NEAL: Tall Trees and American Exceptionalism

July 2, 2012

by Andrea Neal

Visalia, Calif. — In Sequoia National Park in California, tall trees beckon one million visitors a year. The tourists come from all over the world to see something exceptional: the largest living things on earth.

Rangers don’t think twice about marketing the park’s uniqueness. Brochures in multiple languages brag of “big trees, high peaks, and deep canyons in North America’s longest single continuous mountain range; superlatives abound amidst glorious scenery.”

If only we Americans could market our country with similar awe and admiration.

On this Fourth of July, the United States faces an image crisis. Unlike the tall trees, our country is not admired around the world.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project routinely surveys citizens from other countries about their views on U.S. policies and values. The spring 2012 poll results were stunning.

In only one of 20 countries polled – Japan – did a majority of respondents say it was a good thing “that American ideas and customs are spreading here.” In only four did a majority say they liked “American ideas about democracy.”

In 12 countries, a majority of citizens said they admired “American music, movies and television.”

This was in sharp contrast to 2002 when a majority of citizens in 21 of 36 countries polled said they liked American ideas about democracy.

Today we celebrate what makes the United States different from the rest of the world, and it’s not Kim Kardashian. The Declaration of Independence not only severed colonial ties with England, it declared some exceptional ideas for the time period: that people have natural rights that government cannot take away and that the overriding purpose of government is to protect them.

Eleven years later, some of the same folks who signed the Declaration wrote a radical Constitution that created a democratic republic with three branches of government, imposed limits on those in power and guaranteed popular participation in choosing leaders. More exceptionalism.

Then came a Bill of Rights that guaranteed due process and equal protection, concepts that would eventually lead to the extension of rights to blacks, women, and other disadvantaged groups.

“We have been, at least to date, exceptional in being a self-governed democratic republic firmly based on individual liberty. That liberty is the guarantee of our continual progress,” writes Ken Jowitt, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Exceptionalism does not mean perfection, and the United States has many times fallen short of our ideals. When we fail to acknowledge our mistakes, act like bullies or hide under a superiority complex, we fuel negative perceptions, and that may help explain global attitudes.

But our democratic ideas remain exceptional and we should promote them aggressively.

Unfortunately, the notion of American exceptionalism has been abandoned by many in academia and politicized by those in power. It became a campaign issue in 2000 when Bush Republicans accused Gore Democrats of a “global multilateralism” that diminished the unique history, role, and responsibilities of the United States in the world. A similar theme is emerging in the 2012 contest between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.

It’s time to ban the word exceptionalism from candidate talking points. Our uniqueness should be an accepted tenet of U.S. history, taught to every child in every school and translated into multiple languages around the world. Our democratic ideas are what make us different, not our music, movies or television.

On this Fourth of July, we could all use a lesson from the Sequoiadendron giganteum, which grow only in the Sierra Nevada region of California and are indisputably the world’s biggest trees in terms of volume: If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

When the rest of the world appreciates America more for Spiderman and Snooki than for our commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we have a Sequoia-size job to do.

Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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