Is the U.S., as Biden said in his SOTU, "the only nation in the world built on an idea?"
by Michael C. Dorf
Very near the end of his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Biden said that the United States is
the only nation in the world built on an idea. The only one. Other nations are defined by geography [and] ethnicity, but we're the only nation based on an idea. That all of us, every one of us, is created equal in the image of God.
There are four claims there: (1) The U.S. is not defined by or based on geography or ethnicity, but is instead based on an idea; (2) the idea on which the U.S. is based is human equality; (3) the idea of human equality is Divine in origin; and (4) no nation other than the U.S. is based on an idea.
The good news is that no one in the chamber booed or heckled when Biden delivered the foregoing patriotic and inspirational lines. The bad news is that none of those four propositions is true. I offer the analysis below not so much as a criticism of Biden in particular--who, in making the foregoing statement expressed something like the conventional wisdom offered by American politicians--but as a critique of a common brand of American exceptionalism.
(1) The U.S. is not defined by or based on geography or ethnicity, but is instead founded on an idea.
I have . . . often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence. This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.
Federalism was our Nation's own discovery. The Framers split the atom of sovereignty. It was the genius of their idea that our citizens would have two political capacities, one state and one federal, each protected from incursion by the other. The resulting Constitution created a legal system unprecedented in form and design . . . .