourself at the top of that arc.
Because what we see over history is that people don't stay at the top of the arc. Civilizations don't stay at the top of the arc, and when you see other signs of countries that are, you know, full steam ahead like a China, where the, you know, they're likely to overtake us in GDP in the next 10 years or so, maybe a little bit longer, who are heavily investing in the areas where natural resources now exist, like Africa, where you see - where you know you have a population that is enormous, and the world has been shrank by technology so that if you were just to assume that the top 15 percent of their population, of their children are honor students then they would have more honor students than we have students.
When you look at the totality of civilizations that are on the rise again - you know, it's a very old civilization - and you look at where we are and what happens to civilizations when they peak and don't deal with the issues of peaking, then you see that they go down.
And that, I think, is what should worry all of Americans, and some of these smaller things are kind of symptoms of that but not the totality of that issue.
CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. China, we tend to exaggerate our rivals' advantages and diminish our own. China's got some problems of its own, certainly in terms of being an example to other nations. In any case, Robert(ph), Robert's with us on the line from Clinton in South Carolina.
ROBERT: Yes, I just wanted to make a statement that I think we're exceptional because we're a nation of immigrants, and when we have a task to set, set to do, we don't ask you what your religion is or what school you went to. We ask you what you can do to make this happen. And that's why we're exceptional.
CONAN: And it's a good point. And Charles Blow, I wanted to point out - and I'm sure you're aware of this, too - a lot of the idea of this, going back to the Founding Fathers, is this idea of an America founded on ideas, an America that has escaped, thus far, religious wars and an America that has escaped a lot of the conflicts that plagued old Europe.
BLOW: Right, but what you see in our politics today is a worrisome kind of stagnation, where we can't seem to bring ourselves to do great things. We can't seem to bend enough to come to agreement and compromise. And that, I think, is a very worrisome sign and diverts quite a bit from the history of America.
And when you think about what are the big things that America has done in its history and then think about what are the big things that America has done lately, that lately list comes up really short.
And, you know, whether or not it's going to the moon or building a highway system or building dams or building a railroad system or, you know, private enterprise, developing the idea for the Internet or for social networking or whatever the case, when you start to look at what you have done as a country on a grand scale, where we have dreamed together and brought that dream to fruition, that list looks smaller.
And that is where I think we have to recapture our sense of ourselves, to make the sacrifices that are required, to bend a bit from your personal ideology, whether it's left or right, and come to a middle and say we as a nation have to do the great things because that's what great nations do.
CONAN: Matthew Franck, is part of the problem is we may not be able to agree what those great things are?
FRANCK: I think that's right. You know, I agree with so much of what Charles Blow is saying. I loved his column. There are some great expressions of the American spirit in that column, when he says, for instance, we must work our way out of these doldrums, we must learn our way out, we must innovate our way out. And you choose greatness; it doesn't choose you. I couldn't agree with him more.
And I do think that Americans have to resolve to see their greater days ahead of them rather than behind them. We have to think of ourselves as on the upward climb of that arc that Mr. Blow spoke of rather than on the downward slope.
When we look to Europe, and the Pew survey suggests that we're - that opinions and attitudes in America are shifting in a direction more like Europe's - it is worrisome. If Europe is, you know, the cradle of Western civilization, and America is the great young outpost of that same civilization, we look to Europe, and it looks like they're farther down that downslope than we are, and we don't want to go there.
So yeah, I - I'm just, you know, 90 percent in agreement with Charles Blow here, but...
BLOW: You sound surprised.
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FRANCK: ...what we have to do is resolve together to solve our problems and hash out those issues that can be compromised and fight out those issues that can't be compromised.
You know, as a political scientist, as I've been for many years, I've always taught my students to think about American political issues as divided into those that are amenable to compromise and those that simply aren't. Slavery, in the end, simply wasn't. It was finessed away for decades, and it simply in the end wasn't subject to compromise.
There's a great many more issues in American politics that are amenable to compromise, and we have to work on those. The ones that aren't amenable to compromise, we just have to - we just have to struggle our way through, you know, with a hopeful sense that, you know, that decisive victory for justice is the end of things. That's the way, you know, people devoted to justice approached the issue of slavery, the issue of civil rights.
That's the way some of us in conservative ranks think, for instance, about the abortion issue: You just have to struggle your way through to justice and see it through.
CONAN: Email from Jeremy(ph) in Lansing: I teach American cultural studies, and this theme is brought up early in my course. I ask students to think about an individual who boasts of his or her greatness versus hearing others speak of his or her greatness.
To my mind, American exceptionalism was defined by others, such as de Tocqueville. And for Americans to assert American existentialism is patently arrogant, while to be dubbed so by people around the world seems to be the only measure by which anyone or any nation should be considered exceptional. And, Charles Blow, I guess by that measure, we should have asked all those Europeans in the Pew survey what they thought about America - I guess they do from time to time.
