American exceptionalism is a concept that is easy to misunderstand. When President Obama was asked if he believed in American exceptionalism, he famously responded “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” This is how many people understand that term, as just another expression of patriotism; that saying one believes in American exceptionalism is just a louder way for an American to say they are proud of their country. This is false.
American exceptionalism is about what makes America unique. Almost every country in the world was founded on either ethnic identity or on the powerful imposing their will. France is France because that is where the French conquered and settled. Italy was created out of a war to unify the Italian people. Jordan was a reward to Arab tribal leaders for their help fighting the Ottomans in WWI, created by Winston Churchill “with the stroke of a pen, one Sunday afternoon in Cairo.” America, on the other hand, was founded upon a revolutionary concept.
America was created to proclaim an idea, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. America came into being not because George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson sought power, glory, or riches; not because the American colonists thought of themselves as a different ethnic group than the mother country. America rebelled against the most powerful country in the world and willed itself into existence because it had a very different concept than other nations of how the world was supposed to work.
With few exceptions, every country ever conceived thought of rights as being granted by the king or some sort of council. If an ordinary citizen wanted to do something, the presumption was they had to first get permission; they were unable to act as they wished until the king granted them the right. Whether it was starting a new corporation or worshiping a different religion, it was illegal until the king granted his ascent.
America’s Founding Fathers said that is exactly backwards – everyone has inherent rights completely independent of the government, thus changing the presumption to everything being legal unless made otherwise.
American exceptionalism is not about saying America is perfect (we’re not). Nor is it about saying America is the greatest country in the world (we are). American exceptionalism is about recognizing that we turned the world upside down and built our country not on ethnic identity or through the strong imposing on the weak, but instead built our country with liberty as the corner stone. We have not always lived up to our own principles, as no country likely ever could adhere to such lofty ideals. But we advanced the cause of human freedom like no other nation because we made liberty our guiding light and proclaimed it to the world. That is exceptional. That is America.