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Vail Valley Voices: American exceptionalism

American exceptionalism is predicated upon the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations – that we emerged from a revolution, thus becoming the first new nation, and developed a uniquely American ideology founded on an idea rather than the ambitions of royalty or despots.

People immigrated here because the founders envisioned a nation of laws, not of men. In their wisdom, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, et al, institutionalized the concept of individual liberty and equal justice before the law, with freedoms ranging from speech to worship and rights from gun ownership to assembly.

Interestingly, the specific term “American exceptionalism” was first used in 1929 by Joseph Stalin, when he chastised members of the American Communist Party for believing this “exceptionalism” exempted the United States from the Marxist laws of history. With deference to Stalin’s “Historical Materialism,” perhaps the Soviet dictator should have paid more attention to his geography teacher than the writings of Karl Marx if he really wanted to understand America.



Have you ever asked yourself why the United States dominates the world quantitatively? Why do we comprise a quarter (or more) of the world’s economy, have the most powerful military in history and continue to be the world’s vanguard in science, technology and medicine?

People emigrated here from the four corners of the globe. Yet by almost any unit of measurement, Americans prospered far beyond the nations from whence our ancestors came. Why?



Here’s one possible answer: The founders provided the means – the U.S. Constitution – but the good Lord provided the geography. This commentary will look at the latter.

Did you know the Greater Mississippi Basin, together with the Intracoastal Waterway, has more miles of navigable internal waterways (navigable being the operative word) than the rest of the world combined? Did you know that the American heartland, which is overlaid by this waterway, is the world’s largest contiguous piece of farmland?

Unlike other nations, our navigable river system – comprising the Missouri, Arkansas, Red, Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi – served to unify this country economically, culturally and politically. This is a geographic benefit unheard of anywhere else on Earth and a primary reason we congealed into one nation stretching from Atlantic to Pacific.



The Greater Mississippi Basin overlays most arable land in the United States. Conversely, the large agricultural and mineral-rich areas in other parts of the world are severely underutilized because the cost of moving raw materials and goods to their respective population centers, for use or export, cuts deeply into agricultural and resource economics.

Even in modern times, in many parts of the globe, it’s not uncommon for crops to rot before they can reach market. As a result, artificial transport networks had to be built and maintained in order for the land to reach its full potential, which, in turn, exerted tremendous pressures on a nation’s treasury.

But this was not the case for Americans.

A recent STRATFOR essay illustrated this point by noting throughout our history, cultural and political integration was made possible by this river network. Both the people who lived in the basin and those passing through during our westward expansion were part of the same economic system, ensuring constant contact and common interests.

Meanwhile, security, a prerequisite for any nation to prosper, is also a by-product of geography. During our entire existence, two oceans have insulated us from European and Asian powers. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Islamic terrorist attack on 9/11 not withstanding, “Americans have benefitted from a physical insulation in excess of every other country in the world by an exceedingly large margin.” – STRATFOR. In many ways, then, we are not exceptional or prosperous because of who we are but because of the caprice of geography.

When World War II ended, Europe, Russia, Japan and most of China lay in ruins. By comparison, only the United States emerged from that conflict relatively unscathed. While the world was rebuilding basic infrastructure (with American capital), Americans were experiencing the most explosive economic growth in recorded history. In light of this and the fact that for the previous 200 years our economic expansion has outpaced every nation on Earth, is it any wonder Americans have come to expect that life will be better tomorrow and new opportunities are always just over the horizon?

When I read that just 32 percent of Americans believe our best days are in the future, I must conclude the other 68 percent simply don’t understand the underpinnings of what made this nation great.

I believe in American exceptionalism. I also believe we will successfully redress the many issues facing our nation – the two greatest of which are unconstrained government spending (the deficit) and the burgeoning national debt.

The geography that worked to make us a great nation and the Constitution that’s the envy of the world remain largely unchanged. What is different, however, are the economic realities of the 21st century.

Once we come to grips with those realities, viable solutions will follow.

Quote of the day: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” – Bill Clinton.

Butch Mazzuca is an Edwards resident.


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