American exceptionalism is often discussed, and sometimes even becomes a campaign issue, but the concept is poorly understood. Some think it implies that Americans think we are better than others, or that we are exceptional because we are rich, or free, or have opportunity for success — things many Americans believe are slipping away. But that is not it.
America is exceptional because our Founders set up a framework for a government unique in the history of the world. This government was based on the concept that free responsible citizens could govern themselves, and therefore government should be empowered to do only those things that citizens could not do, such as provide for the national defense. Individual citizens hold the sovereign power and the government is accountable to us. Each of us is responsible to protect our freedom. But there lies the danger.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century observer of the American experiment in self-government, wrote in 1835: “The species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed The supreme power extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform through which the most original minds and most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd. It compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies a people reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
The United States may not have come to that point yet, but we are on the cusp. However, there are free, responsible citizens, representatives of “We the People,” holding government accountable for overreach and tyranny in our communities, inspiring each of us to take up the challenge of preserving our freedom.
Elaine Vechorik is a freedom fighter in Mississippi, leading the charge to eliminate various gun restrictions, an outdated auto inspection requirement, and civil asset forfeiture. Jennifer Parrish organized a coalition and stopped the State of Minnesota from forcing all home day care providers to join unions. Steve Schopp forced his town in Oregon to back down from spending $120 million dollars from essential services for an overblown urban renewal project. Patti Morrow blocked a national trade association from imposing certification requirements to limit competition for its interior design members in New Hampshire. None of them are paid staffers, just responsible citizens taking action. As the Founders intended, individual citizens are the greatest watchdogs for freedom.
When America’s forefathers created the framework for our government, it was absolutely unique in the history of the world. It is this framework which makes America exceptional. Their words are more powerful than any paraphrase.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This means that citizens are the sovereign power in the United States, and the government is accountable to us, not the other way around. Our form of government, designed to protect our rights, has been allowed to become an ever-more powerful and despotic entity. Instead of holding the government accountable for its trespasses, most citizens no longer understand our Founding documents, as our education system has failed us. They have no idea what their responsibilities are as citizens. Of those that do, most shrug their shoulders and think, “I am only one person; what can I do?”
One activist summed up the problem: “The biggest enemy I battle is people thinking they can’t make a difference.”
Our exceptional form of government is an endangered species. If we do not stand up for the Founding principles and re-assert the duty of citizenship, it could become extinct. It doesn’t have to be that way — dedicated citizens saved our national symbol, the bald eagle, from extinction, and we can save the American experiment, too.
Americans who think one person can’t make a difference against the power of government should remember that the Declaration of Independence was created by only 56 people — 3 or 4 from each of 13 states. As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
• Helen Krieble is the founder and president of The Vernon K. Krieble Foundation.