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Compared to what?

As befits the only country consciously founded on a set of political principles, it was perhaps inevitable that America would always be judged by the extent to which it has lived up to them.

This has produced a vastly more exacting yardstick than used in other societies. Few countries in the human experience have insisted upon democracy, freedom, and equality for all as the criteria for success.

American "exceptionalism" is thus genuine in terms of not just the nature of the American founding and the principles contained therein, but also because of the tendency to expose our nation to relentless self-criticism over time and find it wanting.

This tendency, sometimes approaching a form of self-flagellation, has been crucial to our progress, always suggesting that we haven't made enough of it. However far we have come, there will always be further to go and more work to be done.

The reason America so often falls short is because from the beginning the bar was set so much higher here than elsewhere.

Alas, this peculiar American tendency to critically judge ourselves against a set of abstract ideals can also blind us to achievements by directing most of the attention toward shortcomings.

A perhaps fairer way to judge, one which can take some of the sting out of an acknowledgment of the inevitable mistakes and imperfections, can be found in what is always the most important question in the study of politics, at least for those approaching it correctly: Compared to what?

Asking that question shifts the terrain away from abstractions and establishes an appropriate historical context in which to assess our accomplishments as a people compared to others.

A comparative approach would, for instance, note that, although various restrictions on the franchise would limit the practice of American democracy in the early decades of the republic, and thereby suggest an insufficient implementation of our ideals, the very notion of the franchise, of voting and elections, existed nowhere but America at that time; our democracy was (and still is) imperfect, but no one else was even trying.

In 1848, sixty years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, there were still only five democratic states in the world (the other four being Great Britain, Switzerland, Belgium, and Holland, none of which were nearly as democratic as America).

According to Samuel Huntington's authoritative study of the spread of self-government The Third Wave, only 30 out of 122 nations had democratic systems as late as 1973, the year our country was extricating itself from Vietnam as the result of the kind of vigorous anti-war movement only possible in a democratic society, and an American president was about to be forced out of office because ours was a "nation of laws not men."

In a similar sense, the claim that the American project was marred by sexism at the outset because the founders failed to grant women the right to vote ignores the fact that women weren't demanding such rights at the time and wouldn't be for many decades thereafter -- the founders were far ahead of their time in virtually all respects but can hardly be taken to task for failing to respond to a movement (women's liberation) that didn't exist when they did.

Even with that caveat, it is interesting to note that among the first women anywhere to acquire the right to vote were those who voted for school board elections in Kentucky in 1839 and in territorial elections in Wyoming 30 years later.

To bemoan the fact that women nationwide lacked the right to vote until ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 obscures the fact that we were still among the earliest countries to grant that right (along with the Duchy of Finland, Norway, Denmark, and some parts of Australia and New Zealand). Women couldn't vote nationwide in Spain until 1933, France until 1944, Italy until 1946, and Switzerland until 1971.

Even slavery, the most obvious contradiction of the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence, was hardly a unique American sin -- virtually all societies in history practiced some form of it, many of them for much longer than ours and in some cases for long after we abolished the practice after a bloody Civil War and ratification of the 13th Amendment.

(DROP CAP) For many, apparently including NFL players who kneel before the flag, America persistently fails to live up to its ideals; for those who wouldn't think of taking a knee, there is a profound sense of appreciation that we live here rather than elsewhere.

As National Review's Jim Geraghty recently put it, "If you're taking a knee because you feel like America has fallen short of living up to the values it proclaims ... well, it's only done that every day since July 4, 1776, and it will probably do that every day until the Second Coming. We're a flawed nation because we're full of human beings, and human beings are flawed. ... There is no heaven on this earth, and you cannot measure the quality of your country against heaven."

In the end, then, perhaps the best reason to stand for the flag is because it represents one of those rare countries where you won't get thrown into a gulag if you don't.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 10/09/2017

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