BLOW: Which would have been a very - another interesting set of answers. However, I diverge a bit from the person who wrote the email. I do believe that there is a - that national pride is important to greatness. And I do believe that having a set of values that you believe to be uniquely American and that having that set of values be a driver to accomplish things, and to push yourself as a country to be great is important. And I don't think that that necessarily makes you arrogant to have to do that.
CONAN: Let's go next to Dennis, Dennis with us from Salt Lake City.
DENNIS: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I think our decline, our exceptionalism comes down to religious extremists. And by that, I mean, we have religious extremists trying to push through things that - such as in education in Texas, where we basically degrade our education in the name of a religious ideology. And I see that in politics. Your guest has brought up abortion several times. I think we are the only first world country that still holds this much religion in our politics, and that's a real problem.
CONAN: I think these - well, real problem, but it had - one thing that it's distinctive of - And you're talking about religious fundamentalism, it's not the mainstream of religion, and I don't think you can identify those who oppose abortion rights as a - on the fringes of American society. They form a substantial fraction of the American public. But...
DENNIS: The mainstream gives validity to the fringe, though. I mean, that's, kind of, part of the problem?
CONAN: Well, I was...
DENNIS: Some places have fringe, but they don't have that large majority of religious people giving validity to the fringe.
CONAN: And, Matthew Franck, Dennis' right to say that one of the distinctions between the United States and those other country's surveyed, is that there are a great many more religious believers in this country than those countries in Europe.
FRANCK: Oh, absolutely. You know, I think that religious extremism in this country is a much - I would say it's a much smaller problem than our caller suggests. Religion does, however, loom much larger in American society than in European society. The Pew survey found that half of Americans deem religion very important in their lives. The numbers were more than three quarters if you added those who said somewhat important. And that dwarfed the numbers of Brits, French, Germans, Spaniards, who have ranked religion as very important in their lives, which was well below half, more like a quarter when you talk about very important.
And then very interestingly, the Pew survey said that American Christians are more likely than their Western European counterparts to think of themselves first in terms of their religion, rather than their nationality. In other words, American Christians think, I'm a Christian first. My first allegiance is to God. My second allegiance is to my nation. That's about half of American Christians. And, yeah, we're a much more religiously observant and faithful country than you'll find in Western Europe. And I would argue that the decline of religion is a decline of one of those key elements of American exceptionalism and, you know, moving in the direction of Europe on that score alone, would be indication of a worrisome trend, in my view.
CONAN: Matthew Franck is with the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute. Charles Blow, a columnist at The New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to John, John with us from Columbus.
JOHN: Hi, thanks for taking my call
JOHN: Certainly, I think this country is great. There's so many awesome opportunities. And, you know, if we're able to teach statistics, like my grandfather's generation and, you know, what was done for the world - and it's amazing to me. But it's so fragile, and the opportunities can go away so fast. And I think Victor Frankl wrote about, you know, the Statue of Liberty needs a – needs a - needs someone on the other side, maybe a statue of responsibility. And I think it's just that fragile. But the exceptional country that I'm fortunate to live in and be a part of, be a veteran of, couldn't be prouder.
CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
JOHN: Thank you.
CONAN: Just to put a contrary view in this email from Amy in Shinglehouse, Pennsylvania: I am embarrassed and horrified at the notion that America or Americans think we are exceptional. We have a terrible system of health care. We treat our elderly worse than dogs. We seem to think we can kill our way out of anything. We aren't doing a good job of leading by example regarding financial issues, greed or debt. Exceptional? Not even close. Charles Blow, clearly, you can get a lot of different Opinions, again, depending on how you define it. It's an important issue to a lot of people. But is America a nation like other nations? Or is exceptional, do you think?
BLOW: Well, I think that we have had periods in our history where we have done exceptional things. And, you know, the founding of this country is an exceptional, I mean, it's a very fragile - it is an experiment has always been acknowledged, and it's an experiment that turned out well. It is perfectly positioned with oceans on both sides and neighbors to the North and South who are not necessarily hostile. You know, there's a lot of good fortune that has fallen on this country. But I also think that we have, as a country, done things in our history that pulled us together and meant that we were doing it. It wasn't just good luck. So if you look at the interventions in World War II or whatever - you look at tax rates during that time. And we want to have two wars, and we want to lower tax rates. That's not how that works. You pay for things. You go into massive amounts of debt, but you feel like you are doing this because it is the right thing to do.
BLOW: At this point, we've decided that we are going to have our cake and eat it too. We are going to run around the world and be the world's police officers. We're not going to pay for that. We can't have it both ways. And if we want to be great, we have to remember that, in our past, we made sacrifices as a country, and we have to do that again.
CONAN: Matthew Franck, Charles Blow may have wandered into that 10 percent where you disagree, but we're going to have to thank you both for your time, and we appreciate your being with us to discuss American exceptionalism. "All-American Muslim" when we return. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.