America is, like all nations, an idea. Unlike many other nations, this idea requires a little articulation. A nation built by waves of immigrants can't rely on Old-World, blood-and-soil ethnic nationalism to define itself. The American idea is instead built upon a civic nationalism rooted in democratic principles and self-evident truths, even though Americans often fail to meet those ideals.
And so, quoting James Baldwin and the prophet Isaiah, President Barack Obama spoke in Selma on Saturday. His address commemorated the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" during the marches to Montgomery in 1965, but his rhetorical scope encompassed all of American history.
Obama has not always spoken so clearly about American exceptionalism. At a March 2009 news conference, he told a reporter that he believed in it "just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." His political opponents incorporated this into a narrative that cast the president as anti-American, mistaking his ability to understand the pride of others abroad for a lack of pride on his own nation.
Obama corrected the record at Selma, making the case that we are not exceptional in the perfection of our virtue, but rather, exceptional in our relentless struggle to live up to our ideals:
For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.
Many will interpret this speech as a thinly veiled rebuttal to conservative critics like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who claimed last month that Obama "doesn't love America." Others will focus on Obama's sharp attack on Congress for not renewing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the Supreme Court gutted it in a 2013 decision. But the speech's broader themes are far more important than its soundbites.