We learned something about our president and his party in the election just ended. This something was all around us, floating in their air, buried in their assumptions. It was wrapped up in their hopes and dreams, as well as revealed by their tactics and talking points.
We learned that our president and his party really do believe in a version of American exceptionalism. Remember that great debate over this thing called American exceptionalism? The whole thing briefly came to a head during the first Obama administration, when the president was asked if he believed in it. At the time his answer seemed to speak volumes. Yes, he did believe in American exceptionalism. Then he promptly added a qualifier: He believed in it just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
In other words, our president really didn't believe in American exceptionalism. He thinks that the citizens of every country think that their country is somehow unique. By inference, President Obama was telling his questioner and the rest of us that he did not believe there was something fundamentally different, exceptional, about this country.
But now we know otherwise. Maybe we should have had a hint of this just prior to then-Sen. Obama's election in 2008. Maybe he really did believe in some version of American exceptionalism when he told his supporters that they were "five days away from fundamentally transforming" the United States. This could be read to mean that the senator thought that there was something unique about America at that historical moment -- something his presidency would be devoted to making sure would no longer be the case when it was over. Given his critique of the United States and his penchant for European social democracies, what he seemed to be saying was that his goal was to remake the United States into just another European social democracy. That did seem to be his promise. Will it be the reality?
So, what is at the heart of our exceptionalism? I would argue that it is not the proverbial American dream so much as that which made the American dream possible for so many over the past 200-plus years. American exceptionalism has been the American experiment in action.
For starters, that would be the American experiment in self-government. But it really is a good deal more than that. It has also been an experiment in limited government, especially a limited federal government. The idea of the founders was to create a new national government that would have jurisdiction -- but not great power -- over a huge expanse of territory. But it was a good deal more than that as well. The larger idea was to combine limited government with a free and virtuous citizenry living their lives in a country of great size and variety -- and opportunity.
The key to the whole thing was virtue. And the key to virtue was religion. To the founders, virtue among the people was impossible without religion. The recently rediscovered and rehabilitated John Adams said it best: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people; it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
This is not the version of American exceptionalism that President Obama and today's Democrats seem to be touting. Nonetheless, they must believe in some version. The only alternatives are either to deny that we are any different or accept the inevitability of an American decline.
Let's go back to Greece for just a moment. It's interesting that the president chose to single out England and Greece in responding to his questioner back when. England, Greece and the United States -- each, in its time, an empire of one sort or another. And each one doomed to decline and fall?
Greece figured in Republican candidate Mitt Romney's campaign as well, in his frequent reminders that if we don't do something about our unsustainable debt we will become just like Greece -- modern, bankrupt Greece that is. By a slim majority, Americans seem to have bet that such will not be the case.
And maybe the president and his party think that way as well. Perhaps that's the lesson that we can take away from this election. But is it an optimistic one?
The best spin on it is this: Maybe they believe that we really are different, that we are somehow exempt from history and economics. Maybe they believe that we can never become Greece. Maybe they have convinced themselves that we're simply too big to fail.
If so, I fear that those who believe in this pollyannish version of American exceptionalism are in for a rude surprise -- and sooner rather than later.
John C. (Chuck) Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington.