Is America Still Exceptional?

PARIS -- Walking along the River Seine flanked by grand palaces and magnificent French Empire buildings, it's easy to think of how the French once ruled the world and captured riches galore.

Just like the sun once never set on the British Empire. Or how the Spanish conquered the Americas and enriched themselves with gold, gold, gold. Or how the Dutch discovered places never dreamed of in days long gone by.

These days, it's clear the influence of these Europeans countries has peaked on the world stage, although they are far from inconsequential and their people generally live in societies with outstanding qualities of life.

But there's a palpable tension here between political, historical and daily realities that causes one to pause when thinking about America and her future. Is what has happened in France, Great Britain and other former world powerhouses the future path for our country? Is the notion of American exceptionalism waning?

Interestingly enough, a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, coined the notion that there was something special about the United States. In his Democracy in America, published in two installments after an 1830s trip across the then-expanding country, de Tocqueville noted:

... [I]t may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects.

Often cited as components of American exceptionalism are the country's vast natural resources and its revolutionary history of creating a democratic republic that still inspires freedom in people in countries across the world. American innovation and her zeal for knowledge led to great inventions and wealth. There's a sense throughout the country that Americans have a destiny of freedom peppered with the fruits of capitalism to continue to fulfill. And then there's the sheer firepower of the United States, which has the mightiest armed forces in the world and a big place at the tables of diplomacy as the world encounters one international crisis after another.

But with all of America's exceptional qualities, there's also a sense feeling for some that America's time of preeminence is in danger of passing, perhaps to China. There's a notion now that politicians and other leaders aren't doing enough to secure the nation's premier place in the world. Republicans and Democrats bicker worse than ever before. They moan. They groan. They seem unable -- or are just inept -- to find common ground and get real things done to make differences in people's lives, whether in Washington or Columbia.

For example, where in Washington is the bipartisan commitment to do something against the gun violence that slashes through the country on a daily basis? Where in Columbia in my home state of South Carolina is a vigorous team approach to do something more than talk about improving education so tomorrow's leaders in the Palmetto State will have the intellectual framework to continue to be the innovators of the future? Why is it taking so long to get measures passed to curb domestic violence, fix roads, spur economic and business growth and deal with endemic poverty?

These are the kinds of questions that need to be asked of national leaders as they visit South Carolina in the months ahead as they try to get you to vote for them in a presidential primary. Instead of accepting what they say in routine stump speeches, demand that they tell you in specific detail how they'll continue to ensure that America remains exceptional -- and doesn't go the way of France, Great Britain or Spain on the world stage.