There is a recurring theme throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, particularly on the Republican side: "Be afraid -- be very afraid."
It is enough to conclude American greatness lies in our historical rearview mirror. It is somewhat counterintuitive if one also accepts the myth of "American exceptionalism."
The notion of American exceptionalism, first introduced by Alexis de Tocqueville in his two-volume classic, "Democracy in America," is incongruent with the contemporary use of the term.
De Tocqueville wrote: "The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one."
Void of context the aforementioned statement offers just enough to fill in the blanks of one's preconceived notions. It portrays America as the shining city on the hill where nirvana comfortably resides. But is this what de Tocqueville meant?
Should one read the sentence in question in its full context, we find:
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it 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. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.
What de Tocqueville wrote bears little resemblance to the manner that American exceptionalism is touted in contemporary discourse. In fact, an honest assessment of de Tocqueville's definition calls into question if he even meant the term as a complement.
In some circles, American exceptionalism has become the sophomoric litmus test to ascertain one's allegiance to the nation.
The contemporary definition is nothing more than an anti-intellectual endeavor to rob the nation of one of its key elements, which is dissent.
Dissent is the oxygen of any democratic society, and without it we risk choking on the fumes our self-induced megalomania.
The lack of dissent prohibits a nation from self-reflection, which stagnates its growth.
It is to infuse the society with the toxins of arrogance and insularity. Rather than a foreign enemy, are not these the weapons that topple super powers?
America, in my view, is a unique nation. Here is where its greatness is realized. It is unique because it was formed on an idea -- an idea that was beyond the comprehension of the individuals who conceived it.
"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," is not only the nation's mission statement but has been expanded upon, not without conflict, so that those words shine as bright today as they did when they were enshrined in the nation's ethos on July 4, 1776.
At a time when the world was dominated by inequality, along comes a cabal of great men, pledging to one another their lives, fortunes and sacred honor for the unprecedented notion of equality.
America need not rely on myth to support itself. Rather, it would be better served by embracing the words of Founding Father Benjamin Rush, who famously wrote:
"The American war is over but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of this great drama is closed."
While there is something about American exceptionalism that suggests our work is complete, Rush is offering a more arduous task. The revolution is the ongoing narrative for what is commonly referred as the American experiment.
It was an experiment first articulated by Thomas Jefferson, put into to practice by Washington, held together by Lincoln, sustained by Roosevelt, and pushed to higher greatness by King. What other nation can lay claim to such a unique history?