I've been teaching American history and government for six years (and continuously since 2011). Part of my regular teaching duties includes US Government, a standard survey course that covers the Constitution, federalism, the three branches of the federal government, and other topics of interest. It's a simple, semester-long course that, while not terribly novel, is absolutely essential.
Before we even read the Preamble to the Constitution, though, I introduce the students to the idea of America. This lesson plan is not a unique creation; it comes from the textbook Government By the People by David Magleby and Paul Light, which I used to use for the course (I don't know Magleby and Light's political leanings, but the book is a fairly straightforward and useful primer on the mechanics of US government). I follow the authors' course by starting with what they call the "Five Core Values" of America, which are as follows:
2.) Popular Sovereignty
3.) Equality of Opportunity
4.) Freedom of Religion
5.) Economic Liberty
Why do I start each semester in this fashion? I've found that many Americans--and not just teenagers and young adults--aren't exactly sure what makes American special. Sure, many can point to our military dominance and our economic clout, but during a time when both appear to be losing ground to other nations, we can't solely make our case on those grounds.
Others might point to our superior educational system, our extensive infrastructure, or our superior health. The United States certainly is blessed with these qualities, but study after study shows that we're falling behind the rest of the world academically, and everyday experience (especially here in South Carolina) demonstrates that our roads are crumbling. And don't get me started on the mess that is the Affordable Care Act.
So if we can't rest our claims for American greatness on these grounds--or, if we can only hope to do so temporarily--what really does make the United States special? Is American exceptionalism only truly relatively, as President Obama implied in April 2009 when he proclaimed, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism"?
The answer--as you've probably guessed--are the very values listed above, the values enshrined in our founding documents, in our political culture, and in our hearts. The powerful but fragile legacy of liberty handed down from English common law, these values still energize the United States.
What makes the United States unique, too, is that these values form the basis of our sense of nationhood. No other nation--at least, not prior to the declaration of the United States in 1776--can claim a similar basis.
The term "nation" itself refers to a specific tribal or ethnic affiliation based on common blood, and usually linked to a specific (if often ill-defined) bit of soil. The nation-states of modern Europe followed this course; for example, French kings over centuries gradually created a "French" national identity, one that slowly subsumed other ethnic and regional identities (Normans, Burgundians, etc.), into a single, (largely Parisian) French culture and nation.
The United States, on the other hand, is not a nation built on ties of blood and soil (although we do owe a huge debt of gratitude to the heritage of Anglo-Saxon political culture for our institutions), but, rather, founded on ideas, ideas that anyone can adopt.
We believe, further, that these ideals are universal, and are not, ultimately, specific to our place and time. Sure, some countries might lack the institutional stability and political culture to sustain a constitutional republic like ours, but, ultimately, we believe that any people, anywhere in the world, can come to adopt our American values.
The concept of American nationhood, therefore, is flexible and adaptive to many contexts, but is ultimately grounded in firm absolutes. Often these values butt up against one another, or there is disagreement about their importance. When, for example, does the will of the individual become so out-sized that it threatens, say, popular sovereignty, or freedom of religion?
The Constitution was designed to adjudicate these disputes fairly and transparently--with a Supreme Court acting in good faith and in accord with the Constitution--to protect individual rights from the tyranny of the majority, and to protect the majority from the tyranny of minority special interest groups.
In this regard, perhaps, American nationalism has faltered. The consistent undermining of our carefully balanced constitutional order--the centralization of federal power, the aggrandizement of the executive and judiciary, the delegation of legislative powers to the federal bureaucracy, the equivocation of Congress--has served to damage our national identity and our national values, turning the five core values above into distorted perversions of their proper forms.
1.) Individualism--the protection of the individual's rights--has become a grotesque, licentious individualism without any consequences, one that expects the state to pick up the tab for bad decisions, which can no longer be deemed "bad." Alternatively, actual constitutional rights are trampled upon in the name of exorcising "hate speech."
2.) Popular sovereignty--authority flowing upward from the people--has been flipped on its head, becoming, instead, a top-down sovereignty of the enlightened technocrats and un-elected government bureaucrats.
3.) Equality of opportunity--an equality that recognizes that everyone is different but enjoys the same legal and constitutional safeguards to fail and to succeed--morphs into equality of outcome, a radical form of egalitarianism that brought us the worst excesses of the French and the Russian Revolutions, and ultimately breeds authoritarianism and demagoguery.
4.) Freedom of religion--the most important of our constitutional rights, as it rests both at the foundation of our republic and of our very souls, the freedom of conscious itself--now becomes a vague "freedom of worship," which is really no freedom at all. Religious observation is to be a strictly private affair, one (impossibly) divorced from our public lives.
5.) Economic liberty--the freedom to spend and earn our money as we please, with a token amount paid in taxes to support the infrastructure we all use and to maintain the military and police that protect our freedoms abroad and domestically--becomes excessive economic regulation, with many potential economic opportunities simply regulated out of existence. Rather than laws forming in response to new technologies or ideas, regulations are crafted to protect existing firms and and well-connected special interests.
With such a distorted view of our national values and our rights--stemming, in many cases, from ignorance of them--many Americans find it difficult to articulate what exactly it means to be an American. In this light, problems like illegal (and, in some cases, excessive legal) immigration take on a whole new tenor: how can we expect foreign migrants to adopt our values--to become part of the American nation--if we ourselves cannot articulate what American nationhood and values are?
The solution starts with proper education and a realignment of our thought toward the proper definitions and forms of our values. As Margaret Thatcher said, "Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy." Understanding our national philosophy--our "Five Core American Values"--will allow us to rediscover our exceptional nationhood.